Chinese Web Forum Invites "Netizens" to Speak Up, but Not Too Loudly

In the first weeks since its debut, the "Direct Line to Zhongnanhai" has already published tens of thousands of comments from Chinese Internet users. Featuring color photos of President Hu Jintao, Premier Wen Jiabao and other leaders at the Zhongnanhai, or Communist Party headquarters, the Web bulletin invites citizens to say what they really think about the government. Common complaints, like corruption and housing, appear on the site.

"The housing prices are too high, people's lives are difficult."

"I demand strict examination of corrupt officials and people and re-establish Chinese image."

In some rare instances, there is a break in the norm.

"To carry out the One-Child Policy, you cannot force people to be sterilized. This is not humane."

State-run media say the message board will help ease social tension by encouraging civic awareness and participation. In response to questions about the site, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said the government focuses on the people in presenting their issues of concern.

Speaking to reporters in Beijing, she said the public has a right to express their opinions and suggestions freely online, as long as they are within the framework of laws and regulations.

It is those regulations that worry free speech advocates, like the group Human Rights in China. Executive director Sharon Hom says the Web site outlines 26 topics barred from online discussions.

"You can't post anything that endangers state security, that leaks state secrets, subverts state power, that damages national unity. So this freedom of expression can be exercised on this platform within these 26 prohibited content, which in the broader context of China has all been interpreted so broadly that it can include any content and all content."

Hom says the ever-changing interpretation of China's state security laws has allowed authorities to convict dissidents, journalists, lawyers and other citizens deemed too critical of the government.

She points to the case of Liu Xiaobo, a rights activist jailed for contributing to "Charter 08," a manifesto calling for political reform that has swept across the Internet, gaining even the support of some government officials.

"Liu Xiaobo, who's serving a very long prison sentence for incitement to subvert state power, was precisely criticizing and engaged in the very activity that this site was supposed to be set up to do, that is criticize and monitor the government."

The Web forum is one of an increasing number of online meeting halls set up by the government in recent years.

Jeremy Goldkorn, the editor of Danwei.org, an independent Website covering China's media, says these forums are part of the Communist Party's sophisticated communications strategy.

"It's sort of a publicity or a propaganda initiative on one hand. It's an attempt to show that they care about ordinary people and what ordinary people think. It's also a way for them to genuinely take the pulse of society and find out what social issues are problems."

Goldkorn says in some cases, online discussion has spurred the government to be more accountable offline. Last year, for example, Internet outcry over the arrest of Deng Yujiao, a young woman who stabbed a government official to death for allegedly assaulting her, led to a dramatic change in the homicide case.

"There was a big online reaction to this, where people were saying, 'This is completely unfair. She was going to be raped by a government official. It was self-defense.' And after the online fuss about it, she was released and was not convicted of this crime."

Goldkorn says the Internet alone is unlikely to spur broad political reforms, but it is changing the public's relationship to the government.

"Although that platform is still more restricted than it is in the West, it's vastly superior to anything that's ever happened really in China in terms of citizens' ability to tell the government what they're thinking. So it has had the same kind of democratizing effect on the national debate as it has had in Western countries and in America."

However, Goldkorn says the new online debate is only allowed to address relatively innocuous topics already covered by state-run media. Anything else, he says, will be deleted.

The online forums also are reportedly infiltrated by freelance writers working for the government. These writers post positive comments on Web sites from entertainment news to Internet games, much like this one on the "Direct Line to Zhongnanhai."

"Opening this forum lets me see the hope of our country. My country and party will be robust."

Thomas Crampton, with Ogilvy Public Relations in the Asia-Pacific, says these freelancers are known as the "50 cent army" for the amount of money they reportedly earn for each post.

"They're trying to push the conversation in ways they think are more favorable to the government. So the government is getting involved in conversations and trying to shape the perception and the way the people are talking about issues."

Crampton says China also has its own versions of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, which are blocked inside the country. With these homemade platforms, he says, Beijing is building a mirror of the Internet to serve its own agenda.