Chapter 6: China’s Internet – a Civilising Process

by Jeremy Goldkorn

C6_opener

Slogans and rhetoric and management techniques introduced during the Civilised Internet (wenming banwang 文明办网) campaign of 2006 have had a lasting influence on the way China manages the Internet, and how the party-state defines what it means to be civilised online. This chapter traces a history of China’s Civilised Internet; it looks backs to the rise of blogging and social media a decade ago to illuminate events surrounding the online world in 2012 and 2013.

Part I: Origins of the Civilised Internet

There’s a base line for social ethics, and the patience of the public has a limit. If you do not learn to cherish freedom, if you do not learn to respect the rules of society, then in the days to come it may be difficult to avoid external regulation. If bloggers that hurt others at every turn are not alerted to this fact and act responsibly, if they insist on someone else taking out their garbage, then they may well find that there’s no place for them anymore.

—from a People’s Daily editorial published as part of the 2006 Civilised Internet Campaign

Information Upchucking and Erudite Guest

In April 1999, Peter Merholz, a web designer in Oakland, California, coined the word ‘blog’ on his personal website. He later wrote: ‘I like that it’s roughly onomatopoeic of vomiting. These sites (mine included!) tend to be a kind of information upchucking.’ A few months later, a US software company named Pyra released Blogger.com, a website that allowed users to publish blogs easily and without payment. The number of bloggers grew exponentially, particularly in North America. In China people were taking note.

Isaac Mao. Source: Aftenposten.no

Isaac Mao.
Source: Aftenposten.no

On 5 August 2002, an Internet entrepreneur named Isaac Mao launched a website at isaacmao.com, announcing in English: ‘From today, I’m stepping into the blogosphere’ — a simple statement that earned him the reputation as China’s first blogger. The same month, another Chinese technology entrepreneur by the name of Fang Xingdong launched a company called BlogChina.com. The company coined a new term, boke 博客, the Chinese equivalent of ‘blog’. Boke is derived from the word ‘bo’ as found in the expression yuanbo 渊博 (learned or erudite) and ke 客, usually translated as ‘guest’ but also a reference to heike 黑客, literally ‘dark guest’, a transliteration of ‘hacker’, and so signifying someone who does something shady online. When Twitter-like services started in China, a natural translation was weibo 微博, short for weixing boke 微型博客, literally ‘microblog’. Fang’s term boke has stood the test of time, but one wonders if he is as idealistic about the medium today as he was then:

We hope that blogging culture can guide China’s transformation to become a knowledge society, and that the care shown by bloggers can bring about an era of responsibility.

Fang Xindong. Source: Sina.com

Fang Xindong.
Source: Sina.com

Back on the other side of the Pacific, in late 2002, US newspaper editors and columnists still routinely derided bloggers as self-obsessed nerds (often caricatured as fat, pyjama-wearing men in basements or pimply youths in their bedrooms), unaware that the newspaper industry was about to face its greatest challenge, thanks in no small part to blogging and other nascent forms of social media.

In January 2003, perhaps proving that Chinese Communist Party officials can be more perceptive than American newspaper editors, China’s Great Firewall blocked Blogger.com. In February, Google acquired Blogger.com and the word blog was assured its place in the English lexicon.

SARS, Southern Weekly and Sex

Before the blocking of Blogger.com, a small but very active blogging community of several thousand early-adopter geek types had come into being in China. Several companies started to offer blog platforms, including Blogcn.com, Blogdriver.com and Blogbus.com. But blogging remained a minority interest, and government regulators did not interfere much with new local blog companies, which were small, with low user numbers.

