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China Cracks Down on Media, Text Messaging in Wake of SARS Epidemic

China's government has moved to tighten controls over the country's media, shutting down a newspaper and banning media discussion of several sensitive topics. The crackdown comes after Beijing's promises of greater openness during the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome.

State-run Chinese media initially did not cover the beginnings of the SARS outbreak in the country. This news blackout took place amid a proliferation of information and misinformation about what the public knew only as a mystery disease.

Xiao Qiang, the director of the University of California at Berkeley's China Internet Studies Program and a former human-rights advocate, told a recent congressional hearing how official Chinese media later reported that the country's 221 million mobile phone users exchanged huge volumes of text messages via short messaging service, known as SMS.

"The SMS messages which read, 'there is a fatal flu in Guangzhou' - this is during the rumor period - was re-sent 40 million times on February 8, 41 million times the next day, and 45 million times on February 10," explained Mr. Xiao. "This is according to the Chinese official newspaper, Southern Weekend newspaper."

Without directly addressing the issue of Beijing's control over the media, Chinese embassy spokesman Sun Weide acknowledged that for his country, SARS was a sudden disaster.

"I think it takes time for us to realize the seriousness of the disease," he said. "Of course, I think in the initial stages of the disease, the Chinese government, actually, did not realize the seriousness of the disease."

Following international criticism that China was covering-up its SARS crisis, there were several months of relative leniency in the country's tightly supervised media. The Brookings Institution's Richard Bush says there are compelling reasons why the Chinese government felt it necessary to loosen some of its media controls.

"It is my strong impression that when the SARS crisis hit, whatever [media] control they had, they lost. And it was because they had lost control and were in danger of being embarrassed externally and subject to criticism internally, that they decided on temporary transparency," said Richard Bush.

Now, though, even as the SARS epidemic appears to be waning in China, the disease is once again on a short list of sensitive subjects that Chinese media are not allowed to report on.

One of the casualties is the latest edition of the business magazine Caijing, which carried articles on SARS and another taboo topic, a Shanghai banking scandal that possibly involves senior officials. The bi-weekly magazine is reported to have reached subscribers, but Chinese officials banned its distribution for sale to the public.

Another publication, the Beijing Xinbao, was recently shut down altogether after running an article in its June 4 edition ridiculing the country's legislature, the National People's Congress.

Speaking at the congressional hearing in Washington, U.S. Naval Academy Associate professor Yu Maochun said Chinese leaders have always paid great attention to controlling the media.

"It's not just a conscientious effort to do this. It has become a habit. It's a way of life for the leaders to control media," he pointed out.

The Brookings Institution's Mr. Bush added that media control fluctuations may be signs of a power struggle between President Hu Jintao and former President Jiang Zemin.

"It's usually the case, in elite conflict and elite struggle, that the media and control over the media become an important weapon," he said.

Abi Wright, of the Committee to Protect Journalists, believes the latest media crackdown has to do with timing.

"There are those who speculate that this clampdown is related to the upcoming July 1 holiday in China, the anniversary of the founding of the communist party," she said. "Regardless of the reason, we at the Committee to Protect Journalists, hope that it stops soon and that the press is allowed to do their jobs again with fear of reprisal, or banning."

Ms. Wright went on to say that in the past, her group has included former Chinese president Jiang Zemin as one of the biggest enemies to journalists. She pointed out that although the CPJ no longer compiles such lists, China still leads the world in the number of jailed journalists, with 38 reporters behind bars.