China gives citizens a chance to dissent via official Web site

By Agence France-Presse
Monday, September 13, 2010 18:50 EDT
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In a rare example of openness, China has set up a website for citizens to express their views to top leaders — and users have wasted little time in firing unusually blunt criticisms at the government.

Web-surfers have left tens of thousands of messages since the site launch last week, with complaints over free speech, official graft and government housing policies mixed with the expected paeans to Communist Party leadership.

“If you are concerned with the people’s livelihood, then show some sympathy — kill corrupt officials and local tyrants,” read one message directed to President Hu Jintao on Monday.

Launched quietly last week, the site has been named “Direct Line to Zhongnanhai,” after the sprawling leadership compound in central Beijing.

It is an offshoot of the website of the People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s print mouthpiece.

While many of the entries praise Hu, Premier Wen Jiabao, and the party, a roughly equal number are outspoken complaints over hot-button social issues and the government’s handling of them — and have been left on the site by censors.

China has a huge online censorship system that aggressively snuffs out Internet content and commentary on topics considered sensitive, such as China’s human rights record and criticisms of the government.

One message suggested that censors were blocking some entries.

“Brother Hu, isn’t it interesting that I have left so many messages, but they have all been harmonised. Can’t you let us speak the truth?” it said.

“Harmonise” is a Chinese online euphemism for censorship, drawn from the government’s practice of suppressing web discourse considered objectionable in the name of “social harmony”.

Easily the hottest topic on the site was the country’s recent skyrocketing housing prices.

The government has moved to rein in prices but many entries complained they are already out of reach and blamed collusion between corrupt officials and rapacious property developers.

“When will prices come down? Prices of goods are rising, housing prices are rising. The only thing not rising is wages,” an entry said.

Another said: “The central government has continually controlled housing prices. But housing prices still rise.”

It blamed “collusion, corruption and lawlessness,” adding: “It makes me miss Premier Zhu,” a reference to former premier Zhu Rongji, who was respected as an aggressive, results-oriented reformer.

It was not immediately clear why some of the more incendiary entries were not deleted, but China’s leaders have already declared war on corruption, land speculation and other ills, making them officially approved topics.

Many of the entries praised the website, with one calling it indicative of “democratic processes” in China and a “landmark” event for the country.

The names of those leaving messages were not displayed on the website, making it impossible to verify whether all of the entries were genuine.

Human rights groups say Chinese censors employ web-users whose job is to “guide” online discussions in a pro-government direction.

Agence France-Presse
Agence France-Presse
AFP journalists cover wars, conflicts, politics, science, health, the environment, technology, fashion, entertainment, the offbeat, sports and a whole lot more in text, photographs, video, graphics and online.
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