The issue of Southern Weekly of 25 April 2003 with the Sun Zhigang report. Source: nfmedia.com

The issue of Southern Weekly of 25 April 2003 with the Sun Zhigang report.
Source: nfmedia.com

Blogs came to China at a time when the information landscape was changing rapidly. The high point of these changes was in 2003, although they had been a decade in the making. In the late 1990s, the General Administration of Press and Publications (Xinwen chuban zongshu 新闻出版总署) started cutting subsidies to newspapers and periodicals, demanding that they become profitable businesses. This meant that periodicals had to make money from either readers or advertisers. One effect was the rapid increase in the numbers of fashion and lifestyle magazines. These courted brand-name advertisers wanting to sell cars, clothes, gadgets, lotions and potions to newly cashed-up Chinese consumers who were enjoying their second decade of economic growth since the advent of Deng Xiaoping’s policy of Reform and Opening Up in the late 1970s. But for newspapers, a better business model (in addition to selling advertising space) was to make money from readers buying or subscribing to the paper. For these publications, the only way to stand out was to publish interesting stories rather than party pabulum. For many provincial city newspapers, this meant either tabloid sensationalism or ‘service journalism’ (that is, telling readers where to bank, shop and consume). Some papers, however, saw an opportunity to stand out by giving readers real news and analysis rather than propaganda or lifestyle fluff.

The Southern Group of newspapers was one such organisation. Although owned and controlled by the Guangdong provincial government, since the 1990s, the Southern Group has nurtured a generation of idealistic editors and journalists who have seen their role as speaking truth to power. Their work is published across several different papers and magazines, including the Southern Weekly (Nanfang zhoumo 南方周末) and Southern Metropolis Daily (Nanfang dushi bao 南方都市报).

Sun Zhigang. Source: Sina.com

Sun Zhigang.
Source: Sina.com

In April 2003, the Southern Weekly published a daring investigative report about a young migrant named Sun Zhigang, who was beaten to death while in police custody in Guangzhou. The report is widely believed to have been the single most important factor leading to the end of the ‘custody and repatriation’ (shourong qiansong 收容遣送) policy established in 1982. Under this system, the police could detain people in cities if they did not have a local residence or temporary residency permit (hukou 户口 or zanzhuzheng 暂住证 respectively), and force them to return to the place specified in their hukou, usually their village of birth. On 20 June 2003, then Premier Wen Jiabao announced the abolition of custody and repatriation procedures, effective from 1 August. Many observers saw this as a victory for media outspokenness and the freedom of expression.

Jiang Yanyong. Source: Freeweibo.com

Jiang Yanyong.
Source: Freeweibo.com

The Southern Weekly also made a name for itself around this time for its reporting on the spread of the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) virus. Initially, the authorities had covered up the threat of the virus despite warnings from the World Health Organization about its potential impact on the public. On 4 April 2003, Jiang Yanyong, the chief physician at the No. 301 Military Hospital in Beijing, emailed a letter to Chinese Central Television (CCTV) and Phoenix TV, a marginally more independent broadcaster officially based in Hong Kong. He accused the authorities of under-reporting the numbers of people infected with SARS and concealing the severity of the situation. Neither TV station reported on Jiang’s letter, but the text was leaked to the foreign media. On 8 April, Time magazine published a translation of Jiang’s letter, deeply embarrassing the Chinese government. This led, on 21 April, to the resignations of both the Mayor of Beijing and the Minister of Public Health. Many commentators believed that the SARS scandal would have a long-term impact on the government’s handling of the media and Internet regulation. Although it did not break the story, the Southern Weekly aggressively reported on it and the government’s handling of the crisis.

Official SARS and bird flu squad in Beijing, 9 April 2013. Photo: G. Yulong

Official SARS and bird flu squad in Beijing, 9 April 2013.
Photo: G. Yulong

The SARS outbreak was the first test for the new leadership duo of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao appointed by the Sixteenth National Party Congress in November 2002. Despite the initial cover-up, when the new administration did finally react in mid-April, its actions were both transparent and highly effective. Media reports expressed the hope that the government had learned a lesson about openness.

