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.
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.
"Maybe my perspective is different from CCTV or Xinhua," says Liu, referring to the state-owned TV and news agency. "But as long as I did not break any law or regulation, Sohu has an obligation to publish all of my articles," says Liu. "I think they breached our contract."
The Haidian district court in Beijing threw out his suit, he says, ruling that it did not meet required criteria to be heard. But he appealed last week to a higher court. "I want to send a message to all Chinese bloggers that when our rights are violated we have a right to sue these websites," he says. "And I want to know the reasons for which Sohu blocked my articles. They have subjective standards that I am ignorant of."
Confusion over what is permitted
Bloggers in China have long puzzled over what is and what is not allowed by the censors that operate at various levels, ranging from automatic filters that block posts containing sensitive keywords to "Net Nannies" employed by the larger Web-hosting services.
Different companies use different standards. Liu's nine articles, for example, appeared on the blog he operates on Sina.com, even though they were deleted by censors at Sohu.com.
"It is left to the discretion of private companies to a pretty large degree," says Rebecca MacKinnon, an expert on the Chinese Internet at Hong Kong University. "Censorship gets outsourced and delegated to private businesses, and it is in their interests to overcompensate to stay out of trouble."
Chinese censors target more than just pornography or dissident material. A reporter with "Chinese Sports Illustrated," Guan Jun, found that the blog he launched last month, titled "The Beijing Olympics: I Don't Support Them" was closed after six days. On his new blog, called "The Beijing Olympics: Opposition Is Not Allowed," Mr. Guan recounts a subsequent visit from "the relevant authorities [the police] ... to get an idea about my ideological stance, social connections, who I've been in touch with."
In the run-up to the next Party Congress, censorship has reached such a pitch that John Kennedy, an internet commentator on "Global Voices Online," wondered in a recent post, "If war were to be declared on bloggers, is the state of today's China blogosphere what it would look like?"
Voluntary censorship encouraged
Among the authorities' shots in this "war," since President Hu Jintao called last April for "the glorious development of web culture with Chinese characteristics," is a voluntary pledge by the largest Chinese content-provider companies to encourage bloggers to censor themselves and to register their real names. Among them are Yahoo! China and MSN China.
Real name registration – long mooted by the central government – has now become official policy in Xiamen, a southern city where the authorities allow servers to operate only if forum hosts ensure that all contributors register their real names and IDs, according to an industry source.
"They are trying to make things more trackable," the source says.
The authorities are also seeking to shut down information avenues that cannot be tracked. In recent days, bloggers complain, access to Feedburner.com, a news aggregator used by Netizens to access RSS feeds from blocked sites, has been seriously disrupted.
The new atmosphere has left many bloggers hoping that things will improve once the Party Congress is over.
One angry blogger, Chen Min, who works as an editor at "Southern Weekly," a sometimes outspoken newspaper based in Guangzhou, complained recently that, "In the past they always left at least a corpse but now they are ... deleting things as clean as a whistle."