Getting around the Internet censors on Dongzhou

It’s hard for me to imagine living in an oppressive society where I’d have to come up with ingenious schemes to fool the censors into believing I was writing about something innocuous when I was, in fact, damning the government for its sins. Philip Pan makes it easier to imagine.

At first glance, it looked like a spirited online discussion about an essay written nearly 80 years ago by modern China’s greatest author. But then again, the exchange on a popular Chinese bulletin board site seemed a bit emotional, given the subject.

“In Memory of Ms. Liu Hezhen,” which Lu Xun wrote in 1926 after warlord forces opened fire on protesters in Beijing and killed one of his students, is a classic of Chinese literature. But why did thousands of people read or post notes in an online forum devoted to the essay last week?

A close look suggests an answer that China’s governing Communist Party might find disturbing: They were using Lu’s essay about the 1926 massacre as a pretext to discuss a more current and politically sensitive event — the Dec. 6 police shooting of rural protesters in the southern town of Dongzhou in Guangdong province.

In the 10 days since the shooting, which witnesses said resulted in the deaths of as many as 20 farmers protesting land seizures, the Chinese government has tried to maintain a blackout on the news, barring almost all newspapers and broadcasters from reporting it and ordering major Internet sites to censor any mention of it. Most Chinese still know nothing of the incident.

But it is also clear that many Chinese have already learned about the violence and are finding ways to spread and discuss the news on the Internet, circumventing state controls with e-mail and instant messaging, blogs and bulletin board forums.

The government maintains enough control over the flow of information to prevent an event like the Dongzhou shooting from causing a major public backlash or triggering more demonstrations. But the Internet appears to be weakening a key pillar of the party’s rule — its ability to control news and public opinion.

“I learned about it on the 7th,” one bulletin board user wrote Monday of the Dongzhou shooting. “Some day, I believe, this incident will be exposed and condemned. Let us pay tribute to the villagers . . . and silently mourn the dead.”

One of the tiredest and most annoying arguments I hear is that it’s only us obnoxious Westerners who care about the Chinese government’s repressiveness, that people in China don’t care about the censorship or the CCP’s malfeasances, that the Internet Gestapo never affects them and no one gives a damn about human rights there as long as the Chinese can make money.

Obviously a lot of Chinese people really do care, and are willing to go to exceptional lengths to make their voices heard. Yes, they are still a relatively small group, but it seems to me they are becoming more vocal and more prolific.

This is a pretty epic article, and it makes it clear it’s not just one or two activists who are up in arms over the massacre. It offers an unusual birds’ eye view into the censorship mechanism.

Elsewhere in Chinese cyberspace, people have evaded censors by writing on smaller bulletin board sites that often escape official scrutiny or by creating blogs on overseas services with weaker filtering methods than mainland blog companies use.

Wang Yi, a well-known blogger in Sichuan province, was among eight prominent dissidents who issued an open letter condemning the Dongzhou shooting as the deadliest use of force against ordinary Chinese since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. China’s largest blogging site, Bokee, deleted the letter from his blog less than 12 hours after he posted it, he said.

But then Wang posted just the title of the letter — “A Statement Regarding the Murder Case in Dongzhou, Shanwei city, Guangdong” — and a list of all the people who had signed it. Bokee officials, who have been wary of alienating users and losing market share to competitors, decided to leave it alone.

“Although I couldn’t post the whole letter, people can see that the text is missing and go find it somewhere else,” Wang said. “And if they haven’t heard about the shooting, they’ll go look for information about that, too.”

Those who turn to China’s main Web portals and search engines for news about the shooting will get mixed results, because the companies that run them generally comply with orders from the government to filter out what censors call “harmful information.”

On Friday in Beijing, for example, a search on the popular Sina site using the name of the city that sent police to confront the protesters returned no results at all. Basic searches on other major sites, including China’s top search engine, Baidu, also produced few relevant results, although some returned links to the government’s official account of the clash, which said three protesters were killed. It was published only in newspapers in Guangdong.