Muzi Mei. Source: Xinhua

Muzi Mei.
Source: Xinhua

It was in this environment of a perceived loosening of media controls that blogging went mainstream in China. If one can pin down a date that blogs ‘arrived’ in the People’s Republic, it would be 19 June 2003. On that day, Li Li, a journalist working for a glossy magazine in Guangzhou, started a blog about her sex life on Blogchina.com under the pseudonym Muzi Mei. On 5 August, she published a post about a clumsy coupling with the well-known rock musician Wang Lei in an alley behind a bar. The blog post went viral, generating editorials in newspapers across the country that lamented the declining morals of the nation’s youth. Every journalist and newspaper editor now knew about blogging.

Wang Lei. Source: Soundcloud.com

Wang Lei.
Source: Soundcloud.com

Unlike their contemporaries in the Western media, who still tended to see blogs as either a threat to their livelihoods or the self-obsessed ranting of individuals, engaged Chinese journalists, who had long been subject to the restrictions imposed on the official media, took to blogging with enthusiasm. At long last, they could publish what they wanted with no interference from censors or editors. Sometimes their stories would be wiped from the Internet almost as soon as they were published (even then small blog companies had to self-censor if they wanted to stay in business), but there was at least some chance that readers would see and circulate the texts before they disappeared.

Although the state media had criticised Muzi Mei’s sex blog, online many voices were raised in support. Some applauded her as a feminist visionary, others in the technology industry admired her for being an authentic creature of the Internet. The scandal cost her magazine job, but she was not subjected to any legal persecution or harassment from the authorities. She signed a book deal with a Hong Kong publisher and soon found a new job working for BlogChina.com — the same platform that had originally published her tales of sex.

A Slightly More Open Society

Tolerance for Muzi Mei elicited optimism about the openness of the Chinese media. Many commentators and business people within China as well as outside argued that the upcoming 2008 Beijing Olympic Games would force the Chinese government to be more open and transparent by encouraging more liberal information policies. Chinese news media appeared to be flourishing.

Cheng Yizhong. Source: UNESCO

Cheng Yizhong.
Source: UNESCO

On 11 November 2003, a newspaper called The Beijing News (Xinjing bao 新京报) was launched as a joint venture between the Guangming Press Group and the Southern Group. Cheng Yizhong, the editor responsible for the reporting on the Sun Zhigang scandal earlier in the year, headed up the editorial team. The first issue of The Beijing News featured a large photograph of former US President Bill Clinton embracing an HIV-positive boy. The following month, Menbox (Shishang junzi 时尚君子), China’s first openly gay glossy magazine, appeared on newsstands. The magazine was produced in partnership with the prestigious Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing.

Inaugural issue of The Beijing News on 11 November 2003. Source: The Beijing News

Inaugural issue of The Beijing News on 11 November 2003.
Source: The Beijing News

Globally and in China, the years 2004 to 2006 were a boom time for social media that gave ordinary people extraordinary powers to publish and broadcast their views. This was when the meaningful (albeit annoying) expression ‘Web 2.0’ came into use to describe the switch from large companies such as Yahoo! offering their services top down, like a newspaper publisher, to a model where Internet users themselves create, upload and share their own text, photographs and videos. The photo-sharing site Flickr.com launched in 2004, swiftly followed by Chinese clone Yupoo.com. Facebook.com was founded in 2004; a Chinese clone Xiaonei.com (later renamed Renren.com) went live in 2005. YouTube was launched in February 2005, and the Chinese video sharing site Tudou.com came online in April of the same year. Blogging websites proliferated.

Menbox, China’s first gay oriented magazine. Source: iBoysky.com

Menbox, China’s first gay oriented magazine.
Source: iBoysky.com

In October 2005, Sina.com launched its own blogging platform. Sina itself had been created as a ‘portal’ website modelled on Yahoo.com in 1996, and had become one of China’s dominant Internet companies, with a reputation for lively news coverage. Whereas the existing blog hosts were all small, underfunded startups, Sina was the first major company to launch a blogging service. Sina invited and sometimes paid celebrities to blog on the new platform. One of these, the actress Xu Jinglei, by publishing a mix of snapshots from her A-list celebrity life and details of her daily goings on that made her seem like the girl next door, soon became the most popular blogger in China. The novelist and race car driver Han Han began blogging on Sina and went on to become one of the country’s most prominent writers, gaining a reputation as a caustic social critic. Han Han’s rise from relative obscurity to international fame — essentially because of a blog which was often critical of the establishment — was emblematic of the heady possibilities that blogging seemed to offer.

