An Open Society Online? Not Yet

In China, it's called The BMW Incident. A wealthy woman in the northeast city of Harbin allegedly rammed and killed a peasant woman after the farmworker's onion cart scratched the woman's BMW. When the alleged murderer was given a suspended sentence in December, Internet chat rooms and bulletin boards exploded with fury. China's Web surfers were enraged at what they thought was favoritism toward the rich. In the face of the outcry, closely monitored by state officials, the government agreed to open a new investigation into the incident. "This is one of the first times where you have seen a direct political impact of something that happened online," says Lyn Jeffery, research director at the Institute for the Future, a nonprofit research group.

Such is the draw of the Internet in China. The Chinese are discovering that on the Net they can speak out as never before. The BMW Incident is only one of several examples of the Web affecting the government. Last year, a local newspaper story about Sun Zhigang, a migrant worker without proper identity papers who died in police custody in Guangzhou, was spread nationwide through the Internet. After widespread criticism, the government reformed the law that had allowed police to detain Sun.

Yet Beijing has established limits to what is acceptable, even online. Debate over local officials or courts is tolerated, but censors exert tight control over more threatening national issues. Net postings supporting Taiwan's independence or the banned Falun Gong religious group are quickly erased. As more Chinese go online, officials are using increasingly sophisticated tactics -- monitoring the e-mail of suspected individuals and blocking politically sensitive sites, such as CNN. According to Amnesty International, the number of people detained for alleged Net-related offenses rose 60% last year, to 54.

Some Chinese say the Web will eventually create an open society. The Net "is laying the foundation for a true, modern, democratic China," says Charles Zhang, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate who is chairman and CEO of portal Inc. Zhang may be right. But for the foreseeable future, Beijing still makes the call on whether online speech is tolerable or treasonous.

By Heather Green in New York and Bruce Einhorn in Hong Kong

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