China quake loosens government’s grip online

With all of the coverage surrounding the recent disaster in China, some of the most powerful first-hand accounts have come from Chinese bloggers. And many have had an unexpected twist: They criticized the government.

The fact that such protests made it online and remained available for everyone to read is rather unexpected. China is notorious for restricting access to information within the country. But something changed in the past few weeks. Text messages, IMs, and Web posts went relatively unchecked.

“I don’t want to use the word transparent, but it’s less censored, an almost-free flow of discussion,” Xiao Qiang told the Associated Press. He’s a journalism professor at UC-Berkeley and head of the China Internet Project, which monitors and translates Chinese websites.

The AP article mentioned that many Chinese citizens had no idea that hundreds of thousands of people died in the Tangshan earthquake in 1976, but news of last week’s quake spread quickly.

Government officials held a rare, real-time online exchange with ordinary Chinese on Friday to answer angry questions about why so many schools collapsed in the quake.

“They understand better now that to react slowly or to cover up in the Internet age is a bad idea,” Xiao said in a telephone interview.

Beijing has not given up on monitoring the Web. The state-run Xinhua news reported that since the quake at least 17 people had been arrested and asked to apologize for messages that “spread false information, made sensational statements, and sapped public confidence.”

The Monitor’s personal-tech columnist, Tom Regan, will be writing about a similar topic this week. His upcoming piece on how text messages and IMs are becoming a major source for emergency information will focus on how residences near the earthquake used Twitter, a microblogging service, to spread the word. It seems these bloggers were the first to break the news last week. Tom’s column will go online tomorrow.

[Via AP]

Also check out:
Housing shortage, nuclear materials among latest quake concerns
After quake, China’s migrant workers rush home
China’s next hurdle: shelter earthquake survivors
Why did so many schools collapse?

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