Rebecca McKinnon. Source: Internetdagarna.com

Rebecca McKinnon.
Source: Internetdagarna.com

On 5 and 6 November 2005, a group of more than a hundred Internet entrepreneurs, coders and geeks, led by Isaac Mao (see above), met in Shanghai for the first annual CNBloggerCon, or Chinese Bloggers Conference. The conference would convene in a different city every year until 2009. Rebecca MacKinnon, a former Beijing bureau chief for CNN and a scholar of the Internet, was at the conference. She blogged the following:

Isaac Mao in his opening keynote talked about the power of many small voices. On the web, ‘everybody is somebody.’ What’s more, Chinese web users are increasingly reacting to events taking place in their lives, in real time, online. ‘We are all grassroots. We are all small voices,’ he says. ‘The combination of all these small voices will make our society smarter.’

Sensitive Words

MacKinnon also noted that:

[T]here was a surprisingly frank exchange about the way in which service providers have to police user content and kill everything political. All blog hosting and service providing companies must police their users’ content. This is a fact of life which web businesses as well as users accept as part of being Chinese in China. They must naturally bake censorship functions into their software and into their business models … .

What this means is that Web 2.0, just like Web 1.0, is not going to spark a democratic revolution in Chinese politics any time soon.

Wang Xiaofeng. Source: blogs.elcomercio. pe

Wang Xiaofeng.
Source: blogs.elcomercio.
pe

On October 25, just a few weeks before CNBloggerCon 2005, the Sanlian Life Weekly (Sanlian shenghuo zhoukan 三联生活 周刊) journalist Wang Xiaofeng published a post on his popular blog, then called Massage Milk (Anmo Ru 按摩乳), that discussed the techniques Chinese blog-hosting companies were using to self-censor, primarily in the form of filters that stopped users publishing blog posts containing ‘sensitive words’ (min’ganci 敏感词).

Nowadays, there are a lot of blog hosts and online forums with something that is really a characteristic of China: ‘sensitive words’. It’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry about ‘sensitive words’. Things that were originally not at all sensitive become highly sensitive because of such ‘sensitive words’. The existence of ‘sensitive words’ continually reminds you: ‘You better watch what you fucking say: there are some things that you just can’t say’ … .

Is the speech of ordinary people that terrifying? I’m reminded of a line from the Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping: ‘A revolutionary party does not fear the voice of the masses, it fears the reign of silence.’

Sensitive words: The Chinese name 南方周末 for the outspoken magazine Southern Weekend was censored on WeChat in January 2013. Source: Techinasia.com

Sensitive words: The Chinese name 南方周末 for the outspoken magazine Southern Weekend was censored on WeChat in January 2013.
Source: Techinasia.com

On the other hand, there are times when you can’t let Internet users just do as they please. If there were no controls at all, there would be chaos. The problem is deciding how you prevent the Internet from becoming anarchic.

Forbidding ‘sensitive words’ is a clumsy, ridiculous and retarded method that does not solve any problems. It’s like the ears of a deaf person, or the response of an ostrich to danger. It is just self-deception.

Let’s suppose you write the following sentence on a blog host that has ‘sensitive-word’ controls: ‘The viewership rating of CCTV’s recent TV series Moment in Peking [Jinghua Yanyun 京华烟云] has reached 6.4 percent’. You couldn’t publish such a sentence on Blogcn and other blog hosts because it contains ‘sensitive words’ [‘6.4’ being shorthand for the Tiananmen Square Incident or Beijing massacre of 4 June 1989].

