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Date Posted: 17:30 26/09/2005

Litanies and catch-alls

China's internet news law is more of the same

CHINA'S new regulations on internet news may not actually be the lurch into the abyss of censorship and repression that some have been suggesting, but merely a clarification of established practice. After all, most of us are already aware of what the Chinese government is capable of, and for several of the country's biggest online news portals, which are already heavily regulated, it is likely to be business as usual.

Among other things, the new regulations are designed to prevent the online incitement of disorder by news websites, but that provision, at least, seems superfluous. Indeed, the real troublemakers are unlikely to be news providers like Sina, Sohu, or, but angry individuals who have been dispossessed, defrauded or made destitute by the malpractice of local officials. Of course, in most of the spontaneous outbreaks of rural dissent over the last few years, the internet played little or no role at all, and all domestic news sites played ball by refusing to report on them until state news organ Xinhua had taken the lead.

Nevertheless, immediately after Xinhua had made the new policy announcement on Sunday, breathless hacks from the foreign press services were forced back to work on a lovely Autumn Sunday to draw various political inferences from several pages of vague but ominous Chinese legalese.

Naturally, the usual sad references were made to the unfortunate Zhao Yan of the New York Times, and to local journalist Shi Tao, who was apparently detained on the basis of evidence furnished by global internet giant Yahoo. The Guardian's new Shanghai-based reporter managed to read and make a connection with a New York Times piece by the estimable Joseph Kahn, suggesting that this 'crackdown' was another stage in the 'smokeless war' that President Hu Jintao had launched against 'liberal elements' after his effective consolidation of power.

In the interests of balance, Running Dog has already tried to give the Hu-Wen leadership the benefit of the doubt. With the entire world focused on the power transition and buoyed with expectations about future political reform, it was more than likely that (a) a flood of potential protestors would be lashing at the gates of the Communist Party in the belief that they could now get away with it, and (b) that Hu sought to put his foot down immediately in order to avoid giving a wrong impression to the hard-liners.

In any case, with its familiar litanies and catch-alls, the new internet rulings seem quite unexceptional. For instance, the nineteenth clause - which has received most of the attention - sets out eleven specific 'forbidden zones' for web news services. They must not violate the fundamental principles of the constitution. They must not violate national security, leak state secrets, overturn national political power or damage national unity. They must not damage national honour or interests. They must not incite racial hatred or racial prejudice, or damage the unity of the races. They must not damage state religious policy, or promote evil cults and feudal superstitions. They must not spread rumours, disrupt the social order or damage social stability. They must not distribute materials that are obscene, pornographic, related to gambling, violent, horrific or liable to instigate crimes. They must not insult or slander others or violate the legal rights of others. They must not incite illegal gatherings, associations, marches, demonstrations and mass disruptions of social order. They must not act in the name of illegal organizations. They must not violate any other regulations.

Or, in summary, 'if we say you are guilty, you are guilty'.

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