Blogging In China

I'm Barry Petersen and this Letter from Asia comes from Beijing. Blogging is perhaps the internet's freest form of self-expression. But in this communist country, the government wants self-expression to follow the party line, so it is ideology versus technology.

At first glance, it would seem downright odd for China to allow the internet. Yet, its 160-million users are the second highest after the United States.

So why let the outside in? Think money, says Rebecca McKinnon, an assistant professor at Hong Kong University's Center for Journalism and Media Studies.

"China needs the internet in order to be connected to the globe in order to be an international trading power," says McKinnon. "If China were to not allow the internet, that would be damaging to China's business and trade interests and to China's economy."

There are tens of millions of bloggers here. Very few gathered recently in Beijing for a bloggers conference at which a few blogged about the blogging. Stephen Lin blogs and hosts one of China's first podcast under the name "flypig".

"Every day I share my daily life with my friends and colleagues, even my parents," says Lin. Speaking of censorship, he adds, "I think it is so wrong. If you write about technology, you will never care about censorship."

But make no mistake; China's leaders have some tough measures in place. It's illegal to criticize the government or the political system. Certain keywords are outlawed, such as the Falun Gong, a banned religious group. The government even got web giant Yahoo to reveal identities of two dissidents; they ended up in prison. That left Yahoo executives facing withering criticism from U.S. Congress.

"These were demands by a police state to make an American company a co-conspirator in having a freedom-loving Chinese journalist put in prison," said Congressman Tom Lantos at a hearing on November 6th.

But bad PR in the US doesn't worry the Chinese because their restrictions work. One man, known on the internet as Tiger Temple, knows well that all too well. "I've had five articles that were harmonized - taken off the web," he says.

Yet most of the blogging may actually be good for the government. "A lot of people who look at these things going on in China see this as a kind of safety valve in that people have a chance to blow off steam," says McKinnon. "As long as they're just talking, as long as they're just expressing frustration, this is not something that's generally going to cause the police to come and knock down your door over."

Many believed that allowing the internet into China would mean the end of one-party communist rule. Yet, so far, ideology is trumping technology, at least for the moment.

By Barry Petersen