China’s online censorship machine flew into overdrive at the weekend to remove all mention of blind human rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng, who fled house arrest and is reportedly now under protection in the US embassy in Beijing.
Guangcheng, who has been a vocal campaigner against China’s oppressive one-child policy and has become an international symbol against the government’s human rights abuses, made a carefully planned break for it around a week ago, aided by a small network of supporters who now risk torture as the authorities try and find out what happened.
Leaving his wife and young daughter behind, the self-taught lawyer reportedly managed to scale a wall and evade the guards who have kept him confined to his Shandong province farmhouse for the past 19-odd months.
If he is now in US protection, the matter has already become a huge embarrassment to China and represents a massive loss of face – something the Party has already sought to minimise by removing all mentions of Chen from the web.
David Bandurski, a researcher at Hong Kong University, explained on the China Media Project blog that there has been no reference to the story – now making headlines across the globe – on China’s state-run media channels, while most search terms relating to the case are being blocked on social media.
The authorities are clearly erring on the side of caution, banning terms such as “blind person”, “embassy”, “consulate” and even the initials of his name, Bandurski explained.
On one of the country’s most popular Twitter-like services, Sina Weibo, the searches will bring up a standard message: “According to relevant laws, regulations and policies, these search results cannot be shown.”
“If Chen Guangcheng is indeed under U.S. protection, the delicate matter of Chen’s escape (already potentially damaging in light of the constant refusal of Chinese officials to deal with clear and systematic abuses) has now become a major diplomatic matter,” said Bandurski.
“The sensitivity of the Chen Guangcheng story can be glimpsed today both in the total blanket of silence that has enveloped Chinese traditional media, and in the robustness of social media controls.”
While web censorship is a fact of life in China, the extent to which it occurs is largely hidden from ordinary citizens. Only those who have the know-how and inclination to set up a VPN to bypass the Great Firewall will get a clearer picture.
As the recent case of deposed Politburo member Bo Xilai highlighted, the Party is particularly keen to avoid any social or political unrest ahead of its once-in-a-decade leadership handover next year.
Former Beijing bureau chief for CNN and censorship expert, Rebecca MacKinnon, told The Reg that since the Olympics in 2008 the authorities have progressively stepped up web blocking.
“Things do go in cycles of loosening and tightening, but I think the overall trend is of tightening,” she said. ®