China relaxes its Internet censorship – for now

Surprise, surprise! I can access my blog from China – the first time I have been able to do that ever since I started my blog on – it seems the Chinese have kept their word to ease restrictions on Internet censorship during the Olympic Games.

It’s not completely open, but there’s a lot less censorship than there has been in the past.

I said “surprise, surprise” because I didn’t expect to be able to access my blog after reading the South China Morning Post during a transit in Hong Kong yesterday. The SCMP carried a story on its front page stating that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) had admitted to cutting a deal with China to censor the Internet during the Games.

And it said that the chairman of the IOC’s press commission, Kevan Gosper, had apologised for misleading foreign journalists about press freedom during the Games during an interview with the SCMP.

Since the Games were awarded to China seven years ago, Mr Gosper, IOC President Jacques Rogge, and Chinese officials have many times promised that there would be uncensored access to the Internet during the Beijing Olympics. But Mr Gosper was quoted as saying two days ago: “If you have been misled by what I have told you about there being free Internet access during the Games, then I apologise. I am disappointed the access is not wider. But I can’t tell the Chinese what to do. You are dealing with a communist country that has censorship. You are getting what they say you can have.”

I got to my hotel only about 2.00 am this morning, after my Dragonair flight from Hong Kong was delayed, so didn’t get around to logging onto the Internet until late this morning. And by then, I discovered, a lot had changed in the previous 24 hours and many Internet sites that had been blocked up until the previous day were now accessible.

During that 24 hour period, most international news services and newspapers had been hammering the Chinese government over its Internet restrictions.

And by the time I logged on this morning it seems that the government had bowed to all the pressure and had relaxed many of its restrictions. However, the government didn’t make any announcement on the issue, and a spokesman for the Beijing Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (BOCOG), Sun Weide, was quoted as declining to confirm whether there had been a change in policy.

BBC News reported that its Chinese language news site was now accessible, along with Voice of America. The International Herald Tribune reported that the Radio Free Asia website had been unblocked, along with those of human rights organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

Websites mentioning a certain spiritual movement whose activities are banned in China were still being blocked (I daren’t mention their name otherwise the Chinese filters might block my blog) as well as some pages on Wikipedia*.

Although the government was keeping mum on the issue, my guess is that they decided that having the international press spend the week leading up to the Games complaining about not being able to access their news sites would take a lot of the ‘glory’ away from hosting the Games and prompt the media to write more negative stories about China.

I expect that seeing front page stories in the South China Morning Post criticising China’s censorship of the Internet, one week out from the opening ceremony, was not what the government was expecting by way of publicity in the lead up to the Games.

I don’t expect the government will admit to backing down (that’s not the Chinese way), but by relaxing the censorship for a couple of weeks - but not actually admitting that they have done it - is a good way of ‘saving face’, even if it does mean that some Chinese citizens get to read a few stories that the government doesn’t really want them to see.

But I would also guess that the shutters will go up again on 25 August - the day after the Games finish.

*Out of curiosity I looked up the section in Wikipedia on ‘Internet censorship in the People’s Republic of China’ to see if they had an updated story on the developments of the last 24 hours. I was able to log onto Wikipedia okay, but when I went to the China page, it was blocked. And then when I tried to log onto other Wikipedia pages, they were also blocked – so it seems my attempt to read the China page had triggered some sort of blocking mechanism directed at my computer. But fortunately when I tried some non-controversial pages later in the day, I was able to gain access again, so I decided not to tempt fate and have since stayed away from any pages on Wikipedia that might trigger the blocking mechanism for fear of it restricting my Internet access for the next four weeks.

Beijing spick and span for the Olympics

Blocking blogs in China