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China: The blogosphere strikes back

China's bloggers—33.4 million strong at last count, and growing fast—can be an unforgiving bunch when something displeases them. In recent weeks a Western English teacher in Shanghai whose blog, Chinabounder, described his sexual conquests of Chinese women drew the venom of netizens and prompted a frenzy of nationalist outrage, including castration threats and calls by a Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences professor to find the "foreign hooligan" and "kick him out of China." (Chinabounder is now closed to the public). Other so-called "internet manhunts" have come to the aid of cuckolded husbands (the alleged lothario was forced to drop out of university and barricade himself in his house after his name was published on the Internet) and led a charge to name and shame the author of gory photos posted on the web that showed a woman grinding her high heels into a (presumably) dead cat.

But in the latest episode of muscle-flexing, China's bloggers have gone beyond puerile vigilantism. In mid-June, allegations surfaced in the British tabloid Daily Mail that a Shenzhen-based manufacturer of iPod MP3 players for computer giant Apple Corp. was mistreating its workers. As a result of the news, Apple conducted a ten-week internal investigation and found that the allegations of forced or child labor weren't justified. But Foxconn, a subsidiary of Taiwan's Hon Hai Precision Industry Co., felt the reports had damaged the company's reputation and decided to sue the China Business News, a Shanghai-based paper that had published articles on the issue, for about $3.75 million in damages. But instead of suing the company, Foxconn went after reporter Wang You and editor Weng Bao, the two journalists who wrote the articles. On July 13 a Shenzhen court agreed to the company's request to freeze the assets of the two reporters, including their cars, bank accounts and houses.

Earlier this week, with reports of their plight seeping onto Internet forums, the two journalists set up a blog to tell their side of the story. Describing himself as under immense pressure from Foxconn, Weng made an impassioned call on the blog to all "online friends" to "dissect" Foxconn and defend the rights of reporters to expose wrongdoing. The response was overwhelming. Thousands of messages of support poured in, with thousands more appearing in discussion forums on two of China's most popular websites, sina.com and sohu.com. By week's end, according to China's Xinhua news agency, more than three million viewers had visited the blog to join the fight. "It is intolerable," fumed a reader by the name of Flying Leopard, "Let's boycott these Taiwan capitalists who drink human blood and eat human flesh." A little digging by bloggers revealed that Foxconn had employed similar tactics against a reporter in Taiwan who had written articles critical of the company in 2004, fanning outrage at the company at the same time that stories began appearing in mainstream Chinese media.

Faced with a mounting PR disaster, Foxconn caved in, announcing on Thursday that it had asked the court to unfreeze the journalists' assets and was dropping its claim for compensation to a symbolic one yuan—about 12 cents. Not surprisingly, the victory left many Chinese bloggers feeling vindicated. "The most important outcome is that the Chinese media workers learned how they can band together and create an unstoppable tide of public opinion," exulted Roland Soong, who helped popularize the story on his Eastsouthwestnorth blog, one of the best-known English-language sites about China's blogosphere. "And what new causes will come to their attention tomorrow?"

But before anyone becomes too dreamy about the future of blogging in China, it's worth remembering that China's Internet remains a tightly controlled realm where talk of mass movements, public opinion and free will are mostly forbidden. The Foxconn case will no doubt set alarm bells ringing among the growing ranks of the country's Internet police. As if to prove that point, at the same time Chinese bloggers were celebrating their victory, a mainland court handed down an ugly reminder of what happens to those who overstep the boundaries set by Beijing. Within hours of Foxcomm's retreat, reports emerged that Singapore Straits Times journalist Ching Cheong, who had reportedly been trying to collect information on the late, disgraced Communist Party official Zhao Ziyang, had been jailed for five years on charges of spying for Taiwan.

Date posted: August 31, 2006 Last modified: May 23, 2018 Total views: 11