China’s Internet: Two Media Declarations

As if to complement one another, two like-minded media declarations were posted on the internet only two days apart from each other, one on Oct. 8 by a group of 15 Chinese intellectuals, another by the Chinese government’s Xinhua News Agency during a World Media Summit in Beijing on Oct. 10.

Both documents express a need for an open media and development in the circulation of information. Both embrace the utilization of new media technologies and encourage interaction and cooperation among journalists and audiences. Yet their implications are more dissimilar than alike, and one of the declarations has altogether disappeared from online viewing.

On October 8 an “Internet Human Rights Declaration” was posted online by a group of 15 intellectuals from mainland China. The declaration calls for online freedom of speech, freedom of expression, editorial and commentary rights, among the list of ten stipulations directed at the increasingly harsh administration of online censorship by the People’s Republic of China.

The declaration also calls for the establishment of a “Chinese Internet Human Rights Day” on Oct. 10, a date closely related to the Xinhai Revolution and the establishment of the first republican government in China in the early 20th century.

The group of well-known journalists, lawyers, authors, and scholars includes Ling Cangzhou, an author, scholar, and Beijing-based journalist; Zhao Guojun, a Beijing-based legal expert; Ran Yunfei, an author, scholar and editor from Chengdu, Sichuan; and the Canton-based journalist Bei Feng.

Ling, drafter and co-signer of the document, in an interview with the BBC, said that the purpose of the declaration was to bring the Chinese people’s attention to the current state of the internet and to stimulate thought on free speech and free media. The declaration is mild, logical, and constructive, and issued within the scope of Chinese law and constitution, Ling said.

Bei Feng, in a telephone interview, said that the drafting of the declaration was prompted by the increasing severity of internet censorship administered by the Chinese Government.

The two-day World Media Summit, beginning Oct. 9 and hosted by the Chinese Government at the Great Hall of the People in Tiananmen Square, issued a declaration of its own Oct. 10. Along with an acknowledgement of the effects of the global financial crisis on global media, the declaration advocates “progressive adaptation to the developmental current of the times.”

The document states “We hope that all media organizations circulate factual, objective, just, and fair information throughout the world, expediting the transparency and public credibility of government and public institutions.

The opening ceremony of the summit heard an address by China’s President Hu Jintao, echoing many of the tenets expressed in the official declaration released a day later by the Xinhua News Agency. Both Hu’s address and the official declaration listed the main themes of the summit as “cooperation, action, win-win, and development.

“…monitoring by the public and the safeguarding of the rights to be informed, to participation, to expression, to monitor, and so on, can be organized and their important functions put into play,” Hu stated, while addressing the likes of News Corporation Chairman and CEO Rupert Murdock, Associated Press President and CEO Thomas Curley, and Google Vice-President John Liu, all of whom also made statements at the opening ceremony.

The Internet Human Rights Declaration, issued just one day before Hu’s speech, was very much focused on the same ideals, the protection of the rights to be informed, to expression, and to monitor mentioned in both documents. At first glance, one might think the two parties were cooperating with each other and that the issuances of the two documents were coordinated. After all, no statement in the former contradicts or runs askew with those in the latter; they read only to complement one another.

Yet nothing could be further from the truth. A day before the World Media Summit document hit the net, the Internet Human Rights Declaration had already been thoroughly blocked from further viewing, subsequent searches for the document eliciting a search failure screen from China’s biggest search engine Baidu.com. By Oct 10 mention of the declaration could still be found on some Chinese weblogs, but not without substantial digging.

Wen Yunchao, a co-signer of the declaration who goes by the pen name Bei Feng, commented on the document via telephone from Canton.

The conception of a declaration seeking the protection of internet human rights began in 2007 on the traditional Chinese festival of Qingming, or Tomb Sweeping Day, Wen said. It was during that festival, which usually lands in mid-spring according to the Chinese lunar calendar, that Wen began corresponding with Ling Cangzhou and other co-signers on the need for protection of internet human rights, he said.

Wen, 38 and a native of Canton, said certain internet phenomena surrounding the preparation, hosting and closing of the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008, prompted the drafting of the declaration.

There was a period before and during the Olympics when internet regulation seemed loose. Certain websites had become viewable in China. But other forms of regulation had become stricter. During the Olympics it became more difficult to post anything controversial online,” he said.

Wen said with the closing of the Beijing Olympics, unblocked websites were blocked once again and general regulation of the internet in China became “extremely severe,” with censorship exceeding that of pre-Olympic levels. When asked what defining factor prompted the group of 15 to draft the declaration, Wen simply replied “There was a need to do it. We need to get our rights back.

The posting of the declaration initially received a strong reaction from fellow internet users in both mainland China and in Hong Kong, Wen said. It was the media attention received in Hong Kong that led to broadened awareness of the declaration, he said, expressing gratitude to Hong Kong internet users. The document is still widely viewable in Hong Kong, the “One country, two systems” policy exempting the former British colony from harsh online regulation.

Despite passionate responses from fellow Chinese, the Internet Human Rights Declaration began to disappear from online viewing within a day of its posting.

Of course it’s not possible to delete all the information,” Wen said. “You might find it if you try hard enough. Internet regulation is not a completely solid system.”

Despite the censoring of the declaration, Wen sounded optimistic about expected reactions from the government. He said as of yet the only government reaction was the censoring of the document and related information. Yet he expressed the sincere anticipation of a positive official response. It’s the hope of the 15 intellectuals that the government will eventually grant the rights requested in the Internet Human Rights Declaration, he said.

The declaration also suggests that Oct. 10 should be designated as “Chinese Internet Human Rights Day.” Although seldom observed in mainland China, Oct. 10 is the anniversary of the XinHai Revolution which broke out in the central city of Wuhan in 1911, leading to the fall of the Qing Dynasty and subsequent rise of a republican government. In Taiwan Oct. 10 is known as “Double Ten Day” and is celebrated as the official national day, an equivalent to the mainland’s celebration 10 days earlier.

The establishment of a holiday on is not the most important thing. The broadening of awareness and the protection of these rights is most important,” Wen said, when asked to elaborate on the idea of an internet human rights day.

Wen couldn’t help but compare the developments of the two political bodies, Taiwan and China, over the past 60 years. To Wen Oct. 10 represents many of the freedoms appreciated by Taiwan at present. He called Taiwan a sample of what mainland China could have been.

Wen said that the group of 15 co-signers wanted no relation drawn between the issuing of the declaration and the 60th anniversary of China. When asked for his opinion of the national day celebration in Beijing on Oct 1, he said it was a large-scale military parade no different from those seen during the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s. He called it a representation of the communist party’s “mechanical state of mind.”

There was nothing in the ceremony representing 60 years of development…It was a performance and a performance can have any effect they want it to. China can do it. North Korea can do it,” he said.

2 comments

  • HJG

    How is it that you people always pick up the most insignificant useless “movements”?

  • John

    Does the West faintly praise China’s incapacity to free media and information? Keeping China out of the the knowledge economy must reassure the West. Knowledge is a product and in a knowledge based economy, knowledge is a tool. China must believe the result of a free open media in Chinese society will have some unforeseen results.

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