You may have followed the ongoing controversy about the Chinese government blocking foreign journalists' access to certain Internet sites during the Beijing Olympics. Most of the attention has centered on the censoring of the sites of Amnesty International, BBC News and the Falun Gong religious group. Under pressure, the Chinese Communist Party has lifted the bans on Amnesty and BBC News, but one site has continued to be totally blocked: Huffingtonpost.com.
In Beijing, we can get Drudge; we can get Common Dreams; we can get Raw Story and Truthout. But Huffington Post: censored completely.
I am working in Beijing as a radio commentator. Since I arrived in Beijing, I have made repeated attempts to access Huffington Post from the International Broadcast Center, from the Main Press Center and from my apartment. Nothing, nothing, nothing. Every time, all I get is a message that says "Connection Interrupted."
I suspect that I am at least partially responsible for the Chinese censorship of Huffington Post because of a piece I posted back in March entitled "How to Protest the Beijing Olympics." If this is true, I apologize to my fellow HuffPo bloggers for preventing their posts from being read in China. However, I still stand by what I said back then.
In the piece, I urged people not to protest against the Chinese people or against China as a nation -- a nation that I first visited in 1978 and am now visiting for the ninth time. Rather, I suggested that people concentrate their protests against the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), whose membership includes only 5% of the Chinese population.
So far, the Chinese citizens I have encountered have been completely friendly. However, there are some unsettling developments. An American friend of mine, who has lived in Beijing for 13 years and speaks fluent Chinese, told me that the rise in nationalist propaganda has been so intense the last couple months that he has stopped watching Chinese television. Even some of his Chinese friends are embarrassed by the overt government hostility towards foreigners.
On the other hand, what the government really fears is not human rights protests by foreign activists, but demonstrations by their own citizens. Although it has received little attention in the West, there have been thousands of demonstrations around the country against land seizures by the government and against widespread corruption, highlighted by protests by victims of the Sichuan earthquake, who watched their children die because of shoddy school construction, while schools built for the children of Communist Party members did not collapse. For this reason, the government has all but closed Beijing to Chinese citizens from other parts of the country until the Olympics are over.
Every time I hear talk of the blocking of the Amnesty International web site, I think back to an incident from 1979. I was visiting the Chinese city of Guilin at a time when foreigners were so rare that when we walked on the street, we were surrounded by gawkers and by students wanting to practice speaking English. One evening, a French member of our group approached me and said, "David, I think you had better deal with this one." He led me to a Chinese student, who asked me, "What is Amnesty International?" I explained to him that Amnesty was an organization that called attention to human rights violations around the world. "In fact," I added, "they just released a report about human rights abuses in China." The student never let the expression on his face change, but he said, "Perhaps we should speak of other subjects. One never knows who is listening."
Twenty-nine years later, in terms of human rights, I don't think that too much has changed. I still have a great affection for the Chinese people, but even today, one never knows who is listening.