China's Censorship Seesaw: Wikipedia Unblocked and Hu Jia Jailed

There appears to be no rhyme or reason to the Chinese government's acts of censorship. On any given day, in even one of mainland China's more enlightened cities, Web users might find a site they had visited on a daily basis has been blocked or disabled, without notice or explanation. Since 1998, China has spent billions of dollars on the most advanced and comprehensive network of Internet controls. The Chinese government claims there are more than 30,000 human censors trolling the forums, message boards, chats, emails and blogs throughout the Middle Kingdom.

Last October, the Chinese government implemented a two-week block on the English version of YouTube. Some bloggers speculated that the measure coincided with the convening of the National Communist Congress in Beijing, an annual Communist Party meeting that invariably provokes increased control of Web access. Others surmised that Beijing was punishing Google, the owner of YouTube, for launching a Chinese-language version of the user-generated video site two days prior to the outage. But as with any censorship measure, the YouTube blackout of 2007 was never justified nor even acknowledged by government officials and Web users just waited patiently for access to be restored.

Over the last decade, similar "random" blockages have been imposed on BBC News, MSNBC, Yahoo!, Flickr, all Blogspot sites and, of course, Wikipedia.

China's on-again, off-again relationship with Wikipedia has come to symbolize the unpredictable nature of internet censorship there. Since 2004, when Wikipedia was originally shuttered during the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests, the online encyclopedia has been blocked and unblocked nearly a dozen times, sometimes for a day and sometimes for months. At times only the English language version is disabled; more often, the Chinese version is down; and almost always, pages that refer to sensitive topics, such as Tibet or the Falun Gong, are closed to view.

Last Wednesday, internet users in China reported (there is never an official report) that the English version of Wikipedia had been unblocked in mainland China at the urging of the International Olympic Committee. An IOC executive met with Beijing Olympic organizers early last week and insisted, "the press (should be) able to operate as it has at previous games,'' with unfettered access to all news and informational sites. Not coincidentally, the next day, both Wikipedia and BBC News, a site blocked in the mainland for years, had been unblocked.

While it appears that this major loosening of internet control signifies a positive step by the Communist Party to extend freedom of information to the over 200 million Web users in mainland China, as with everything in China, it's not so simple. First, it's important to remember that the Chinese language version of Wikipedia is still off limits nationwide. Second, Web pages that contain words that the Ministry of Public Information deem "sensitive," like "Tibet" and "Tiananmen" are currently blocked and will remain blocked throughout the Olympic Games. And third, the one step forward to allow access to the English Wikipedia was overshadowed by two steps back last week in a much bigger censorship story -- a story that reinforces to the world that freedom of speech and information are still non-existent in China.

On April 3, a day after Wikipedia was unblocked, a Beijing court sentenced Hu Jia, arguably China's most famous activist and critic of China's human rights violations, to three and a half years in prison for "inciting subversion of state power." In September, Hu penned and distributed a manifesto, translated this week in the Washington Post, on the state of human rights in China. And in November, he testified in a European parliamentary hearing on human rights abuses in China stating, according to the New York Times, "It is ironic that one of the people in charge of organizing the Olympic Games is the head of the Bureau of Public Security, which is responsible for so many human rights violations. It is very serious that the official promises are not being kept before the games."

For these two acts principally, Chinese authorities arrested Hu in his home on December 30 and sentenced him Thursday. As the Washington Post wisely pointed out in an editorial Saturday, "The louder its propaganda machine seeks to trumpet manufactured evidence against Buddhist monks or to convince the world that Hu Jia is a dangerous criminal, the less confident it looks."

And this is what it has come to in these months leading up to China's coming-out party this summer. Rather than admit and deal with the mounting and very real tensions regarding human rights and basic freedoms, Beijing seems to prefer the idea of jailing anyone who challenges Communist policy. Just ask the 2,300 Tibetans arrested last month.

The fundamental problem with China's policy toward both controversial internet content and political dissent is the notion that reactive measures, like site blockages and arresting protesters, will somehow put an end to China's most enduring political struggles. Blocking access to the Tiananman Square Wikipedia page will no more stifle one's curiosity on the subject than arresting a Tibetan protester will stifle the Tibetan Freedom movement.

It's a notion steeped in archaism, paternalism, and in the case of Hu Jia and other political prisoners sitting in Chinese prisons, barbarism.