Today, Chinese officials defended their decision to block international news websites as part of a move to ramp up internet censorship after a brief respite during the Beijing Olympics.
Several websites that offer news in Mandarin, including the BBC, Voice of America and Hong Kong’s Ming Pao News, have been blocked since early December.
Restrictions on foreign news agencies had previously been relaxed after journalists covering the Olympics complained that China was still censoring some sites, violating its pledge for internet freedom during the games.
Liu Jianchao, a foreign ministry spokesman, said that the government has the right to block sites that contain “illegal” content.
“If a website refers to mainland China and Taiwan as two independent regions, we believe that violates China’s anti-secession law”.
Having lived and worked for a magazine in Shanghai, I have experienced first-hand the contradictions of Chinese censorship laws. Whenever I tried to access the BBC or Wikipedia a mysterious error message would pop up, blocking my path, yet I could access the Times and the Guardian in the blink of an eye.
Everything I wrote was “proof read” by a central agency and could in no way infringe on the world of politics, show pictures of monks, guns or even tube maps. Yet I covered a literary festival that included outspoken political dissenters such as Arundhati Roy and Fatima Bhutto.
It seems to me that these contraditions lie at the heart of modern China. The tension between past and future, state control and individual creativity sits in an uneasy equillibrium and sooner or later, something will tip the balance.
Next year will see the 30th anniversary of Den Xiaoping’s “reform and opening policy” which dramatically reshaped China’s economic landscape. To celebrate, the government has public programme to honour the “turning point” in China’s history which has lifted 200m people out of poverty and increased economic growth to an average of 9.8% per year.
It is painfully ironic that these celebrations come at a time when the recession has finally spread to Asian shores. The Economist reports that Chinese exports are down 2% and imports 18% on last year, while power generation, a reliable barometer, fell by 7%.
Unrest is growing as unemployed workers take to the street in the southern Guangdong province and last week protestors gathered outside China’s Foreign Ministry in Beijing on the 60th anniversary of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
China has come a long way in the past 30 years, but there is a long way to go yet. 2009 will also mark 20 years since the Tiananmen Square massacre and the 50th anniversary of the Chinese oppression of Tibet.
The latest clampdown on internet censorship is a clear message that the freedoms of the Olympics were the exception, not the rule.