Cracks in the Chinese Wall

R.A. Hettinga rah at
Wed Jan 26 08:17:23 PST 2005


The Wall Street Journal

      January 26, 2005


Cracks in the Chinese Wall

January 26, 2005

China's leaders may have convinced themselves that the country's relatively
new, albeit unbalanced, material prosperity will be enough to keep an
uneasy population from peering into some of the darker corners of the
country's Communist history. And the popular reaction (or lack thereof) to
purged former leader Zhao Ziyang's death last week appears to prove them
right at first glance. The relative tranquility does make it appear as if
young Chinese, intoxicated by the opportunities of China's dizzying
economic growth, don't really understand -- or care -- about what really
happened at Tiananmen Square in 1989, or why Zhao's sympathies with the
student protesters led to his downfall.

But that is not exactly the case. Increased access to information through
the Internet, which is just one of the many fruits of China's development,
is producing a predicament for China's leadership.

China's pragmatic leaders undoubtedly saw allowing widespread access to the
Internet as necessary for growth, but hoped to rein in its power by using
firewalls to block "unsavory" information. But the Internet has only
endowed citizens with a heightened awareness of the amount of information
that is being blocked.

When Zhao died last week, his passing was mostly observed in silence. State
media played down the death, if it was reported at all, and relevant Web
sites were often either sterilized or blocked entirely. But some Chinese,
rather than quietly observe the systematic blockage of news, turned to the
few tools at their disposal, and used the Internet to both obtain and
spread information.

The Internet, in fact, served as a forum for Chinese to congregate and
express their mourning or, more often, frustration. While many Chinese went
online to pay their respects to Zhao, the anger and sadness on these sites
often had little to do with the man who died. Comments extracted and
translated from discussions on mainland-accessible Chinese-language Web
sites in the days following Zhao's death showcase a collective lament for
the limits on freedom of information in China today.

These voices aren't necessarily those of dissidents in exile, or
intellectuals, or even citizens who are particularly politically minded.
Rather, they are the voices of ordinary Chinese who, after having reaped
the fruits of greater access to information, are only more aware of the
freedoms of which they are still deprived.

One particularly telling message, posted on a mainland-accessible Chinese
language Web site shortly after Zhao's death, sheds light on a mainlander's
journey to learn the truth: "In 1989 I was only seven years old, I only
have a fuzzy impression of what happened that year, as for Zhao, I don't
have a very detailed understanding. . . But today, while I was eating, my
grandmother said, "Zhao Ziyang died, why isn't the news or the papers
reporting it?" I was curious, so I went searching on the Internet, but I
found that I couldn't open many Web sites, which made me think something
was strange. It was extremely difficult to even find this Web site, but
after reading it, I was shocked. . . I now can't help but feel worried
about the future of our country."

Indeed, the sudden media silence after Zhao's death only caused many to
realize that something was seriously wrong. "I'm too young, I don't
understand the reasons or the results, I pay a silent tribute. This morning
I couldn't connect to any overseas Web sites, and I realized that something
had happened. What I really don't understand is . . . [why it's necessary
to put so much effort into] blocking all overseas Web sites, it's as though
they have a guilty conscience."

Another said, "I live in Guangzhou, and that night I wasn't able to access
two Hong Kong TV stations, so I realized immediately that something major
had happened, it turns out that general secretary Zhao had died! . . . In
this era, how much longer can you block information?"

Anger was a common sentiment online: "Today I heard from a friend that
secretary Zhao had died, I felt shocked, but what made me even more furious
was [the government's] conduct. People can't forget history. . . I'm really
furious!" Some cybernauts said they weren't even clear on Zhao's
contribution, but were nonetheless indignant at attempts to sweep under the
rug the death of a man who played such an important historical role.
"Putting aside Zhao's merits and faults for the time being, we have already
completely lost the right to speak, and to hear about him! What kind of
world is this?"

Another writer used the occasion of Zhao's death to issue a warning: "Our
party blocked information on the Internet. . . and didn't allow freedom of
speech. . . The party did the same thing during SARS, what was the result

Other netizens, as if in direct response to the pervasive stereotype that
younger Chinese are ignorant or indifferent about their country's history,
stepped up to act as representatives for their generation: "Under Communist
Party tutelage, there aren't many young people who remember Zhao. Please
allow me to represent young people by saying: . . . 'The people won't
forget you, history won't forget you!'" Another appealed to other netizens
to uncover the truth: "I still don't really understand, because in '89 I
was only four years old, can someone senior to me please let me know what
happened in that year? What is the truth? Thank you."

These Web sites were not simply a forum for expressing grievances. They
served another important function as well: They acted as road maps to
direct curious Chinese to news sources, while creating a bridge between
Chinese who were hungry for information, and those who know where to find

In this way, the Internet links a community, just as it does elsewhere in
the world for people with shared interests. In China the shared interest
broke through the government's wall of silence. Someone would plead: "Is
there anywhere that has a detailed report [on Zhao]? A lot of Web sites are
blocked!" and those in the know would post Web addresses -- or links -- of
sites that were still accessible. Others would list which
mainland-accessible search engines were the most useful for getting
information about Zhao, and which ones were useless.

One writer, perhaps frustrated by previous encounters with blocked or
"edited" Web sites, upon discovering one forthright discussion on Zhao's
death, commented, "Is [this site] the last place for free expression?"

Amongst all others, I found this question particularly poignant: Although
the discussion thread the writer was referring to did manage to avoid
censors for a whole week after Zhao's death, when I tried to open it from
Hong Kong yesterday, it appeared to have vanished. The silver lining,
however, is that other sites will just crop up in its place. And savvy
Chinese netizens will only figure out new ways to obtain and spread
information within the limited freedoms that the Internet provides.

China's leaders may hope that prosperity will help justify maintaining a
wall to block information. But the cracks are beginning to show. Amidst all
the sadness and frustration expressed online, there was one ray of hope:
"Thank you, Internet, for giving us one last place to speak!"

Ms. Parker is an editorial page writer at The Asian Wall Street Journal.

R. A. Hettinga <mailto: rah at>
The Internet Bearer Underwriting Corporation <>
44 Farquhar Street, Boston, MA 02131 USA
"... however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity,
[predicting the end of the world] has not been found agreeable to
experience." -- Edward Gibbon, 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'

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