Chinese bloggers told U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry the push for Internet freedom in China is going backward and that the U.S. should help the country’s people overcome restrictions on online communication.
Kerry heard the comments at a meeting with four bloggers at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing today before ending his 1.5-day visit to China to head for Jakarta, the third and last stop on his trip to Asia this week. The secretary said arrests of reform advocates are counter to “all of our best interests.”
China has signaled that it sees online dissent as a threat to the governing Communist Party’s authority amid slowing economic growth. At the November policy-setting Communist Party Plenum, President Xi Jinping’s government unveiled an Internet crackdown and the creation of a new security body to combat domestic threats, alongside new limits on critics and people who may spread online reports of party cadres’ wrongdoing.
Since the plenum, Internet freedom “was going backward, there is less of it,” said Wang Keqin, a blogger known for his exposes on corruption in the Beijing taxi industry and his work on health risks related to air pollution.
U.S. companies are helping the Chinese government block access to the Internet and to Twitter, Zhang Jialong, who has a following of about 100,000 readers at a blog published by Tencent Finance, a division of China’s largest social media company. Kerry said it was the first time he has heard complaints of U.S. companies helping the Chinese government’s control over Internet access, adding that he would look into the matter.
Kerry told Wang that he had urged the Chinese leaders to support Internet freedom and has raised the issue of press freedom.
“The Chinese economy will be stronger with greater freedom of the Internet,” he said.
The other two bloggers in the 40-minute meeting with Kerry were Ma Xiaolin, former journalist for state-run Xinhua news agency who founded what is said to be the first private and “real name” bloggers’ community in China, and Wang Chong, director of a blog channel on a major Chinese web portal.
The crackdown on users of China’s Twitter-like microblogs, along with new punishments for online defamation, reflect a stepped-up party campaign to rein in a forum that’s challenged China’s censorship regime over the country’s 1.3 billion people.
Sina Weibo, a microblog with 60 million daily users, has been used by some dissenters. Some microbloggers using the service have been arrested after a September rule made spreading false rumors online a criminal offense punishable by jail.
High-profile bloggers have also been interrogated or detained after posting comments critical of the government.
The Communist Party last month sentenced legal scholar Xu Zhiyong to four years in prison on charges of gathering a crowd to disturb public order. Xu, who helped Chinese families whose children were sickened by tainted milk in 2009 to file lawsuits, is the most prominent activist to be jailed since Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo.
Xu was detained July 16 in Beijing after a group of other activists unfurled banners demanding China’s leaders disclose their assets.
Venture capitalist Charles Xue, who wrote about politically sensitive subjects to his 12 million followers, was detained in August on charges of soliciting prostitutes. China’s state television broadcast a confession by him to the charge in September. The channel later showed Xue saying he didn’t fact check what he posted online and his interaction with followers made him feel like an emperor. No information about his case has been released since.
After a series of meetings with Chinese leadership, including Xi, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, State Councilor Yang Jiechi and Premier Li Keqiang, Kerry told reporters yesterday that he had with them “a frank discussion about some human rights challenges and the role of rule of law and the free flow of information in a robust, civil society and the challenges of the cyber world that we live in today.”
“I emphasized that respect for human rights and for the exchange of information in a free manner contributes to the strength of a society in a country,” Kerry said yesterday. “Recent arrests of peaceful advocates for reform run counter, in our judgment, to all of our best interests and the ability to make long term progress.”