Beijing enforces the party line
Communist Party leaders are required to take political instruction even as popular university websites are restricted.
In a surprisingly broad and deep targeting of thought and expression here, authorities across China have shut or drastically curtailed college Internet message boards - a powerful vehicle for free exchange, and one used far more by non-students than students.Skip to next paragraph
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The message boards are popular among educated Chinese as a "virtual community" for discussing film, dating, sports, politics, and jobs. They have become an unofficial news alternative to state-run TV, radio, and newspapers. Moreover, a single college message board may have hundreds of thousands of users, even though the host-school has only 10,000 to 20,000 students.
The crackdown is another phase of a broad and zealous campaign situated inside the central propaganda department that advocates a "strengthening of ideology" through stricter control over culture, education, and media. Significantly, the campaign runs concurrently with one of the most extensive political ideology programs for party members since the Cultural Revolution.
Since early March, and following a confidential "Circular 17" issued by the Education Ministry, almost all prominent college Web boards have been censored and closed to non-students. Two weeks ago even Shuimu BBS, a 300,000-user bulletin board system at Tsinghua University here, where China's next generation of leaders attend, was gutted.
The move caused a rare protest. Students gathered en masse to cut paper cranes - a symbol of mourning - and express dismay at a school where sentiments are normally patriotic. College boards in Nanjing, Guangdong, Xi'an, and at prestigious Fudan University in Shanghai were also hit.
"Harmful information should be detected and deleted," and BBS systems "on which harmful information has been spread should be shut down," the circular reads.
Evidence of a larger ideological campaign is growing. Last fall, media in China were told to restrict the expression of "public intellectuals" who speak or write independently. The activity of nongovernmental organizations has been officially pared down. The teaching of school history is more tightly controlled. And last month, colleges began "strengthening" the four ideology courses students must take.
In the past two decades, the means and ability to communicate in China have grown exponentially. And whether the party can actually muzzle the growth in expression is a serious debate here.
Several years ago, censorship was considered impossible. However, government techniques have become more sophisticated.
China's effective control of independent expression was clear after the passing Jan. 17 of Tiananmen leader Zhao Ziyang. Official mention of Zhao, China's former No. 1 who was kept under house arrest from 1989 to his death, was limited to one paragraph from the Xinhua news wire. Zhao references instantly disappeared from websites and message boards. (In recent days, prayers and religious content regarding Pope John Paul II have also been removed.)
Along with the ideology campaign is an extraordinary new party-member education program. It involves three-phase, 18-month meetings designed to "maintain the progressiveness of party members," notes Xinhua state-run media, and to improve members' "ruling capability."
The new campaign is designed to create greater faith in the party among ordinary Chinese. It is also an effort to bring results that communist Eastern Europe was unable to achieve as it became freer during the 1980s, informed sources say. The party in China intends for the country to achieve a high-growth economy, but without the dissent and uncontrolled openness found in the Warsaw bloc prior to the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989.
"At the root of this campaign is a phrase, 'Learn the lessons of 1989,' " says a Beijing source. "But they aren't talking about Tiananmen. It is all about the east bloc. What seems clear is that the Hu Jintao government are serious about control. They are all about being the un-Gorbachev."
"For the first time since the Cultural Revolution, and perhaps even further back, all members of the party must participate in these meetings and be involved," says a senior diplomat. "This isn't fly by night, it is serious. The classes aren't optional."
"We know that this campaign is extensive because so many of our government contacts can't meet with us," a Western diplomat adds. "They are at these classes."