Internet website operators in China face a June 30 deadline to register with the government or get shut down. Authorities are stepping up a crackdown on dissent, arresting journalists, scholars, and dissidents. But as prosperity and media access increase, critics say China's leadership is finding it more difficult to contain opposition voices.
Footage taken by a farmer and obtained by an American newspaper [The Washington Post] this month shows a band of thugs using sharpened pipes, clubs and other weapons to attack demonstrators staging a sit-in over a land dispute at Shengyou village in northern China's Hebei province on June 11. Reports said at least six people were killed.
It is the type of scene Chinese censors would normally not want people to see. Reports quoted witnesses as saying they suspected the assailants were hired by corrupt local officials to remove the demonstrators.
Analysts say the fact the story was allowed to be published underscores the pressure that is building on China's government to address tensions in the countryside.
President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao took office in 2003 with promises to create a more harmonious society by closing the gap between rich and poor and promoting more transparency. These factors, they said, would be crucial for the party's survival.
Many Chinese journalists credit the Hu and Wen administration with liberalizing - to a degree - by expanding the scope of stories they are now allowed to cover. However, control remains tight and reporters - especially those with the official media - say they are limited to covering items that are supportive of the leadership's agenda.
A 36-year-old reporter with an official Beijing newspaper, who asked not to be identified, said that despite China's emerging status as a free-market economy, journalists must regularly undergo training in Chinese Communist theory and Marxism. "These days, normally the bosses have to study them more. They have to learn these theories so they know how to keep the Communist spirit alive. We reporters learn how to apply this to our daily job. We have to have a clear point. We cannot make our readers go in the wrong direction. This is a very important principle," he said.
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One western diplomat, who asked not to be identified, has described President Hu and Prime Minister Wen as being "obsessed" with maintaining stability as the Communist Party struggles to remain relevant in the free-market era.
This effort to tighten control is evidenced by the mounting number of journalists and dissidents who have been arrested, as well as religious leaders and academics who have been fired for speaking out of line. Newspapers have been shut down and books banned.
The government has also stepped up its use of espionage charges against dissident journalists. China classifies certain information, including social welfare statistics and scholastic aptitude test questions, as state secrets.
Beijing lawyer Mo Shaoping said this means virtually anyone can be accused of spying - a charge that carries especially heavy penalties. "In China, journalists are obliged to keep state secrets. So you only report what you are allowed to publicize. If you are stubborn and go ahead and report things of which they disapprove, you will probably get in trouble," he said.
Among those who have paid a price for speaking out is dissident Huang Qi. He was released from prison this month after serving a five-year sentence for posting pro-democracy messages on the Internet. He told VOA he is in poor health following the harsh treatment he received in prison. "It was dark. Guards beat me often. I slept on the floor for more than a year. My strength came from support from friends and family," he said.
The international press freedom advocacy group Reporters Without Borders says that with at least 31 news professionals in prison, China remains the world's biggest jailer of journalists.
Some analysts say the trend sharply contradicts new forces that are emerging as the government cuts subsidies on many newspapers and as Internet usage continues to grow. Professor Cheng Li teaches government and is an expert on Chinese politics at Hamilton College in the United States. "Hu and Wen want to control the media. They want to use that media to express their own agenda. But at the same time, they also face an uphill battle because the Chinese media will become increasingly commercialized and also Chinese journalists [begin] to demand more freedom," he said.
Internet dissident Huang Qi said he does not plan to give up posting messages to promote freedom and democracy, even though authorities have threatened to re-arrest him. He said the progress he has seen since he first went to prison is one reason to hope that further liberalization will come. "The improvement of media freedom in China is not a result of the efforts of this government. Whatever improvements there are efforts from people who hold the same principles that I do. We have pushed these changes. The government cannot control the internet anymore. Look how many of us there are now. Five years ago, I was in the minority. Now there are many more like me," he said.
With the government acknowledging the outbreak of at least 58,000 protests or what they call "mass incidents" across China in one year, some analysts are less optimistic that the leadership - wary of instability - will ease restrictions on the media in the near future.