But does this sentence contravene the Fifth Article of the Computer and Information Network International Internet Safety Protection Regulations? Of course it doesn’t. Since it hasn’t broken the rules, why the hell are you depriving me of my right to free expression?

Or suppose I write a sentence like this: ‘We must see through to the essence of cults like Fаlungong’. I imagine almost no blog host would allow such a line to be published, because it contains ‘sensitive words’. You see, even my rights to criticise a cult have been taken away. Are computers fucking stupid, or are people?

If we accept that there must be some restriction of Internet content, and we absolutely must use the ‘sensitive words’ method, why can’t they publish their list so that everyone knows what to avoid when they write? I think these lists would be very funny; but not even one blog host is willing to make their list public and that’s because they’d be spurned by users if they did. Internet users would say: ‘So that is what you are damned well scared of!’ But if they don’t publish the lists, it is a real pain to write because you never know which words will be considered ‘sensitive’.

It’s like a girl whose whole body is highly sensitive from head to toe. Do you dare to touch her?

(Note: The ‘sensitive words’ in Wang’s blog post were actually published because his blog was hosted on a service called Ycool which had a more tolerant policy towards sensitive words. The post was still online at the time of writing.)

Civilise Your Site, Be Civilised Online

David Bandurski. Source: jmsc.hku.hk

David Bandurski.
Source: jmsc.hku.hk

The sense of openness that characterised the Chinese media and Internet in 2003 and 2004 would not last. In an overview of the Southern Weekly that covered the decade from 2003 to 2013, the Hong-Kong-based media scholar David Bandurski noted:

The ‘media spring’ of 2003 was a wake-up call for party leaders, exposing the growing challenges facing media control in China. Commercial media now were challenging the party’s dominance of the agenda in subtle but important ways. From 2004 onward, China’s leaders pushed actively to reassert control and reverse the gains made by commercial media.

The departments responsible for controlling the Internet did not rest easy either (for details of these departments, see the 2012 Yearbook Chapter Seven). In late 2004, the State Council Information Office (the government equivalent to the Party’s Propaganda Department) and the Central Guidance Commission for Building Spiritual Civilisation (featured elsewhere in this Yearbook) began orchestrating a Civilised Internet campaign aimed at cleaning up the Chinese Internet and wresting back control of it from the masses. The campaign was launched on 9 April 2006 with a series of major stories published in the People’s Daily, on the Xinhua News Agency’s website and on the front pages of all major Internet companies based in Beijing, including Sina, Sohu, Baidu and Netease. The campaign slogan was: ‘Civilise Your Site, Be Civilised Online’ (Wenming banwang, wenming shangwang 文明办网, 文明上网).

On 20 April, the People’s Daily reported on a Civilised Internet event that targeted bloggers, noting that there were sixteen million of them at the time:

A total of nineteen Chinese websites providing blog service including People.com, Bokee.com and Sina.com as well as representatives of bloggers signed a ‘self-discipline pact on civilised use of Internet’ at a seminar on the construction of Internet civilisation and ethics sponsored by the Internet Society of China and Bokee.com in Beijing [translation by People’s Daily].

‘Civilise Your Site’. Source: 010lf.com

‘Civilise Your Site’.
Source: 010lf.com

A separate editorial on blogger self-discipline published in Chinese, but not in English, by the People’s Daily was menacingly titled ‘If you want freedom, first discipline yourself’ (Yao xiang ziyou, jiu xian zilü 要想自由, 就先自律).

Interestingly, Bokee.com, the website that hosted the event, was the new name and URL of BlogChina.com — the company founded by Fang Xingdong (who had coined the term boke 博客). Confirming that the days of blogger freedom in China were over, Fang gave a speech in October 2006 in which, as Rebecca Mackinnon reported, he ‘warned that while the “invisible hand of the market” may have enabled China’s blogosphere to reach its present stage, “from now on the hand of the government will play the biggest role”’.

