HONG KONG—A civil rights lawyer says he was detained by police in southern China for teaching a class to college students about online censorship and the use of a popular microblogging service.
Tang Jingling, a lawyer based in Guangdong’s provincial capital Guangzhou, said he was invited by a teacher surnamed Xu to the Guangzhou College of Vocational Technology on Nov. 27 to lecture students there on the Internet and its applications.
Instead, he said, he was interrupted by a member of the campus security force who was auditing the class, and was told to show his identification before being led away by police.
“When a teacher delivers a lecture, he should have all the rights over the content. But when I was in the classroom, a staff member from the school’s security division was sitting there, intimidating teachers,” Tang said.
“He even called the police to threaten the teachers and students. This was a joke and the biggest derision to academic freedom,” he said.
At the police station, Tang was questioned and barred from making phone calls.
Police threatened to keep him in custody for 24 hours.
News of Tang’s detention spread quickly on Twitter, enabling some netizens to immediately rush to the scene and call for his release.
Police allowed Tang Jingling to leave early Saturday, after three to four hours of questioning.
Tang admonished the authorities for shutting down his lecture, which included a talk on the use of the Twitter microblogging service.
“Twitter is just a tool to acquire knowledge and information, which can increase the skills of the students and ready them for tomorrow’s society. The way I was treated is really ridiculous,” he added.
Twitter has been censored several times by Chinese authorities following deadly ethnic riots in the northwestern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region last July.
But China’s netizens say it is impossible for authorities to completely control Twitter due to the service’s inherently open characteristics and joke that “the day Twitter is shut down, pigs will climb trees.”
In fact, signs seem to indicate that an increasing number of China’s netizens are joining Twitter and using the service to pass on news.
Feng Zhenghu, a cyber-dissident who has been stranded in Tokyo’s Narita airport seeking the right to return to China, said that since registering as a user on the site on Nov. 13, he has received nearly 500 messages.
“In my inbox there are several hundred tweets, mostly from Chinese people expressing their concern and support,” Feng said.
Guangzhou-based cyber-activist Bei Feng said that Twitter is considered “a tool of subversion” by some Chinese security personnel.
“As far as I know, leading Chinese Web sites and forums were all cautioned not to discuss Twitter, which may now be monitored by special task forces,” Bei said.
“The Chinese authorities are always on high alert against Twitter, wanting to cut it off entirely,” he said.
Growing online activity
Chinese authorities currently block access to online versions of foreign media by disabling proxy software used by netizens to bypass government firewalls.
Authorities have also been deleting an increasing number of blogs containing words and phrases banned by the government and shutting down Web sites they deem harmful to “social harmony.”
China had 338 million Internet users as of June 2009, according to official statistics from the China Internet Network Information Center.
They spend more time online than netizens in any other country with the exception of France and South Korea.
Chinese Web surfers are also more likely to contribute to blogs, forums, chat rooms, and other social media such as photo and video-sharing sites.
China's 47 million bloggers are frequently subjected to censorship by their Internet service providers, but politically sensitive material also routinely falls through the cracks as individual companies interpret government guidelines in their own way.
Original reporting by Xin Yu for RFA’s Mandarin service. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated by Ping Chen. Written for the Web in English by Joshua Lipes. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.