Mainland media feisty despite Beijing's efforts
While the jury is still out on what really prompted Google's partial retreat from the mainland and its future uncertainties in a country with the world's biggest online population, nearly 400 million, one thing is certain. The company has thrown a global spotlight on the mainland's internet freedom - or lack of it.
Gleeful human rights activists have wasted no time piling in, hoping the Google episode will draw international attention to what they see as increasingly harsh controls over media and a crackdown on political dissent, and put more pressure on the Chinese leadership.
This is likely to reinforce views held by many outside China that the increasingly repressive mainland regime has kept the media tightly muzzled, internet chat rooms closely monitored, and dissenting voices silenced.
But, as many overseas visitors discover after spending some time on the mainland, the reality can be different from what they read or watch about China in the international media. There is no doubt that the mainland leadership has tried to step up control of media and the internet and meted out more severe punishments on political dissidents in recent years.
Editors who penned editorials challenging government policies have been punished, and dissident Liu Xiaobo was jailed for subversion after he co-authored 'Charter 08', a petition that merely called for broad political and democratic reforms. Many activists who initially harboured high hopes of President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao for political liberalisation in their early days of power have now turned their eyes to the next generation of leaders, who will take over in 2012.
In addition to political dissent, the mainland's ominous and massive security and propaganda apparatus is also cracking down and censoring reports on ethnic minorities in Xinjiang or Tibet seen as advocating independence, Falun Gong, and those calling for a review of the June 4 Tiananmen crackdown. Speculation on the personal lives of the top mainland leaders has also been banned.
But there are fewer areas that are off limits to mainland media and the public compared with even 10 years ago, and the scale and strength of control by the state is less effective than it looks. The mainland media, and particularly the internet, is as feisty, lively and aggressive on a wide range of issues as can be - contrary to the prevailing view outside China.
Much has been written about China's Great Firewall and how its army of censors can effectively filter out or delete politically sensitive or pornographic materials, leaving the vast number of mainland internet users ill-informed or sexually starved. Well, as the Chinese proverb goes, while the priest climbs one foot, the devil climbs 10. Thanks to technological progress and the determination of internet users, there are many ways to circumvent the firewall and other controls.
Overseas media reports and comments on China, particularly unfavourable ones, circulate quickly through chat rooms, blogs and e-mail, despite efforts by censors to delete or block them.
The Chinese government launched a major drive to crack down on pornographic content on the internet last year. It claims to have succeeded, but hardcore porn is still available. In the past few weeks, two videos posted online have generated hundreds of thousands of hits every day - one showing a car show model called Shoushou having sex with her former boyfriend and another with footage of a young girl losing her virginity. Despite controls, citizen journalism is also flourishing.
Internet posts have become a key source of news for both domestic and overseas media, exposing major corruption and pollution cases, social and legal injustices as well as government follies. For instance, a recent blog post led this newspaper to break the story about a Ministry of Education notice ordering mainland universities not to work with Oxfam, accusing the well-respected international charity of an ulterior motive without providing any proof.
Senior mainland officials also acknowledge the benefit of the internet, with blog posts alerting them to wrongdoings by local officials who in the old days could easily have covered their tracks.
Even in the traditional media of newspapers or television, over which officials can exercise better control, efforts to seek truth and stand up to powerful officials are also alive and well. The powerful propaganda officials may regularly call in chief editors and brief them on hot topics to cover or avoid, but enterprising reporters and editors are pushing the boundaries every day to report news that matters, even if it is embarrassing for authorities and puts their jobs on the line. On any given day, newspapers are not short of articles criticising government policies on property development or the household registration system, hukou.
While directly criticising central government leaders is strictly forbidden, the number of officials being assailed in the press and on the internet is rising. Li Hongzhong , the governor of Hubei province and former party secretary of Shenzhen, found himself in hot water earlier this month after he scolded a Beijing reporter for asking him about a scandal at a press briefing open only to mainland journalists. Details of the episode were on the internet that day and commentaries appeared in several official newspapers, prompting open calls for his apology and resignation. This may not sound a big deal to those outside China, but it would have been unthinkable on the mainland even five years ago.
Internet posts are a key source of news for domestic and overseas media