Beijing gets blogging

With his baggy black T-shirt, earnest round face and mid-length hair, my friend looks like exactly what he is: a geeky, techno-savvy, new-generation Chinese journalist-cum-blogger-cum-podcaster.

"There's an imbalance of flow between the Chinese and English blogospheres, so I translate the most important English articles for my blog readers," he explained, when I met him near the Temple of the Sun in Ritan Park, central Beijing. His day job is reporting for a Chinese newspaper.

"I can't use the word 'I' in the paper, but on my blog I can say what I like. It's very cool."

Despite his apparent confidence, he quailed at the idea of my using his name. From time to time, blogs and websites are closed down, and several internet journalists have been detained.

"The unexpected may happen if this article is read by the BIG BROTHER some day. Or may be nothing would happen, it's hard to tell," he wrote in an e-mail. "This is the situation we Chinese bloggers face every day. It sucks, but I have to stand it."

According to the Beijing-based China Internet Network Information Centre, nearly eight million Chinese are regular bloggers, 17.5 million are occasional bloggers and 70 million read blogs.

"It's where the limits are being tested," said Jeremy Goldkorn, a South African who has lived in China for 11 years and publishes Danwei, an English-language blog on the media, urban life and anything else that takes his fancy (www. danwei.org). "You don't see a lot of serious pol itical criticism on the Chinese sites, and those who try get their websites shut down. But the internet is opening up more space. It's the stirrings of civil society, not a revolution."

On 19 September, a Beijing non-governmental organisation, the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (www.ipe.org.cn), published online a map of the most polluted rivers in China, listing the companies pouring toxic waste into Chinese waters.

In mid-August the local press in Rui'an, in south-eastern China, reported that a teacher, Dai Haiqing, had committed suicide by jumping from her apartment window. A few days later, her students posted an open letter on the web.

"On the day before she died, she told us that she will be giving us dictation the next day . . . She told us that life is like a coin, and we should see the good side instead of being stuck under the dark skies all the time! So how could she have killed herself?" they wrote.

The letter was picked up by several blogs; the speculation was that Dai Haiqing had been murdered, and that the Rui'an police were protecting her husband, a wealthy local businessman. The students walked silently through the streets of the city in school uniform, carrying a banner saying: "So many doubts! Where is justice?" More people joined the demonstration, which eventually turned into a riot, with cars overturned, windows smashed and police beating demonstrators. I know this because I've seen the photos posted on the EastSouthWestNorth blog (www.zonaeuropa.com/weblog) and the video on YouTube. None of this made the Chinese newspapers or television. EastSouthWestNorth is based in Hong Kong, which is still safer for reporters than the mainland. Hong Kong's English-language South China Morning Post also carries contentious stories that mainland newspapers avoid. Individuals who fear their site being closed down may post on an international site, hosted outside China.

Zeng Jinyan used MSN Spaces, the Microsoft web platform, to chronicle the detention of her husband, Hu Jia, a well-known Aids and environmental activist. She described how she teased the secret police who followed her everywhere.

"I went into a custom T-shirt shop at Xidan 77th and ordered three T-shirts," she blogged in July. "After about one hour, I walked out wearing a T-shirt that said 'House Arrested Again' (in English) . . . The National Security men who were following saw me coming out of the women's restroom in a new shirt and they were stunned." The blog featured photos of Zeng Jinyan in the offending T-shirt. Hu Jia has since been released; his wife is still blogging.

Western governments and human-rights groups frequently chastise foreign companies for bowing to Chinese demands on controlling the web. This year, concerned about losing valuable business in China, Microsoft shut down a dissident blog on MSN Spaces at the behest of the government. Yahoo has been criticised sharply for handing over to the authorities the e-mail records of Shi Tao, a journalist who was later imprisoned for "divulging state secrets". But if companies such as Google refused to operate in China, the space the country's netizens are opening up would be that much narrower.

The authorities use intricate technical filtering programs, and even pay students to enter internet chatrooms and "guide" the conversation towards "suitable" topics, but China's net-users often know how to get around the restrictions. In the end, it's the bloggers and their readers - not foreign companies - who will breach the great firewall of China.

Lindsey Hilsum is China correspondent for Channel 4 News