Political pressure puts paid to annual bloggers' meeting
Several dozen bloggers, programmers and activists from all corners of the mainland met up for lunch around a large table in a Shanghai suburb last month.
For most of them, it was the first and the last meeting of the sixth annual China Blogger Conference, one of the biggest events organised by grass-roots internet users.
Participants had been told a day earlier, on November 19, that the event had been cancelled due to political pressure. No landlord in the city dared to provide them with a single room, even though this year's focus was on the internet, business and innovation.
It was the first weekend after a deadly fire in the city centre killed 58 people and just three weeks after the World Expo ended. The bloggers said the authorities were reluctant to see a gathering of grass-roots internet users who might have posed a threat to social harmony.
But the tightening of control on cyberspace in the past few years has not only affected gatherings of internet experts. It is also squeezing the space available for online collaboration that can lead to opportunities and profits for the mainland's internet industry.
One Guangzhou-based blogger who has been to every conference since 2005, said that in the past he had always learned something new from speakers and, as a self-employed programmer, he had been offered important business opportunities by participants.
He said it was not the first time the conference had faced such pressure but it seemed there was now even less tolerance of grass-roots bloggers.
'It definitely is the toughest time,' he said. 'I really felt disappointed.'
A high-profile crackdown, purportedly targeting pornographic websites, that was launched by the authorities almost two years ago shows no signs of waning. However, many internet users have seen it as an attempt to cleanse the internet of politically sensitive content.
The Communist Party mouthpiece, People's Daily, reported late last month that police had investigated more than 1.78 million websites nationwide since early last year and closed about 60,000 with pornographic content. It said another 3,000 websites were closed because they were not registered.
The first China Blogger Conference in Shanghai in 2005, the second in Beijing and the fifth in Guangzhou two years ago went off fairly well.
But some bloggers said the fourth conference, in Hangzhou in 2007, was almost cancelled for political reasons and last year they had to move to Lianzhou , a small city in northern Guangdong, after difficulties in finding a venue in Guangzhou.
Several people who helped organise the events also admitted that to avoid official restrictions, they had even changed the name of the event to the China Internet Innovation Conference and made all panels business-related.
Chen Ting, a member of the Wikimedia Foundation's board of trustees who was invited to give the keynote speech at this year's conference, said organisers had suggested that he talk about something related to the internet and business.
But the organisers' best efforts to separate the internet from politics were in vain. Some internet analysts said the authorities were keen to control or prevent events linked to grass-roots or civil society.
Charles Mok, chairman of the Internet Society Hong Kong Chapter, said the mainland government will 'gradually clamp down on civil society events that they can't control and at the same time, they will encourage big internet companies to provide more services to users'.
Mok said it would be much easier for the authorities to deal with and monitor a few dozen big companies rather than tens of thousands of smaller ones. As a result, control of internet services was getting tighter but the number of internet users was also growing rapidly. 'Such controls and the blocking of overseas internet services is the fundamental cause of the mainland internet's lack of innovation,' Mok said.
Just days before the blogger conference was due to begin, another big conference, organised by one of the mainland's biggest internet portals and focusing on the development of microblog services, was held in Beijing. It attracted more than 2,000 people, double the number the conference venue could accommodate.
A study by business consultancy Eguan.cn said late last month that the number of microbloggers on the mainland had increased ninefold in the past year - from 8 million to 75 million. That is a sizeable market, compared with US media estimates that Twitter has about 200 million users worldwide.
Meanwhile, mainland online video providers Tudou.com and Youku.com have lodged prospectuses for stock market listings with the United States Securities and Exchange Commission.
Renren.com, the mainland's equivalent of Facebook, is reported to be considering a similar move.
Twitter, Facebook and Youtube have been blocked by mainland authorities for more than one year.
'Facing severe control, it is too risky for big mainland internet companies to do costly innovation,' Mok said. 'Then copying becomes the most efficient way.'
Isaac Mao, a fellow with Harvard University's Berkman Centre, said censorship would hurt the mainland's competitiveness in science and technology.
The Beijing News reported last month that a campaign by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology to tighten control of .cn websites had seen the number of domain names ending with .cn more than halved - from more than 13 million at the end of last year to about 6 million.
Mao, a supporter of the blogger conference, said that although mainlanders did have Chinese copycat websites for social networking, they missed out on the chance to connect to the broader world because international networks were blocked by the government.