China's Internet 'Cut Off' From Freedom

Chinese netizens respond to a new UN resolution on Internet freedom.

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A woman views the Chinese social media website Sina Weibo at a cafe in Beijing, April 2, 2012.

Chinese Internet users gave a mixed reaction to the passage this week of the first United Nations resolution on Internet freedom, which called on all states to support individuals' rights online as much as offline, with many expressing pessimism that the vote would affect them.

The resolution from the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) in Geneva passed on Thursday in spite of opposition on  from China, Russia, and India, although it garnered the support of dozens of countries ahead of its adoption.

"It's the first U.N. resolution that confirms that human rights in the Internet realm must be protected with the same commitment as in the real world," U.S. Ambassador Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe told reporters after the vote.

She said the resolution had the support of 85 co-sponsors, 30 of whom were members of the HRC.

Chinese Internet analyst Zeng Ning said Chinese Internet freedom was still a remote dream, with most netizens restricted to seeing only content behind the system of blocks, filters, and human censorship known as the Great Firewall, or GFW.

"There hasn't been much progress in Internet freedom in China," Zeng said. "The Chinese Internet is a totally different thing from the Internet in countries that enjoy true freedoms."

"They have managed to separate off the Internet in China from the Internet everywhere else in the world," he said.

Netizen response

Some netizens commenting on the news of the resolution appeared to agree.

"We are a nationwide local area network," wrote user @waloda on the popular Tianya forums, while user @majiajibenkeyiyong added: "So it passed—how will those ailing four countries implement it?"

Zeng said Chinese netizens were able to access economic and financial information fairly easily, because the free flow of business information was crucial to the ruling Communist Party's focus on economic, rather than political, reform.

"It's not the same with political news," he said. "The Chinese government adopts a highly authoritarian approach to political information, because it wants to maintain the existing political system."

On the Tianya forum, user @dglw3 hit back at government-paid commenters known online as the "50 cent party."

"The 50 centers say that a democratic system isn't suitable for mainland China," the user wrote. "That's like castrating a man to make a eunuch and then saying that men aren't suited for a sex life."

Zeng dismissed claims that the Internet should be more tightly regulated because of harmful content that was available.

"Of course there are security issues on the Internet, like fraud, pornography, violent content, and so on, but all countries have to deal with these problems," he said.

"In democratic countries these issues are dealt with according to the rule of law, which provides a very effective way to manage them."

Chinese computer experts say that the government has continually sought ways to limit freedom of expression on the Internet since people started using it, and that recent controls on the nation's 250 million microbloggers are only the latest step in that process.

The authorities have detained a number of netizens and online editors over retweeted material that was deemed controversial under new guidelines aimed at preventing the spread of online "rumors."

Beijing-based microbloggers have been prevented since March from registering an account on one of the country's hugely popular Twitter-like services in anything but their real name, verified by their national ID card.

The move has been slammed by netizens and rights groups alike as a huge blow to freedom of expression in China, where 513 million netizens rely on forums, social media, and bulletin boards to find news and views that have been censored out of the tightly controlled state media.

UN resolution

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton welcomed the U.N. resolution on Thursday. "This resolution is a welcome addition in the fight for the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms online," Clinton said in a statement.

"The free flow of news and information is under threat in countries around the world. We are witnessing an alarming surge in the number of cases involving government censorship and persecution of individuals for their actions online—sometimes for just a single tweet or text message," she said.

Tunisia in particular, had much vested in the resolution, because of the role social networking websites played in ousting president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011.

"The most important result of the Tunisian revolution is this right to freedom of expression ... [this] is very important at the moment [in Tunisia] and it is for this reason that there is a strong commitment in Tunisia to consolidate Internet rights," he said.

"Our link with all media networks during the revolution doubles the importance of this commitment to freedom of expression on the Internet which remains a major tool for economic development."

Other countries that backed the resolution on the Promotion, Protection and Enjoyment of Human Rights on the Internet included Brazil, Nigeria, Sweden, and Turkey.

In a report last week, a Washington-based democracy and human rights advocacy group said that China is becoming increasingly repressive in civil and political life amidst aggressive crackdowns and disappearances.

In an annual report entitled “The Worst of the Worst: The World’s Most Repressive Societies,” Freedom House listed China, Burma, Laos, and North Korea among the world's worst-rated countries for political rights and civil liberties.

Reported by Yang Jiadai for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.


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