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.
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."
The college message boards have been targeted for months. One of the most vibrant message boards, at Beijing University, was shut last September. YiTaHuTu, or ytht.net, tolerated a relatively wide range of dissent and satire. When it was closed summarily on Sept. 13, there were 300,000 members, with 10,000 logged on at any one time.
University message boards in China have become a greatly loved lifestyle for many. The entire university is connected. Students wake up and log on; they come back from class and log on. Some stay on all day. It is said at Tsinghua that "if you are not on the BBS, you are on your way to the BBS."
Yet minister of education Zhou Ji, in public comment this year, criticized the scope and practice of BBS.
"The message boards are too diverse, and students who read them are prone to rumor mongering," said Minister Zhou. "Students don't watch TV or listen to radio but go to BBS and believe what they read. Many students with a right view do not speak on the BBS."
The new message board rules, handed down in late February, appear to employ well-documented tactics practiced in early periods of China's communist rule: Control by dividing, separating, rerouting, exposing.
The new rules, for example, prohibit any but current students from logging on. This wipes out hundreds of thousands of participants, and one of the largest sectors of activity: exchanges with former students or graduates, particularly those living overseas.
The US, for example, has a huge cohort of Chinese students and alumni who log on to the boards. Current students have interactive discussions with those abroad about life and study in America, language examinations, entertainment, and current affairs.
The new rules also require those logging on to do so using a verifiable identity. This is considered anathema. Most students now log on with one or more pseudonyms. This allows them to speak to the other sex and express private thoughts without embarrassment. A Beijing University student points out that most boards using real names have failed.
"When we use our real names we are lying; when we use false names, we speak the truth," he says.
Ironically, when ytht.net closed in September, the more patriotic Tsinghua message board administrators voluntarily filtered out all references to the Beijing University shutdown. Now the Tsinghua board is a shadow of its former self as well.
Last year Tsinghua students felt alarm at an Internet "pornography crackdown" - which many interpreted as a stalking horse for a broader closure. But nothing happened, at least not right away.
"The Tsinghua group thought of themselves as 'good boys' willing to go along with the authorities," says one Beijing University student. "But now they are closed too."
"I don't know why they are doing this," says one Tsinghua graduate. "But they are pushing students, even those of us who are patriotic, to be in opposition. They are taking away our private space."
A main instrument in the message board crackdown are on-campus party agencies. At Beijing University, it was an agency known as the Youth Research Institute. The institute is informed by the education ministry, propaganda department, and public-security bureau. It seeks to be studiously invisible on campus, even telling students who know of its existence not to speak of it.
A year ago the institute began closing in on ytht.net. The university message board had been proudly independent, student-run, and hired its own staff. Little by little, the institute began to intervene - hiring censors that watched the board 24 hours a day.
Last year, for example, during a famous China-wide Internet protest about a poor farmer killed by a petulant BMW driver in the northeast, the institute clamped down hard. It forbid discussion of the case on "triangle," the most popular current-affairs board.
Finally, the ax came without warning in September, shortly after students began to fight for the identity of ytht.net to remain intact.
"Yes, it was way too popular," says a Beijing University student. "But it was closed because students thought they could bargain to keep it open. They wanted to protect the message board, and thought they could negotiate."
Overseas graduates of Nanjing University, who relished logging onto "Little lily," the college message board, were indignant about being cast out last month. In recent weeks they hired a private server, and titled it "Wild lily."
In a message to netizens on their new board, the students said that "the wild lily will have a spring, as well."