HONG KONG—Several prominent Web sites dedicated to rights activism, and to attempts by ordinary citizens to seek redress against official wrongdoing, have reported hacker attacks and other forms of malfunction in recent weeks.
Several sites, including the prominent Rights Network of China, the Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch, and Democracy China reported freezing and crashing that lasted the whole of last weekend.
"This is the latest in a series of attacks this year," said Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch founder Liu Feiyue.
"We have increased browsing compared with last year, so the number of attacks has risen proportionally."
Liu said he believed the attacks happened because the government is unhappy with the content on his site, which contains criticism of the ruling Communist Party, including revelations [of wrongdoing] by a number of local governments.
"The attack lasted for three or four days, but we still have yet to fully understand this latest attack."
"Our work on human rights and freedom of information uses the Internet as its tool, and all of our cases are dependent on the Internet to get out to the outside world," Liu added.
"Our site has published a lot of incidents, a lot of case material, the sort of thing officials don't want people to see," he said.
Shenzhen-based rights activist Zhao Dagong said such sites are usually attacked around sensitive political anniversaries.
Zhao speculated that the authorities might be reacting to material relating to the 21st anniversary of the June 4 military crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations, or anticipating the second anniversary of ethnic violence in Urumqi on July 5.
"These sites mostly get attacked around sensitive dates," Zhao said. "This just shows that these are organized actions."
"I understand that it is very hard to find out the source of such attacks, because there are a lot of virtual visits. What's more, the IP addresses aren't inside China. Nowadays they have the technology to exploit computers of people outside China to attack these sites."
"It would need very high technology to find out who it was," Zhao said.
Chinese online commentator Yao Yao said such an attack would need a large amount of computer power to carry out successfully.
Liu, whose site was still inaccessible from the United States on Monday, said the attacks on his site had begun in 2008 and were renewed every couple of months, during which it was hard to get the site to open at all.
"Since then, the attacks have become more and more frequent," he said.
"Now they are happening for three to five days at a time."
Citizen journalism in China is on the increase in spite of tight government controls on official media and a speedy censorship system that blocks content the ruling Communist Party doesn't like.
Chinese spend more time online than netizens in any other country with the exception of France and South Korea, and are more likely to contribute to blogs, forums, chat rooms, and other social media such as photo and video-sharing sites, recent surveys show.
Chinese Internet users, who now number around 390 million, are increasingly making use of blogs, BBS forums, and microblogging services to disseminate information, especially of the kind that the government refuses to allow official media to report.
Tight censorship controls mean that individuals and grass-roots activists seeking to make information public have a disproportionate impact on a society where people are constantly on the lookout for alternative news sources.
However, many civil rights activists and campaigners agree that their work wouldn't be viable without the Internet, which renders them vulnerable to online attacks and disruption.
Original reporting in Cantonese by Hai Nan and in Mandarin by An Pei. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Translated from the Chinese and written in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.