China cracks down on Web and expats

Beijing sets up blogger registry, as spy scandal erupts in Australia.

A year-long campaign by the Hu Jintao government to silence unofficial voices in China and to assert control over independent expression continues with an order this week for all Chinese websites and bloggers to register their real names with authorities, or be closed by June 30.

Tens of thousands of Chinese use cyberspace to publish views on subjects ranging from politics to relationships, and have been able to avoid official censure by writing anonymously. But now Internet activity will be monitored in real time by Information Ministry computers. Sites and users not registered may be arrested.

Official efforts to police cyberspace here comes amid a host of new measures and events that underscore a broad tightening of controls by the central government. A senior Chinese diplomat posted to Australia is seeking asylum in a hotly debated espionage case now underway in Sydney. Chen Yonglin, the diplomat, says the pressures and demands placed on him by authorities to monitor Chinese living abroad - especially members of the Falun Gong spiritual movement - had become "intolerable." Mr. Chen asserts that "about 1,000" Chinese residing in Australia are spying. In a highly unusual twist on June 8, Hao Fengjun, a former Chinese Consulate security official now also seeking asylum in Australia, verified Chen's claims.

Last fall, Propaganda Ministry officials released circulars to news organizations directing them to cease quoting unapproved sources or the so-called "public intellectuals" who often acted as a Greek chorus advocating change. Two weeks ago, Beijing began requiring Chinese journalists to obtain a license showing they had taken a week-long ideological course, and to show the license when covering official events. Moreover, a chill has settled over parts of the academic community here.

According to sources in Beijing, two prominent scholars with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Lu Jianhu and Chen Hui, continue to be held incommunicado - possibly in connection with the efforts by Hong Kong journalist Ching Cheong to obtain a manuscript of conversations with former premier Zhao Ziyang, a figure beloved by many Chinese. (The late Mr. Zhao, put under house arrest shortly after the 1989 Tiananmen episode, is thought to have criticized Chinese leaders for their handling of the pro-democracy movement.) Mr. Ching was arrested on April 22. But his case came to light only last week as authorities prepared to charge him with espionage.

The range of official controls asserted by the Hu Jintao government are beginning to challenge a set of suppositions about China's direction. By the mid-1990s, as the bloodshed and tragedy of Tiananmen faded from view, China became a prized destination for US and European corporations seeking cheaper manufacturing labor. Experts said that China's economic opening to the world, particularly the West, would liberalize China. The Internet, rock music, youth culture, and the legal mechanisms associated with World Trade Organization, for example, would make China more transparent and open. In some ways it has.

But until now, much of the discourse about China's rise in the world has been from the standpoint of other great powers. Jeffrey Garten, dean of the Yale School of Management argues for example that, "Never before has the rise of a nation occurred while it was so intertwined economically with those countries that might wish to slow it down."

And the crosscurrents of change within China make it hard to read how much it's liberalizing and how much internal debate there is over this kind of change. As a Beijing-based diplomat put it after the Chen and Hao cases in Australia this week shed light on the nature of China's extensive efforts to monitor religious and media activity: "Only when someone seeks asylum do we get a glimpse into what is going on; usually China conducts a one-way communication. We can't see it."

Chen was one of some 40 diplomats in the Chinese mission in Sydney. He participated in operations, he says, to monitor Chinese living in Australia who held views different from Beijing on Taiwan, Tibet, and the Falun Gong spiritual movement. "My spirit is severely distressed for my sin of working for the unjustified authority in somewhat evil ways," Chen wrote in a lengthy letter given to Australian authorities.

Mr. Hao reiterated Chen's claims, saying that the Chinese government has sent out a network of spies to overseas countries, including the United States.

Chinese Foreign Ministry officials strenuously denied that the country operates a spy network in Australia. Consular officials in Australia called Chen's assertions "fabricated stories which are purely fictitious," but stated he could return home without recrimination. Few Australian experts felt Chen would not be punished in China. Chen told Australian TV he never wished to return home.

Efforts in China to control speech and news on the Internet are as old as the technology. In recent years, the state has introduced sophisticated software that can track and block dissent. In the weeks afterChina's former premier, Zhao Ziyang, died in January, almost all references to him in cyberspace were deleted. In April, the government disabled college Internet message boards - often used by students and alumni to speak freely and to communicate with Chinese living overseas. This week's declaration requiring Internet registry to operate on the Web will also give officials another tool for control.

"Those who continue to publish under their real names on sites hosted in China will either have to avoid political subjects or just relay the Communist Party's propaganda," stated the journalists' watch group Reporters Without Borders. "This decision will enable those in power to control online news more effectively."

Few Chinese will discuss sensitive subjects using their own names. Discussions that advocate Western-style democracy; criticisms of the Communist Party; satire about leaders; and disagreements with official positions on the unification of China and Taiwan, the Dalai Lama, the Falun Gong spiritual sect, or calls for an official reappraisal of events like the Tiananmen massacre - to name but a few - are officially considered impermissible public speech.

Diplomatic and other sources in Beijing state that the new controls are both an effort to combat instability in the society at large, and to manage internal power struggles as well. A senior diplomat in Beijing pointed out this week that since China has tens of thousands of strikes and protests a year, it was not surprising that President Hu Jintao was concerned about instability.

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