People who added words like “shooting” and “clash” to their searches, though, or used Google, were directed to sites containing more complete reports by overseas media.

Read the whole exhaustive thing, and then click on some of the blogs linking to it (listed on the right).

The Discussion: 10 Comments

Richard, glad you posted this.

My favorite part was the fellow whose post consisted of variations of “I know.”

December 17, 2005 @ 10:18 pm | Comment

Richard, the link is missing. I’d fix it but wasn’t sure what you want to call it…

December 17, 2005 @ 10:23 pm | Comment

?One of the tiredest and most annoying arguments I hear is that it’s only us obnoxious Westerners who care about the Chinese government’s repressiveness, that people in China don’t care about the censorship or the CCP’s malfeasances, that the Internet Gestapo never affects them and no one gives a damn about human rights there as long as the Chinese can make money. ”

well said.

of course many chinese care.

but all you saw are from the more extreme feng-qing (angry netizens), who are offended by incomplete undersanding and unjustified demonization of China. so they jump to defend china (sometimes even irrationally) when they believe some criticism are not of good intention.

back to the dongzhou issue. the government seem to put ‘stability’ over ‘doing things right’ this time.
(whereas in bird flu and songhau cases they did not perceive threat in doing the right thing)

so even though they might very likely launch an internal investigation and punish those responsible (and even the corrupted officials/etc), i am not optimistic in this case, simply because if they are trying to cover up, then it is hard to get things done right. in addition, because of the censoring of the news, it could not serve as an example for future, even if the punishment is proper.

December 18, 2005 @ 12:01 am | Comment

I was talking with a chinese historian friend yesterday, and he was telling a mutual friend about special commemorative watches that were apparently given out to the shock-troops that “contained” the Tiananmen unrest. Anyone ever seen one?

December 18, 2005 @ 3:20 am | Comment

Wow, how would you like to inherit one of those?

“Here, Xiao Wang, this is the watch your great-grandfather was awarded for fighting civilians at Tiananmen.”

December 18, 2005 @ 4:58 am | Comment

I hear the CCP has commissioned the Franklin Mint to make a series of Commemorative Medallions (limited edition), depicting great moments in Communist History: Silver medallions for the Anti-Rightist Campaign, the Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution, and a GOLD medallion painted with RED enamel, depicting a big pool of blood on the road (after a tank ran over someone on Joon 4….)

December 18, 2005 @ 5:39 am | Comment

more like: “son, this is your grandfather’s watch. He got it from the CCP for downing high-flying idealism with anti-aircraft artillary.”

December 18, 2005 @ 6:56 am | Comment

I never understand how Lu Xun could be considered “modern China’s greatest author”. That guy never wrote any substantial piece of literature, his short stories are mostly leftist propaganda (anti-feudal/anti-landlord,etc) and his eassys are radical and ill-thought of.

CCP brainwashs millions of Chinese children by forcing them to read Lu Xun’s works in high school Chinese classes, and things his famous anti-fairplay eassy has a bad effect on Chinese youth. Anti-Japanese sentiment is not hard to explain if you consider every mainland Chinese youth grow up reading an eassy arguing against forgiving a defeated enemy and advocating ‘beat the drowning dog’.

Due to Communist brainwashing, Lu Xun achieved a nearly divine status in Mainland China, but it’s funny how western journalists like Mr.Pan would fall into the propaganda and embrace this Communist poster boy.

December 18, 2005 @ 11:10 am | Comment


literature is subjective.
you cannot boost the exposure, but you cannot brainwash people into thinking some writer is great. esp not today in china.

i think lu xun is great. i do not like jin yong at all. but their fan size is similar in china.

December 18, 2005 @ 11:26 am | Comment

have you guys read this?
similar case in heber in June.

widely reported (6 dead)
local party boss hired thugs (like taishi)

local mayor/etc were fired and tried.

December 18, 2005 @ 11:54 pm | Comment

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