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January 30, 2011

China Blocks Some Internet Reports on Egypt Protests

by Stephanie Ho

The Chinese government is blocking access to searches for the word “Egypt” on social networking Internet sites in China. Experts say the move reflects the government’s fears that the protests in Egypt could whip up unrest in China.

A search for the Chinese word for “Egypt” on the microblog function of Chinese Web portal Sina.com brings up a message saying the results can not be displayed.

Sina.com public relations officer Ma Taotao confirms that Chinese searches for Egypt are blocked on its instant messaging site, Sina Weibo.

Ma says the company itself did not make the decision, but is only following the “relevant Chinese laws and regulations.” He gives no details and does not say which government department is responsible. He says he does not know how long the restriction will be in force.

The Chinese government already blocks Internet access to online social networking sites, such as Twitter and Facebook, which are based in the United States. But millions of Chinese have been able to use domestic microblogging sites for instant messaging services.

Jeremy Goldkorn runs the China media Web site Danwei.org, which tracks changes in China’s media and Internet.

"I haven’t seen any instruction from any of the Chinese information control government bodies, but I think there must have been some instruction going out to news organizations and Web sites to only use official Xinhua copy about the events in Egypt and Tunisia, and to de-emphasize and cut down on netizens discussion about this," Goldkorn said.

The widespread use of the Internet is a relatively new development in China, but Goldkorn says the government has moved to limit access to information about other recent global events.

"There was a similar type of censorship when there were the so-called color revolutions going on in Eastern Europe, and I think that the reasons are fairly obvious - that the government would prefer that the people don’t draw parallels to what is going on in Egypt with anything that could go on in China," Goldkorn added.

Renmin University international relations professor Shi Yinhong echoes that thinking.

"Above all, their (the Chinese government’s) first priority is to maintain social and political stability," Shi said.

Shi says the government has been concerned with public unrest since it cracked down on pro-democracy demonstrations around the country in 1989. He describes this kind of nervousness as China’s current political culture.

"This kind of political culture will shape China for a long time. So, within China, everyone knows that our government is extremely concerned about weiwang," Shi added.

"Weiwang" means maintaining social stability.

Peking University International relations professor Zhu Feng describes efforts to control Web access to information about Egypt as a "preventative countermeasure."

Zhu says there are existing situations of social instability in China, and the government is especially nervous because it is the Lunar New Year holiday period.

China has long feared what it considers separatist movements in its Xinjiang region and Tibet. It also has concerns about public anger over official corruption, inflation, land seizures and other social concerns that have sparked protests in the past few years.

Zhu says he thinks the Internet has become the most effective tool to disseminate news.

Zhu says he is afraid that cutting off the Internet will become a government’s universal method for dealing with a popular uprising.

The Egyptian government cut off Internet access in the country because of concerns that protesters were using social network media to organize their activities. In recent years, countries like China and Iran have made similar moves following mass protests.