In Wake of Severe Earth Quake China loosening restrictions on Internet access

In China, Foreign Affairs, internet, media, Technology, Weather on May 19, 2008 by Editor Z

China enters three days of mourning in quake aftermath today.

The eyes of the world have been fixated on China ever since last Monday, when a 7.9 earthquake shook the large Asian nation and is now reported to have left thousands of victims in its wake. It is said to be the worst earthquake to strike China since at least 1976. Chinese left trapped beneath the slabs of cracked stone and buildings. For those who have persevered and have miraculously managed to survive and remain beneath the mounds of rubble and carnage awash in mounds of dust, the sun has set seven times and has arisen seven more since they last breathed and moved freely.

Rescue and aid efforts continue, however the government is said to have responded slow.

But the normally restrictive communist government when it comes to freedom of the press and Internet access within the red nation, has at least temporarily eased it restrictions and censorship, permitting citizens within China to provide personal accounts of their ordeals as well as amass information from other sources via the Internet and interactive media sources.


China is now home to the world’s largest number of Internet and mobile phone users, and their hunger for quake news is forcing the government to let information flow in ways it hasn’t before.

A fast moving network of text messages, instant messages, and blogs has been a powerful source of first hand accounts of disaster, as well as pleas for help and even passionate criticism of rescue efforts.

“I don’t want to use the word transparent,but it’s less censored, an almost free flow of discussion,” said Xiao Qiang, a Journalism Professor at the University of California, Berkley, and director of the China Internet Project, which monitors and translates Chinese websites.

Meanwhile China is observing the tragedy and death they have endured in the past week with a three minute moment of silence and a three day period of National mourning.

The Chinese government, who owns and controls the levers of power regarding the media in that country; has likely learned in the wake of such incidents in the suppression of Buddhist monks in Myanmar last year (in which bloggers also played a part in breaching the usually solid wall of censorship), the Chinese recent crackdown in Tibet, as well as protests surrounding the Chinese Olympics, that in the wake of such devastation that suppressing such expression and the search for news regarding the earth quake would be much more costly to the regime then allowing them to get access to such information and discussions. Also the government likely realized how illogical it would be in such a colossal nation, to be well equipped enough to respond to the turmoil that has followed the violent quake and the distribution of aid, while simultaneously cracking down on dissent and anti-government speech.

Will this mean permanent changes and more liberal speech laws for the Chinese people, who despite relatively free markets, still find liberties of speech, expression, and religion in relatively sparse in supply? The answer is likely no. Despite the government’s easing up on Internet and electronic communications access, tight restraints on speech and Internet access remain in place. Over the course of the past week and in the wake of this latest disaster, a number of people were penalized for supposedly distributing what the government deems “false information”, including a post on one Internet venue that leveled criticisms of the government’s response, which was later erased.

So in terms of motives, the at least token liberalization of some free speech restrictions and Internet access, it is likely to blunt domestic and international criticisms of the Chinese government and their response to the earthquake. The impediments to news and the expression of messages that the government deems unlawful will probably be reinstated after the recovery.

Hopefully this breath of fresh air and free speech will motivate the Chinese to demand more of it from their rulers.

Photo from the Associated Press.


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