Internet service providers in China have pulled the plug on several prominent foreign and domestic Web sites in recent weeks, ending the limited freedom of access to "sensitive" sites that Web users in China enjoyed during this year's Olympic Games.
China's renewed censorship reverses earlier promises to expand press freedom as part of a bid to win the 2008 Olympic Games.
The government allowed access to long-banned Web sites after foreign reporters covering the Games raised an outcry, complaining that Beijing was reneging on its promises.
One of the largest domestic Chinese sites to be blocked is "Legal World," known in Chinese as Fa Tianxia.
"My blog on Fa Tianxia had more than a million hits, with an average of 2,000 to 3,000 per article," top Beijing legal expert Liu Xiaoyuan said.
"I am really angry about the closure."
Service provider China Unicom said the site had posted several articles which contravened Chinese laws and regulations.
Liu said he was unsure exactly which articles had triggered China Unicom's response.
...People now don’t believe official information. They prefer to get their information from the Internet."
Chinese Internet user
"Most of the bloggers on that site are law school students, or attorneys," he said.
"Their articles are not that radical, and they don't target the Communist Party or the government. I really cannot understand why it was shut down."
Liu said he had published about 140 articles since July on the case of cop-killer Yang Jia, who was executed in Shanghai last month, with dramatic jumps in the number of visits to the site.
He speculated that the increased traffic might have drawn the attention of police. Call to end blocking
Graph showing direct traffic from China to the RFA Web site before, during, and after the Beijing Olympics.
Journalist and Fa Tianxia blogger Zan Aizong called on China Unicom in an open letter Monday for an end to the blocking of the site.
"This Web site is very brave and dares to post articles which cannot run on other more popular Web sites like sina.com, sohu.com, ifeng.com and so on," Zan said.
"This might have offended the news office of the Beijing municipal government, which, according to the Fa Tianxia management, has requested that they delete my articles in the past," he added.
"Charter 08 [which called online for political reform and rule of law] might be another reason for them to shut down the site," Zan said.
Web editor Liu Feiyue said his site, "Minsheng Guancha," had suffered several hacker attacks from an unknown source.
"In fact we are very low-profile and we didn’t do any propaganda. But because we are rights activists our Web site was targeted only one month after its launch," Liu said.
"It has been two years but we still cannot get the Web site to operate normally. The latest hacker attack we suffered was yesterday when we couldn’t open the home page."
The editor of another site promoting civil rights for ordinary Chinese citizens, "Weiquan Zhongguo," said the site had been blocked dozens of times since its launch last year for posting "sensitive information."
"Just what exactly is the definition of 'sensitive information' in China?" editor Qiu Feng said.
"Who decides what is ‘sensitive’? If the police decide, then what is the legal basis for their judgment?"
Qiu said he almost wanted to give up the Web site because it had run into so much trouble. Proxy server
A manager at another civil rights site, "Quanli Yundong," said it could still be viewed overseas via a proxy server, and that the authorities had only succeeded in blocking the domain within China.
"Our server is abroad, and thus they can only block the Web address. To read our Web site you have to use a special tool for reading sensitive Web sites overseas," the manager, also surnamed Liu, said.
Chinese netizens are increasingly restricted by new regulations imposed on Internet cafes, too.
Customers using Internet cafes are now expected to verify their identity before going online, hurting many businesses, according to a cybercafe manager in the southwestern city of Chongqing.
"Our Internet café has installed monitors for police to check up on, in case something happens," the manager said.
In the southern island province of Hainan, all citizens will be required to register with their national identity cards before browsing the Internet in Internet cafés, beginning Jan. 1, 2009.
Qin Geng, a member of the Independent Chinese PEN authors' group in the provicial capital of Haikou, said the move was ostensibly aimed at preventing minors from accessing the Internet.
"Minors don’t have ID cards. How can they get into an Internet café? I think the authorities want to use this to strengthen control over the Internet," Qin said. Blocked again
Meanwhile, the authorities are beginning once more to block sites that were unblocked during the Olympics, including those of the BBC, Radio Free Asia, Voice of America, and other foreign news sites deemed too sensitive for Chinese netizens to view.
"We have been unable to access the RFA Web site for a while since late last month," Agricultural News Weekly
editor Huang Liangtian said.
"Other media, such as the [Hong Kong-based] Ming Pao
are also difficult to access if they aren't very complimentary about the Chinese government," Huang added.
"Sometimes you can access these sites, but it takes a long time. Sometimes you can’t. It's the same with the BBC and the VOA as well."
"This is their way of imposing a superficial stability on society. They think stability is everything, more important even than law and freedom," he said.
Repeated calls to the General Administration of Press and Publications under the State Council, China's cabinet, produced a busy signal during office hours.Official defense
But government officials have publicly defended the decision to block certain sites.
Foreign ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao told reporters Tuesday that the Chinese government had a right to censor Web sites that violate the country’s laws.
He added that “some Web sites,” which he didn't identify, had violated China’s law against "splitting the motherland" by suggesting that there are two Chinas—
a reference to the Beijing government’s longstanding position that mainland China and Taiwan form a single Chinese nation.
"I hope that the Web sites in question will be able to self-regulate and not do things that violate Chinese law and, for the sake of both sides, develop conditions for Web site cooperation," Liu said, according to a transcript posted on the Foreign Ministry’s Web site.Savvy netizens
But Web-savvy Chinese citizens can still access sensitive information online, getting around broad-brush controls aimed at keeping unwanted content away from the majority of Chinese.
As a manager of an Internet company in Guangzhou surnamed Xin said, "The Internet is not like the traditional media, and online news cannot be completely blocked."
Another Internet user surnamed Liu said it was impossible for China to turn back the clock on the development of the Internet.
"For instance, Charter 08 is the thing the government hates most, but it is now everywhere, mostly on blogs," he said.
"Of course the government can ban the blog, but we can build up another blog in just a few minutes. The problem is that people now don’t believe official information. They prefer to get their information from the Internet."
Original reporting in Mandarin by Xin Yu and Yan Xiu, and in Cantonese by Lee Wing Chun. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Translated by Chen Ping. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han