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Comment Icon0 The Bulletin Board System (BBS) and discussion forums are where most of China’s public sphere seems to be most active. Most of the popular message boards belong to the Chinese universities, which are visited by hundreds of thousands of users. Ironically, these message boards are used far more by non-students than actual attending students (Marquand, 2005). Three main reasons were behind this popularity: the open, anonymous speech these virtual communities afford; how they act as unofficial alternative news sources to state-run media; and how they serve as places to vent on the incumbent Chinese Communist Party (Pan, 2005). Given the liberal aspect of these BBS and forums, participants are also able to discuss sensitive topics such as Tibet and Taiwan, but more interestingly, use them as distribution points for circumvention tools against China’s Internet filtering system (Walker, 2005).


Figure 13: maomy@smth (2005).

Comment Icon0 On 16 March 2005, university authorities at the prestigious Peking and Tsinghua Universities were ordered to stop public access to the two universities’ Internet forums (or BBS). Shuimu Tsinghua, dubbed by users as SMTH BBS, was the first and one of the most popular bulletin board system sites among the universities in China, which often hosted liberal discussions about society and politics (MacKinnon, 2005c). This event was the first major government intervention in Internet forums, and was dubbed as the great SMTH BBS Crackdown. After BBS access was blocked to outsiders, students of Tsinghua University found various means to express their discontent and condolences, such as posting screenshots of SMTH’s earlier greeting messages (Figure 13), folding numerous paper cranes and organizing a small gathering.

Comment Icon0 What happened to SMTH BBS was the result of a broad, targeted government campaign against free and unfettered expression online. The Chinese Communist Party had launched a crackdown campaign that advocated a “strengthening of ideology”, through stricter control over culture, education and media. A confidential circular was sent to the Ministry of Education, ordering most prominent college message boards to be censored or closed to non-students. A government official explained that “[t]he message boards are too diverse, and students who read them are prone to rumour mongering. Students don’t watch TV or listen to radio but go to BBS and believe what they read. Many students with a right view do not speak on the BBS” (Marquand, 2005). The new restrictions limited BBS access to current students, thus cutting off all other users, including former students living abroad. More disturbing was that the new regulations also required registration to be tied to the user’s actual identity, thus eliminating the anonymity once enjoyed by BBS users for free, fearless expression.

Comment Icon0 In light of the crackdown on SMTH BBS, there were incidents that demonstrated how the Chinese government tackled sensitive topics on discussion boards. Earlier in May 2003, the first cases of SARS were reportedly detected in southern China as early as November 2002, but the government failed to adequately inform the World Health Organization. During this time, an estimated 348 Chinese citizens had died of the SARS epidemic, which prompted a flurry of discussion online as citizens tried to understand what was going on while the news was being contained by the government. However, even SARS-related online discussions were being disrupted. As a test on 10 April 2003, a Reporters Without Borders researcher posted a message on a sina.com.cn forum containing the word “SARS” and called on the Chinese government to work closely with Hong Kong to arrest the epidemic, but the message did not appear. A second message about SARS was submitted to the site five days later, and it also failed to appear. As a result, it was concluded that the term “SARS” was on the list of banned words online as ordered by the government. By late April 2003, the Chinese admitted that the number of SARS cases had been dramatically under-reported and officially apologized for its slow reaction to the outbreak. This was the first situation to force the government to recognize the need for media transparency in situations of disaster and disease (Reporters Without Borders, 2003a).

Comment Icon0 On 12 May 2008, the Sichuan province was hit by what is now known as the Great Sichuan Earthquake. The devastating earthquake claimed 70,000 lives and left five million Chinese homeless. While the government tried to curb news of the quake from being disseminated, journalists managed to travel freely through the area with the government’s permission. Unlike the massive “Tangshan Quake” on 27 July 1976 that was met with complete media blackout, the Sichuan earthquake was given immense coverage in the Chinese media, and this prompted a rare moment of public admiration for the government’s quick response, as seen in domestic and international media. Things took a severe turn when it was later discovered that a disproportionate number of school children were killed in the collapse of poorly constructed school buildings. When questions were raised on whether the local government was corrupt, some grieving parents took it upon themselves to stage protests. Fearing the loss of social security, the government once again began to constrict earthquake coverage by making access to affected areas increasingly difficult. Restrictions on foreign and domestic media were enforced, while related online discussions were mysteriously deleted (Magnier, 2008). This incident showed the extent to which the government would try to control the media, despite the lesson on media transparency from the SARS epidemic in 2003.

Comment Icon0 While restricting access to popular BBS’s and censoring discussion boards are now common media practice for the PRC government, a more sinister tactic has emerged for the web. Nicknamed the “Fifty Cent Party”, the “red vests” as well as the “red vanguard”, the Chinese Communist Party now has its own army of web commentators, all trained and financed by the party organization to safeguard the interests of the CCP by policing the rapidly growing Chinese Internet community. This followed President Hu Jintao’s statement on China’s next generation of information control, in which he had called for “a new pattern of public-opinion guidance” (Bandurski, 2008). Known in America as a form of astroturfing, the word refers to a neologism for formal public relations campaigns in politics and advertising which seek to create the impression of being spontaneous “grassroots” behavior. As grassroots support is faked, the reference to the artificial grass, AstroTurf, is quite appropriate. It is estimated that these commentary teams go into the numbers of 280,000 members throughout China. They set out to counteract public opinion detrimental to the CCP by pushing pro-Party views through chatrooms and web forums, and then reporting dangerous content to the authorities. Many users see this as another kind of censorship to monitor public speech and to counter the influence of other voices in the online space. However, some analysts believe that the emergence of China’s web commentators suggest a weakening of the Party’s ideological control. Li Yonggang of China Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong argued that “[t]he fact that authorities must enlist people and devote extra resources in order to expand their influence in the market of opinion is not so much a signal of intensified control as a sign of weakening control” (Bandurski, 2008).

Chapter 6.1.6 – Filtering BBS and Discussion Forums

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