China tightens grip on social media for "social stability"

The Chinese state appears to be clamping down on internet access against the backdrop of revolution across the Middle East and North Africa, with calls for an uprising downplayed by officials as the situation threatens to worsen.

Following demands for a Tunisian style ‘Jasmine Revolution’ on a number of Chinese websites, the government took immediate steps to censor any discussion online, thwarting attempts for a large protest in downtown Shanghai as activists were detained.

It is thought that the government is increasingly nervous that the unregulated flow of information could lead to social unrest over problems like food prices, with inspiration being taken from the revolutions in Egypt, Libya and other countries which thrived on web access and social media.

An anonymous online appeal had begun, calling for anti-government protests in 11 cities across China, including Beijing, but any hopes of a significant protest were quickly curtailed as the Chinese state’s ‘Great Firewall’ censorship machine went into overdrive.

According to Wall Street Journal, the simple approach of thuggery and physical intimidation were used to influence potential protestors, with many being detained at their homes – meaning that only a handful were able to attend the protests.

However government officials also openly highlighted how the internet is being used to stymie any potential discontent from the public, with Zhou Yongkang appealing for tighter supervision and greater controls, following a similar statement by President Hu Jintao recently.

“Strive to defuse conflicts and disputes while they are still embryonic,” Zhou was quoted as saying.

Another official was quoted as saying that the state is nonplussed by Hilary Clinton’s recent accusations that the authoritarian government is facing a “dictators dilemma”.

“We’re not afraid,” the official told a small group of foreign and Chinese reporters. “We don’t have anything to worry about, but we have to prevent people from using the internet to damage or destroy social stability.”

The official cited the “old methods” used by other countries to control society as to blame for recent upheavals, while China is very much at the cutting edge of state repression, with control over the sharing of information without having to pull the plug on all access.

However, the already heavily regulated Chinese web was subject to increased restrictions with censors blocking out any reference to the word “Jasmine” on popular Twitter-like microblogging websites, as well all references removed from search engines.

Even text messages were reported to be heavily censored, with the mention of Wangfuking, the shopping district where activists were told to congregate, meaning that messages were blocked.

It is feared that the state will continue to tighten its grip over the internet in the near future.

Qiao Mu, director of the Center for International Communications Studies at Beijing Foreign Students University, said popular blogging site Sina Weibo had been deleting more posts in the wake of the president’s speech, telling the WSJ:  “I think the internet situation in China will get worse”.