The possibilities of the Civilised Internet campaign were swiftly communicated to Internet companies across the country. On 26 April, my own website Danwei.org published a video interview with Li Li (Muzi Mei) — the blogger who made the form famous in China. She said:

You know now there is this slogan ‘Make a Civilised Internet’ [文明办网]? It’s very uncomfortable. In the past, the Internet was a different world, very free. But now, I think the authorities are controlling it more and more strictly.

Part II: How to be Civilised

Today there are still tens of millions of active bloggers in China, and if you count Twitter-type microblogs like Weibo, there may be more than five hundred million. From 2009 to 2012, the most vibrant and politically-minded site on the Chinese Internet was Sina Weibo. In late 2012 and early 2013, the most talked about Internet service in China was WeChat (Weixin 微信) — an instant messaging service with social networking dimensions run by Tencent.

Xinhua News Agency still maintains a web page for the 2006 Civilised Internet campaign, although the most recent posting dates from 2011. Since 2006, websites and Internet services in China have changed dramatically, however, and the vocabulary and techniques of the Civilised Internet campaign remain in use. Some of its underlying concepts hark back to the anti-Spiritual Pollution and anti-Bourgeois Liberalisation campaigns of the 1980s; some are more recent innovations. The main concepts and methods are listed below together with examples of their use in 2012 and 2013.

WeChat poster advertising ‘Official RMB Investment Accounts’ aimed at Hong Kong residents in July 2013. Source: Mslee@Yahoo

WeChat poster advertising ‘Official RMB Investment Accounts’ aimed at Hong Kong residents in July 2013.
Source: [email protected]

  • Pledging Self-discipline

‘Voluntary’ activities organised by crypto-governmental organisations like the China Internet Society (Zhongguo hulianwang xiehui 中国互联网协会) often require Internet companies to send senior delegates. At these events, they sign pledges of self-discipline — written documents promising that their websites will be free of pornographic, criminal or politically unacceptable content. The activities are used to communicate the current party line to Internet companies, and to give a participatory patina to forced compliance.

On 11 September 2011, at the Eleventh China Internet Conference, organised by the China Internet Society in Beijing, twenty-nine Internet companies were awarded the 2011–2012 Annual Contributions to Internet Self-Discipline Prize (2011–2012 niandu Zhongguo lianwang hangye zilü gongxian jiang 2011-2012年度中国互联网行业自律贡献奖). Winners included commercial giants like Tencent, state organisations like Xinhua News Agency and smaller state and private companies. Sina was noticeably absent from the prizewinners. It would seem the China Internet Society did not think Sina displayed enough self-discipline, perhaps because of intense microblogging activity on Weibo about the Wenzhou train crash of 23 July 2011 as well as the flight of the Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun to the US Consulate in Chengdu on 6 February 2012 and many other such incidents.

  • Rumours

‘Rumours’ are persistently cited in Internet clean-up campaigns as constituting a serious threat to society. However, many observers interpret a ‘rumour’ as meaning any kind of information that the government does not want made public.

On 30 December 2012, the China Youth Daily (Zhongguo qingnian bao 中国青年报) published a strongly worded editorial titled ‘A Flood of Internet Rumors — How Can We Stand By and Do Nothing?’ (Wangluo yaoyan fanlan, qineng xiushou pangguan 网络谣言泛滥 岂能袖手旁观). The article was one of dozens of similar screeds published by state news organisations. Rumors were in abundance during the 2012–2013 leadership transition and with regard to the dramatic fall of Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai and the murder of Englishman Neil Heywood, making it difficult to tell salacious gossip from political and historical fact.

