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Why China shut down 18,401 websites

A fresh censorship wave is linked to next month's Party Congress.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 25, 2007



Beijing

The Chinese authorities are in the midst of an unusually harsh crackdown on the Internet, closing tens of thousands of websites that had allowed visitors to post their opinions, according to bloggers and Internet monitors in China.

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The new censorship wave appears linked to next month's 17th Communist Party Congress, a key political gathering that will set China's course for the coming five years. Party leaders generally prefer to meet undisturbed by criticism.

Censors and Web-hosting firms always keep an eye out for unapproved views on sensitive subjects, often deleting them.

But this campaign seems more indiscriminate. In recent weeks, police nationally have been shutting down Internet data centers (IDCs), the physical computers that private firms rent – from state-owned or private companies – to host websites offering interactive features, say industry insiders. "With the approach of the Party Congress, the government wants the Internet sphere silent, to keep people from discussing social problems," says Isaac Mao, one of China's first bloggers, who is now organizing a censorship monitoring project. "Shutting down IDCs is a quick and effective way of shutting down interactive sites."

To avoid being blocked, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in China and individual websites have been disabling chatrooms, forums, and other interactive features that might provide a platform for viewpoints unacceptable to the authorities.

"We don't want to get shut down so we shut down anything that could be offensive," says one foreign ISP employee. "Our upstream provider [the company that owns the servers] told us verbally there should be no commentary, no blogs, no bulletin board services, because the government is going bananas."

More than 18,000 websites blocked

In a recent circular, one Shanghai-based ISP warned its clients that "a special working party against illegal Internet information and activities" had begun work on Aug. 30 and "started to focus on cleaning up pornographic videos … and 'harmful' information … and so took control of Internet information services security management."

Earlier this month, the government-controlled "Shanghai Daily" reported that the authorities had blocked access to 18,401 "illegal" websites since April. Just under half of them carried pornography, the paper said, while the rest were unregistered.

Responding to the new campaign, one website, "Xiucai," has posted an ironic "patriotic" banner urging readers to "Joyfully welcome the 17th Party Congress, building a harmonious society together. Xiucai is a good comrade. This site has temporarily shut down comments and forum features."

Although no accurate figures are available, some Internet experts estimate that as many as half the sites hosted in China that offer interactive features have been blocked in recent weeks.

"I cannot find any law to support such action," says Mr. Mao. "I wonder if anyone is using current law to defend their rights" against recent government moves to shut down servers.

The law, however, has not proved of much assistance to Liu Xiaoyuan, a lawyer who sued his ISP last month for censoring articles about current legal cases posted on his blog.

Mr. Liu complained that Sohu.com, one of China's biggest blog-hosting sites, had blocked access to nine recent posts he has put up. All he received by way of explanation, he says, were e-mails from Sohu.com's customer service center stating that the posts had been hidden "for certain reasons."

"My posts did not break any law or regulation, nor did they violate my user agreement with Sohu," says Liu. All bloggers on Sohu must pledge not to "damage the nation's reputation or attack the party or government," "violate Chinese traditional virtues," or "damage social stability," among 14 specific limitations.

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