Last month, Amnesty International launched a Chinese language website - http://zh.amnesty.org/. Containing research reports, articles and blog entries the site aims to be an important source of human rights information for Chinese speakers internationally.
As China’s global influence grows, so too does the importance of distributing human rights information in the Chinese language, and the chance to engage Chinese-speaking human rights activists and supporters around the world.
Unfortunately, the site is blocked by China’s state censors. So while Chinese speakers internationally will have access, those within China itself won’t. If they do, they may face harassment, threats and even arrest.
Arrested, like Nobel laureate 刘晓波 (Dr Liu Xiaobo) who is currently serving an 11-year sentence for writing articles and posting them on websites. In fact articles much like this one.
The “Great Firewall of China” is run by a vast police force and is believed to be the most extensive, technologically sophisticated and broad-reaching system of internet filtering in the world. Most international social media sites have been permanently blocked and as a result, millions of Chinese 微博 (wēibó) instead of tweet and 优酷 (yōukù) instead of Youtube.
Does it matter though? At last count, Wēibó had over 300 million mostly domestic Chinese users compared to Twitter’s 500 million worldwide. Surely these social alternatives have revolutionised freedom of information in China?
Unfortunately not, according to 赵静 (Zhào Jìng also known as Michael Anti). Anti is a prominent Chinese political blogger who rose to fame when his blog was shut down in 2005 at the request of the Chinese government.
In an article on the BBC Weibo brings change to China, he says that while online criticism, on sites such as Wēibó, has had great impact on local corruption or environmental issues, it is often used by the central Government as a ‘vent’, or as an alternative to serious political change. The censorship system is still in full force, anything that hits the extensive keyword system will quickly alert the authorities, and the response can range from your account being terminated to your arrest.
It’s not all bad news though, Anti also concedes that social media has taught people that “freedom of speech is their birthright”, and some experts agree that the sheer volume of information online means that the current censorship system cannot last much longer.
So while organisations like Amnesty International continue to document harsh criminal sentences and punishments imposed on writers, bloggers, journalists and ordinary citizens for publishing articles or posting comments online, Wēibó is here to stay. Perhaps it is a step forward, a sign that progress on freedom of expression in China is being made, even if it’s only slightly.
Vivian Chandra is the ICT and database manager at Amnesty International New Zealand.
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