  • Pornography, violence, crime, fraud and copyright infringement

This cluster of unseemly topics is often in the vocabulary of regulators who worry about ‘uncivilised’ aspects of the Chinese Internet. The government deems the proliferation of pornographic, criminal, fraudulent and pirated material so endemic in general that it has established a dedicated Eliminate Pornography and Strike at Crime Office (Saohuang dafei xiaozu bangongshi 扫黄打非小组办公室). Co-
ordinating resources from no fewer than twenty-nine government departments including the police, propaganda organisations and the customs authorities, the office targets pirated films and books and illegally imported media as well as any website that the government wants to close down. The office was set up between July and August 1989, a fact that hints at its true motivation and scope.

  • Rule of Law

Promotion and protection of the ‘rule of law’ (fazhi 法治) is perhaps the most Orwellian of China’s Civilised Internet catchphrases. This rubric is used to legitimate a wide range of government controls over and interdictions of Internet users and what they can say online or offline. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokespersons often deflect foreign objections to the incarceration of dissidents such as Liu Xiaobo and Ai Weiwei with the simple assertion that ‘China is a country under rule of law’.

Many of the propaganda articles published in April 2006 as part of the Civilised Internet campaign invoked the ‘rule of law’. For example, ‘Righteous websites respond to the Civilised Internet proposal by enthusiastically promoting the concept of rule of law’ (zhengyi wang deng xiangying wenming banwang changyi jiji chuanbo fazhi linian 正义网等响应文明办网倡议积极传播法治理念). Likewise, a People’s Daily editorial about protecting the healthy environment of the Internet published in December 2012 (translated at the end of the chapter) sees rule of law as a shackle that must be used to tightly bind the Internet.

  • Real Name Registration

Although there had been rumblings in the state press for several years about forcing mobile phone users and Internet game players to register their online activities using their real names, providing addresses, contact numbers and their ID, the 2006 Civilised Internet campaign was the first time the idea was mooted for bloggers and even for all Internet users. Interestingly, real name registration, known in Chinese as shiming zhi 实名制 has never been successfully implemented, even for mobile phones. The state media called for real name registration of Weibo users in the aftermath of the 2011 Wenzhou train crash. In February 2012, the government publicised a new regulation requiring Sina Weibo and other providers of microblogs to ensure real name registration. The regulations have not been enforced and it is still possible to sign up for microblog services without using a real name or ID number. In 2013, it was still possible to buy a SIM card for a mobile phone anonymously, without showing identification.

  • Vilification

In November 2004, the Shanghai-based Liberation Daily (Jiefang ribao 解放日报) published an editorial attacking ‘public intellectuals’ (gonggong zhishifenzi 公共知识分子 or gongzhi 公知 for short) — in other words, non-state-sanctioned writers and thinkers who make public statements or offer candid analyses of politics and society. Such attacks are not usually explicitly associated with Internet clampdowns, and they are found in state media as well as the Weibo postings of self-styled ‘patriots’.

Li Kaifu. Source: ITxinwen.com

Li Kaifu.
Source: ITxinwen.com

In the last two years, the considerable popularity of some liberal online writers — such as the venture capitalist Li Kaifu, who has almost fifty million followers on Weibo — has drawn frequent criticism. The Global Times columnist Dai Xu accused Li Kaifu of being an agent for the CIA; he regularly calls public intellectuals ‘dailudang’ 带路党 — that is, people who guide invading foreign armies. Sympathisers of public intellectuals often call their critics wumao 五毛, or wumaodang, meaning ‘Fifty-cent Gang’ — people allegedly paid by the government for positive online postings at the apocryphal rate of fifty Chinese cents a post (see the 2012 Yearbook, p.131).

Small Voices in a Cave

The Chinese Bloggers Conference survived the Civilised Internet campaign. After the first conference in Shanghai in 2005, the eclectic group of technologists, entrepreneurs, activists, citizen journalists and hobbyists met in Hangzhou, Beijing and then in Guangzhou. The final CNBloggerCon was held in 2009 in the entrance to a cave in a nature reserve near Lianzhou — a small town in the remote far west of Guangdong province. The choice of location was partly determined by concerns that the police would have shut it down if it were held in a larger city, whereas local municipal government officials in Lianzhou saw the gathering as a boon to tourism and were less concerned about potential risks. The theme of CNBloggerCon 2009 was ‘Micro-actions, Macro-effects’ (Wei dongli Guang tiandi 微动力 广天地) — the word wei referring both to Weibo and other microblogs including Twitter.

