This is a picture of Zhai Minglei's computer after his hard drive was removed and confiscated on Thursday.
Blogger and publisher of the recently-shut-down grassroots newspaper "Minjian," Zhai posted the photo on Friday along with an account of the questioning he had undergone that afternoon. See John Kennedy's translation of Zhai's Thursday blog post describing how his home was raided. Friday's post is a long account, which hopefully somebody will translate in full. His hard drive was returned to him, with "Minjian"-related material removed.
Zhai (pictured here sporting a "Minjian" t-shirt at dinner after the recent Chinese Blogger Con) thinks that the search of his home, confiscation of all back issues of "Minjian" and confiscation of his hard drive were a reaction to an open letter he recently wrote to his readers about the closure of "Minjian." The China Media Project translated much of it here. One quote: "China’s hosting of the 2008 Olympic Games might demonstrate that Chinese people are physically stronger and sturdier, but the death of Minjian reminds us that the mental horizons of the Chinese people are limited to the child’s playground. While the market is glutted with mediocre, materialistic consumer fare, public affairs news materials are repeatedly pressured and bled out."
Zhai insists that his newspaper violated no laws, that its closure was a violation of the Chinese constitution, and that Thursday's search of his home was not legal. His post after Friday's questioning session concludes: "Because we've been living for so long in this mentally stunted environment, we've become used to validating this system of backward government administrative thinking. Thus we're like the frog in cold water that gets slowly boiled, slowly getting used to it, unaware of our impending death.... One phrase: Break out of the net!"
In other bad news, the people involved with Me Media, a Chinese-language meta-blog rounding up the hottest blog buzz in China, report that the website's IP address has been blocked by Chinese internet service providers. In other words, to use correct Chinese netizen lingo, they've been "harmonized" by the "great firewall." Contributors say they believe the site was blocked because their latest post included discussion of the recent Shenyang ant farmer protests (yes, ant farmers - read the link for details). As John Kennedy documents over at Global Voices, people trying to post information about the protests online are engaging in an intense whack-a-mole battle with censors: the name of the company involved "Yilishen" has gone onto the blacklist that causes web pages with those words to be blocked by search engines, filtered by ISP's, and flagged for take-down by blog service providers, video-hosting sites, and chatroom monitors. As the comments on John's post demonstrate, people are forced to post information and videos related to the protests on overseas websites, even though many of those sites can't be seen without use of proxy servers, because when posted on domestic sites they are removed completely.
In yet more bad news, Radio Free Asia points out in a long analysis piece that a longstanding online forum for sufferers of Hepatitis B was recently shut down. The RFA blog quotes a forum moderator: "This Web site has been running for six years now without running into any problems. If there were any additional formalities required, they should have notified us ahead of time. But we haven’t been allowed any leeway at all. They just shut it down immediately. This is an illegal act.”
Finally, Roland Soong has translated a couple posts from Ruan Yifeng's blog: in the first post , Ruan comments on a recent James Fallows blog post about his delight in purchasing a VPN service to circumvent censorship. In the second blog post, Ruan complains that someone has reported him to the "China Internet Illegal and Harmful Information Reporting Center" for writing about circumvention methods. Ruan concludes: "People like you are like the cold and indifferent politicians and the accomplices of the government that Lu Xun wrote about. It is the existence of people like you that makes people despair about this country." [link added]
Amidst all this, Zhao Jing, aka Michael Anti - blogger, New York Times researcher and currently a Nieman Fellow at Harvard - has given a presentation at Harvard arguing that the "golden age" for blogging in China is over.
On Tuesday he gave a provocative talk to my former colleagues at the Berkman Center, in which he argued that free speech has become less and less possible in the Chinese blogosphere since late 2005, when his MSN Spaces blog was censored. (You can watch the video of his entire talk here or read excellent summaries by Ethan Zuckerman and David Weinberger.) Anti argues that since 2005, the increasingly sophisticated systems for blocking external websites, plus the co-option of private enterprises in censoring user-generated content, has rendered Web2.0 in China largely ineffectual as a vehicle for social or political change. He believes that the serious conversations, at least amongst China's urban elites, are retreating back Web1.0 tools - e-mail list-servs and chatrooms.
Anti also said he believes the Internet is helping China to become more like Singapore - not more like the U.S. or other Western democracies. Chinese people, he argued, have so much more cultural and social freedom than they had before, that "at least 95% of people don't care about censorship" - and what's more, those who care are considered "wierd."
Which brings us back to Ruan's angry blog post about being reported to the authorities by his fellow countryman. Contrary to misperceptions by many outsiders, the situation in China today is not "the people vs. the government." Chinese people themselves - not only regulatory authorities or people who manage internet and telecoms businesses but also many others - are helping the government to police each other because they somehow believe that doing so is in their own interests.
Back when Michael Anti's blog got censored by Microsoft, an essay started making the rounds in the Chinese blogosphere whose point was, essentially, that Chinese people themselves are ultimately responsible for allowing their fellow countrymen to be censored - and that the ultimate solution is going to have to be initiated by the Chinese themselves. The writer concludes:
Once there was a [Chinese] countryman who had emigrated to Australia. He had gotten an Australian passport primarily not because it was convenient for him to travel, but because he couldn't stand the feeling he got when, going through Chinese customs with a Chinese passport, the Chinese customs officials would eye him so coldly. I realized, the Chinese people are a rung lower than everybody else not because the foreigners look down on us. It's because Chinese people devalue other Chinese people; Chinese people don't treat their own people like humans."
Reacting to the proposed Global Online Freedom Act, a law proposed by members of the U.S. Congress which would constrain U.S. companies from complying with Chinese government censorship and surveillance demands, Michael Anti wrote that such legislation can not change China because the root of the problem lies with Chinese people themselves.
...the US Congressional representatives...even treat the freedom of the Chinese netizens as a maid that they can dress us as they wish. This proves once again: the freedom and rights of the Chinese people can only be won by the Chinese people themselves.
The only true way of solving the Internet blockage in China is this: every Chinese youth with conscience must practice and expand their freedom, and oppose any blockage and suppression every day.
As long as China's urban elites continue to live well and enjoy their lives, will more than a few freethinkers and courageous souls like Zhai Minglei be bothered to challenge the status quo? Are employees at Web2.0 companies willing to stand up for the rights of ant farmers? If I was a betting kind of person, my money would be on "no."
Lately I've given a few talks around town titled "Will the Chinese Communist Party Survive the Internet?" My answer - for the short and medium term at least - is "yes."
Western media pundits and many policymakers have a tendency to assume that the Internet will ultimately bring democracy to China. As for the long run, I think China will change. But I doubt China's political evolution will follow the same pattern as the West. I am not convinced that, if China eventually becomes more pluralistic, it will necessarily involve the same political structures as Western democracies. Lately I've been wondering whether the Internet and mobile technologies could be major contributing factors to why China will evolve differently. I hope to explore these questions a lot more in coming year or so. Suggestions and reactions welcome.