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Chinese Control of the Internet

Last week the Chinese government released investigative reporter Jiang Weiping who was charged in 2000 with “subversion” and “divulging state secrets” for writing articles on corruption in northeast China. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, China has the highest number of imprisoned journalists of any country in the world.

Jonathan Mirsky, former East Asia editor for The Times of London, said the state has a long history of controlling the flow of information. Speaking with host Judith Latham of VOA News Now’s International Press Club, Mr. Mirsky said the Chinese tend to believe information that comes from a foreign source - on the principle that their government “regularly lies to them.” So, in an era when information technology is exploding, the Internet would seem to be the most obvious place to supplement information from foreign sources.

But, as Jehangir Pocha, Beijing-based correspondent for the Boston Globe, explained, many websites are blocked from access in China. For example, he can’t access his own personal website from China because it has a “collection of stories the Chinese government isn’t particularly proud of.” According to Jehangir Pocha, about 200,000 websites have been banned from access in China. Or, if one can access a website, the government may block certain pages. He said there are about 30,000 human monitors who check what people are accessing or who monitor Chinese-language chat groups. Jehangir Pocha said this policy serves a dual purpose. It makes it hard to get information and it sends a message to people that the government is monitoring what they do.

Mary Kay Magistad, Northeast Asia correspondent for the BBC’s Public Radio International program, The World, says Beijing encourages self-censorship and punishes those who do not comply.

One such journalist was Shi Tao. He posted on a U.S. website in 2004 that a propaganda official came to his newspaper, warning reporters that they should not cover the15th anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown. The Chinese government found out from Yahoo who had posted the message, arrested Shi Tao, and sentenced him to 10 years in prison.

Indeed, Jonathan Mirsky says one of the most troubling aspects of this practice is that the hacking is being done with the help of American providers. He said the Chinese government got two major companies, Yahoo and Google, to sign an agreement saying that they would cooperate with Chinese laws on what goes on the Internet. He noted that research from Harvard University indicates that the Chinese government has surveyed about 70 percent of the Internet sites in China. And 60 to 70 people using those sites have gone to jail. Despite government restrictions, Mary Kay Magistad said she has witnessed an “incredible increase in the bravery and enterprise of Chinese journalists” pursuing controversial stories, which they do at great risk to their freedom and safety.

To listen to all of the comments, click on the audio link above.