Table of Contents

Comment Icon0 Chinese Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) and online forums are online spaces that allow many-to-many discussions on a wide variety of issues, and are often inclusive of users from around the world who share similar interests. Popular BBSes and online forums include the People’s Daily’s Strong Country Forum (Figure 23), which features lively social commentary on a variety of political, economic and cultural topics.


Figure 23: Discussion forum: People’s Daily’s Strong Country Forum at http://bbs.people.com.cn.

Comment Icon0 The flurry of discussions users can engage in such forums makes it an interesting place to participate in. Activities around the forums tend to peak around significant events, such as during the diplomatic standoff after the collision of a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft and a Chinese fighter aircraft in April 2001. The catalytic effect of forums can also be seen in the reactions of citizens, and subsequently the government. Here’s a brief timeline of major forum-related events (Goldkorn, 2008):

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  • March 2005: SMTH BBS Crackdown
    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. It often hosted liberal discussions about society and politics (MacKinnon, 2005c). This reflected the government’s early attempt at controlling politically-sensitive discussions simply by cutting network access to online political communities.
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  • January 2006: Banning of “Memoirs of a Geisha” movie
    “Memoirs of a Geisha” was introduced, starring Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi who played a Japanese geisha. This triggered extreme nationalist backlash from the blogosphere, which eventually prompted Beijing to ban the movie. This was a clear demonstration of the level of influence Chinese bloggers and discussion forums had on government decisions.
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  • June 2008: The Weng’an Riot
    When Li Shufen, a middle school student, was found drown in a local river, the police announced that she committed suicide. However, the girl’s family and friends insisted that she was raped and murdered by a local man, possibly a relative of the county’s party boss. While this particular news was difficult to verify, most sympathetic citizens enthusiastically disagreed with the authority’s actions. To show their dissatisfaction, 30,000 protesters took to the streets in Weng’an, setting fire to two government buildings, destroying police vehicles and burning numerous government documents. While the government allowed Chinese mainstream media to report on the riots, discussion of the riots on popular public forums was tightly censored. This censorship angered many netizens, so some bloggers produced a clever online tool to convert text from left-to right sideways (as modern Chinese is written) into right-to-left vertical (as classical Chinese was written) – in an effort to get around keyword censors (MacKinnon, 2008b). This method proved to be too tedious for in-depth discussion, so netizens began to refer “Weng’an riots” in code as “push-ups”. The origin of “push-up” came from the alleged police interrogation report, which mentioned one of her friends doing push-up on the bridge where she suddenly committed suicide. Eventually, when the word “push-up” drew online censorship, entire websites and forums became devoted to push-ups in protest (Ding, 2008). This incident demonstrateed how citizens were not innately apathetic, as well as how netizens were able to circumvent government censorship.

Comment Icon0 Particularly for BBSes and discussion forums that are hosted within mainland China, surveillance and censorship are prevalent, and they often result in politically-sensitive postings being deleted. Users of the popular Strong Country Forum website experienced such censorship in 2000, for postings related to the accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. According to forum managers, they employ a three-part system to restrict content:

Comment Icon0 1)    Rules listed on the website forbid postings that question the Four Cardinal Principles, or the CCP’s policies, thus encouraging users to censor themselves.

Comment Icon0 2)    Filtering software screens postings for particular keywords, such as names of party leaders, and then sends flagged postings to a webmaster for review.

Comment Icon0 3)    The webmaster manually deletes “problematic” postings that are not caught by the filtering software and ban problematic posters from contributing comments.

Comment Icon0 In severe cases, subversive forum postings have also led to arrests. In December 2001, a member of the CDP, Wang Jinbo, was sentenced to four years in prison for posting on the Internet a message urging Beijing to re-evaluate the 1989 Tiananmen movement (Wong, 2001). Due to the sheer traffic of online postings, not all comments on sensitive political topics are immediately censored, and they have even appeared on BBS managed by official Chinese media. In May 2000, a participant of the Strong Country Forum posted a statement critical of the PRC policy towards Taiwan: “From the day Chen Shui-bian was elected, the mainland government’s first reaction was ‘wait and see.’ Today, the period of waiting and seeing is over. Mainland leaders should understand that Chen Shui-bian refuses to be Chinese. The mainland leaders’ behavior on the Taiwan issue has further made people understand who is the paper tiger.” While some Internet users criticized CCP leaders for failing to deal more firmly with Taiwan, others believed that China should adopt a democratic system to promote reunification. Overwhelmed by the deluge of postings, People’s Daily censors were unable to immediately erase such messages (Dorgan, 2000).

Comment Icon0 BBS and online forums have been vital for open, inclusive discussion of sensitive political views, as well as for coordination of related activities. On the dissident front, several of these unsanctioned NGOs also maintain their own BBS and forums. Perhaps as a way to prevent being totally blocked by the Chinese authorities, many of them run multiple BBS and forums. The Chinese Democratic Party (CDP) established more than a dozen Chinese-language BBS in May 2000, while the Tibetan exile community had about five BBS. The Falungong stopped using BBS and forums, but preferred using emailing lists instead (as originally seen on dinfo.org). Not limited to dissidents, Chinese students have been found to make extensive use of the Internet for such purposes in the past five years, such as: during the 1996 Diaoyu Islands dispute; in the aftermath of the accidental U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in May 1999; following the murder in late May 2000 of Qiu Qingfeng, a Beijing University student; after the April 2001 collision of a U.S. EP-3 surveillance plane and a Chinese F-8 fighter; and following the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States (Chase and Mulvenon, 2002). Interestingly, most of these student unrests were triggered by nationalistic sentiments, which have now been realized as a double-edged sword for the Chinese government. While nationalism can be used to exert political leverage and solidarity, the central government has become aware of the risk that an upsurge could easily turn against the regime if the government is perceived as being inefficient at defending Chinese interests.

Chapter 7.2.3 – BBS and Discussion Forums

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