The 2010 conference was scheduled to return to Shanghai, but just before the conference, the owners of the proposed venue informed the organisers that the authorities had expressed their displeasure with the event and the conference was cancelled. There hasn’t been a Chinese bloggers’ conference since then.

Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down

Of course, the end of the Chinese Bloggers Conference did not mean the end of blogging in China: from 2010 to 2103, Sina Weibo became a part of mainstream culture, remaining the most dynamic space for public expression in China. The Internet continues to serve as a nascent Fourth Estate, and it is where news about corruption, government malfeasance and abuses frequently breaks. The Internet culture of China remains varied and vital.

But the last word on the Chinese Internet always belongs to the state, which is why it seems fitting to conclude with a translation of a commentary published on the People’s Daily website on 24 December 2012.

Let the Rule of Law Tightly Shackle the Internet 给网络世界套上法治紧箍咒
by Ma Bi 马碧

Today, for many people, the Internet is as vital as the air they breathe. But amid the flow of ‘positive energy’ and constructive and healthy information, there are also rumours, fraud and slander. People are deeply moved by [examples of] ‘positive energy’ such as the scene of a street worker warming his partner’s hands with his breath after she has finished shoveling snow [a series of photographs that went viral on Weibo]. They panic at ‘negative energy’ such as rumours of an impending apocalypse. Moreover, ‘negative forces’ like the sale of personal information online are a threat to public safety and damage the interests of ordinary people.

The Internet is a free and open arena. It is precisely because of this freedom that the energetic few can gather around themselves a large number of fanatical followers. There is no such thing as absolute online freedom. The Internet needs clear demarcation to avoid damaging the freedom of others; it must accept moral constraints and respect the relevant laws and regulations. After all, no one wants to live in a real world in which there are no rules and no order; no one wants to live in a virtual world like that either.

The real world and the virtual world are inseparable, and harm done to individuals online does not simply remain in the virtual world. People who are cheated, whose rights are infringed or who are attacked feel as much pain as they would if they were hurt in traditional ways. Online criminals use the power of information to target ordinary Internet users for phishing scams, viewing them as mere grist for the mill. Today, when the whole world is interconnected, it is absolutely necessary to strengthen the supervision and management of the Internet.

The Internet is a public space. Public order and good behavior require the collective effort of all Internet users, and all users must ‘purify themselves’, recognising from the bottom of their hearts that the Internet is not a ‘Utopia’ in which they can wilfully satisfy any appetite, or a ‘Shangri-La’ beyond the reach of the law. On a vast Internet platform with 538 million web users and more than a billion mobile users, relying on self-discipline will not achieve regulation and order, or stop evil-doers with ulterior motives.

Without wings, the bird of freedom cannot soar. Without the rule of law, a free Internet cannot get very far. Today we revere the rule of law, and just as our real society needs the rule of law, so does our virtual society. Purifying the online world requires the self-discipline and restraint of Internet users, but it requires the discipline imposed by the rule of law even more. Only by placing the ‘tight shackles’ [jingu 紧箍, literally, ‘tight band’ or ‘tight ring’] of the rule of law onto the Internet, by defining the boundaries of acceptable behavior, through legal oversight and by making perpetrators of illegal acts online feel the full weight of the law in the real world, can we put an end to irresponsible rumours, plug up the seeping out of private information and cleanse the atmosphere of the Internet.

‘It is the most vibrant and the noisiest… .’ This way of describing the Internet is how many people feel. An open China needs an Internet world that is civilised, one that operates under the rule of law and that is healthy. Only with the ‘tight shackles’ of the rule of law can our Internet become more civilised, healthier and safer. Only then can we increase the ‘positive energy’, purge the filth and wash in clean water.