Just when you thought China had softened on web crack-downs, it returns to its old ways

China has not exactly been known for its great freedom of speech.  Its citizens' internet access is tightly controlled by a vast firewall -- a digital Great Wall of sorts.  Those that voice their dissent on the internet are swiftly arrested.

However, with its bid for the summer Olympics on the line, China made promises to the international community that it would change.  After winning the right to host the Summer 2008 games, it indeed began to quietly unblock American websites, and make good on promises to allow its guest unrestricted access to the web.

With the glow of the Olympics fading, though, China has already begun to turn its back on its promises to support a free internet, slamming the door shut once again.  Reporters in China have found that China has begun re-blocking foreign news websites, including the British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC) and Voice of America, along with the Hong Kong-based media Ming Pao and Asiaweek.

Reporters Without Borders slammed China's behavior in a statement, saying, "Right now, the authorities are gradually rolling back all the progress made in the run-up to this summer's Olympic games, when even foreign Web sites in Mandarin were made accessible. The pretense of liberalization is now over."

Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao defended his country's decision this week, saying that foreign news agencies have broken Chinese laws.  Among their alleged offenses was calling Taiwan a nation, a crime in China.  Taiwan separated from China and its sovereignty is not recognized, in fact China has at times threatened to use force to reclaim this state.  Mr. Liu stated, "I hope that these Web sites exercise self-discipline and abide by the Chinese laws, in order to pave the way for better Internet cooperation."

During the Olympics in August, the BBC site and Human Rights Watch were made accessible in China after public outcry.  However, Rebecca MacKinnon, a journalism professor who teaches about media and the Internet at the University of Hong Kong, said the reblocking of the sites was just a matter of time.  She states, "I don't think very many people expected to see the Olympics herald a whole new era in China, at least not as far as politics and media."

While disappointed by China breaking its promises, she is not surprised.  She says China's censorship tends to go in cycles where it relaxes and then becomes stricter only to relax again.  Further, with the foreign press no longer in town, it’s easier to suppress among the country's 250 million internet active citizens.

China is currently facing greater social unrest, thanks to a battered economy.  A group of 300 writers and academics recently created a manifesto dubbed "Charter 8" which is calling on China's government to end one party rule.  China has begun efforts to crack down on those who created the report, arresting several, and is also blocking its proliferation on the internet.

Nicholas Bequelin, Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch believes that China's new internet censorship efforts are ultimately doomed, though.  He states, "The free flow of information in China now is huge. Jailing journalists, closing down Web sites and blocking foreign Web sites, even arresting people like (dissident writer) Hu Jia and Liu Xiaobo, it's illusory to think that's going to stop Chinese society from demanding more accountability, rights and more transparency."

"And boy have we patented it!" -- Steve Jobs, Macworld 2007

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