China's Internet crackdown: Anonymous, political intrigue and blackouts

Summary:Chinese authorities continue their crackdown of online 'rumors'. Is now the right time to launch an attack on the Great Firewall?

Anonymous has announced its intentions to take down the Great Firewall of China, but while the relationship between Chinese authorities and net users is extremely shaky, is it the right time to declare war?

There is an interesting dialogue emerging in much of China's state-run media this week about the difference between 'free speech' and 'harmful rumours'.

People's Daily has recently released an article entitled "Freedom of Speech does not protect rumors." Unsurprisingly, for a news source often considered to be a government mouthpiece, they are attempting to reinforce the need for China's latest crack downs.

The article says, "how could freedom of speech be defended, if we turn our back on slander? Can we tolerate fake [or] inferior products with the aim of promoting the free market?"

This is the prevailing attitude that is being displayed towards allegedly damaging 'rumours', and these news sites are being used to justify the significant actions being taken by Chinese authorities at the moment.

Liu Zhengrong, a senior official in the State Internet Information Office, told China Daily that the Internet cannot police itself. He said that Web users weren't necessarily able to distinguish truth from fiction, "requiring government departments and website companies to take measures."

At first there were rumours being spread about a potential coup in Beijing, and as a direct result 42 Web sites were shut down, and an additional 210,000 messages have been deleted since mid-March. Beijing police have also arrested 1065 suspects.

Commenting functions on Sina and Tencent Weibo were also shut down for 4 days, a stark warning that authorities can intervene whenever they want.

Political scandals

So why has China suddenly become such a hostile environment for web users? Well, to start with, authorities are currently managing the scandal surrounding ousted communist party politician Bo Xilai.

Xilai, the former Chongqing party chief, was officially stripped of his party positions on Tuesday. He and his wife, Gu Kailai, are being investigated over the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood. This is serious news in China, and they are struggling to contain the sudden overload of online commentary.

Ministry of Tofu provided the following analogy to describe the magnitude of this scandal. "It would be like a California governor, a presidential candidate, gets sacked after his police chief, who helped him fight a glorious war on organized crimes in the state, divulged to Chinese diplomats his dirty laundry and a murder masterminded by his wife in exchange for protection."

Chinese netizens jumped on the news, a confirmation of rumours that had been stirring for months, and were quickly stymied.

When the news item broke on Tuesday evening, it received over 50,000 reposts within the first 15 minutes. The story didn't reach CCTV's evening news, but it thrived online. Searches for both Bo Xilai and his wife's name were quickly blocked on Sina Weibo, and mass censorship of comments began.

"Tonight, Sina's little secretaries are probably so busy they're spitting blood," one Weibo user commented, "who allowed rabble like us to possess nuclear-level weapons like a mouse and keyboard?"

Controlling a scandal in a social network society

Unfortunately, that seems to be exactly what Chinese authorities are afraid of. This is the first major scandal to rock China's leadership since social media became prevalent, and suddenly there is a new audience seeking the truth.

At this point, the crack down over online rumours is a vague and uncertain fight. The lines between free-speech and rumours are extremely unclear, but what does the Chinese government expect when so called 'rumours' turn out to be true?

The scandal around Bo Xilai has not only raised questions about corruption within the government, but on the growing need for transparency.

Attacking the Great Firewall

In many ways, it seems like now is the perfect time for a group like Anonymous to take on China's Great Firewall, when so many in China would rally to their side.

However, as much as few would disagree that the battle against censorship is inherently correct, would a calculated strike on the Great Firewall at this point be the right move?

A blackout of large portions of the Internet yesterday morning in China have many speculating about the potential for a 'kill switch', to limit any outside access. At this point the actual cause of the blackout, which rendered many Chinese and foreign websites inaccessible for a few hours, is unknown.

Telecom companies have denied issues with their network, or damage from the significant Earthquake in Indonesia.

Although there is absolutely no concrete evidence that the blackout was the result of any sort of 'kill switch' test, it does raise the possibility that such a thing exists.

Authorities in China are trying to reign in their control over the online community at the moment, that much is apparent, and high profile groups like Anonymous getting involved might have them on alert.

Anonymous already succeeded in hacking hundreds of Chinese government, business and other general websites so far, so their presence must be registering in China. As ZDNet's Emil Protalinski commented, "if they manage to pull off the feat for even a few minutes, it will be an accomplishment of epic proportions."

This is true. It could also be long enough to cause a serious backlash from authorities, at a time when they fear nothing more than the online community undermining them with 'harmful rumours'.

[Updated: April 15th @ 6:50 am, This post has been altered for clarification regarding Anonymous hacks of Chinese websites.]

Image source: Francisco Diez/Flickr.com,

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