China Blacks Out Media on Chen Guangcheng, Censors Internet

International   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Apr 30, 2012   |   6:59PM   |   Beijing, China

China’s state-run media has said absolutely nothing about the daring escape Chen Guangcheng made from his house arrest, where family planning and Communist Party officials had kept him detained at home for exposing forced abortions.

As one web site notes, Chinese people are taking to microblogs and using language without key words Chinese officials might spot in order to keep each other informed.

Despite Mr Chen’s escape making international headlines, There has been no mention of Mr Chen’s escape in mainstream Chinese media outlets, and authorities have sought to clamp down on commentary on the nation’s popular Twitter-like microblogs.

Many Chinese microblog users have been using wordplay to skirt the censors and discuss Mr Chen’s escape. “Letting a blind man escape despite 60 people watching – what a loss of face, of course they [Chinese authorities] are keeping quiet,” one wrote.

Meanwhile, the European media outlet AFP provides more details on the censorship campaign.

Searches for Chen’s name and the Chinese terms for “Shawshank”, “blind person”, “embassy”, and Chen’s home village of Dongshigu were all blocked on Sina Weibo, China’s leading microblogging service.

Also blocked was “UA898”, a United Airlines direct flight from Beijing to Washington, apparently after web users speculated online about the possibility Chen would gain US asylum. Other blocked terms included the names of Chen’s relatives and the Internet nickname of a woman, He Peirong, who reportedly helped him escape.

The searches triggered messages saying the results could not be displayed due to “relevant regulations”.

Some web users had used the Chinese characters for “Shawshank” to refer to the case. “The Shawshank Redemption” was a 1994 film based on a novella by US author Stephen King, about a convict’s escape from an American prison.

But Chinese censors, as Mashable reports, are quick to learn even the new words and phrases the Chinese people are using to talk about the forced abortion opponent.

Weibo, a Chinese-run company is the most popular microblogging service in China, but foreign services exist as well. Twitter and other social networks operate in the country only on the promise they will comply with state-mandated censorship guidelines.

Chinese users first employed “blind man” as code for Chen immediately after his disappearance became known. After that was blocked by censors, “embassy” became a popular term before it, too, was squelched.

“Sina the weibo now has been unable to search the embassy information,” reported Weibo user mobbyca and translated through Google Chrome. “This trick everyone learned, is not a good thing.”

Weibo users have switched to more complex phrases to stay ahead of Beijing’s officials. Just as China’s censors figure out which phrases to ban, activists spread a new code — and another mole pops up for the censors to whack.

“Going into the light” has become widely used as a reference to the activist, according to Reuters, because the phrase represents defection but also because of a play on words on the middle Chinese character in Chen’s name.

In a press conference today with Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda of Japan in the East Room of the White House, President Barack Obama refused to comment on whether the U.S would offer long-term protection for forced abortion opponent Chen Guangcheng. [related]

“I am aware of the press reports,” Obama said without naming the human rights activist directly, “but I’m not going to make a statement on the issue.”

Obama claimed that the issue of human rights in China, though he did not mention forced abortions, sterilizations or infanticides specifically, comes up frequently in conversations between American and Chinese leaders.

“What I would like to emphasize is that every time we meet with China, the issue of human rights comes up,” Obama added.

Chen, a blind attorney, had been in captivity at his home after spending years in prison after he was convicted on trumped-up charges engineered by family planning and Communist Party officials for retaliation against his exposing a massive brutal campaign in his local county involving the victimization of thousands in forced abortions and sterilizations.

In a daring rescue attempt, human rights campaigners helped Chen escape his home confinement and took him to an undisclosed location in Beijing — reportedly the U.S embassy — but the Obama administration has given no indication of whether it will provide Chen with political asylum or other diplomatic protection. Leading pro-life campaigners and human rights groups are concerned that if Chen is not protected, Chinese officials may illegally detain him and send him back to prison, home detention or may take his life.