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New freedom, peril, in online criticism of China

Pro-Tibet demonstrations spawn nationalist sentiment on China's Internet bulletin boards.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Wang Qianyuan did not realize she would cause such a frenzy last week when she ran into a group of American students, Tibetan flags tied over their shoulders, getting ready for a vigil at Duke University to support human rights.

She used blue body paint to write "Save Tibet" slogans on the bare back of one of the organizers but did not join their demonstration.

Wang, a Chinese national, knew she was treading on sensitive territory. "But human rights are above everything," she said later in a telephone interview. Even national pride.

Before long, a video of the 20-year-old freshman, seen standing between pro-Tibet activists and Chinese counterprotesters, was posted on the Internet. Within hours, an angry mob gathered online, calling her a "traitor" who should be punished.

Someone posted personal information about Wang on the Internet, including her national identification card number, as well as her parents' address and phone number in China. "Makes us lose so much face. Shoot her where she stands," one anonymous user wrote in a comment posted above Wang's portrait from Qingdao No. 2 Middle School.

In the wake of the violence that has rocked Tibet and the protests over the Olympic torch relay, online bulletin boards in China have erupted with virulent comments rooted in nationalist sentiments. On some sites, emotional Chinese have exchanged personal information about critics and hunted them down. Such situations have become so common that some users refer to the sites as "human flesh search engines."

Loosening Internet restrictions
The verbal onslaughts have been made possible in part by the Chinese government, which has allowed online discussion to progress more freely recently than in the past. With the Olympics nearing, China has gradually allowed some sites that had been left on-again, off-again for years -- BBC, CNN, YouTube and others -- to remain accessible for several weeks now.

Even Wikipedia, blocked for years because of its controversial entries about human rights in China, is accessible and contains a lengthy entry on the "2008 Tibetan unrest." It notes that "Tibetans attacked non-Tibetan ethnic groups" but also contains information that "the violence was fueled by rumors of killings, beatings and detention of monks by security forces in Lhasa."

The number of Internet users in China hit 228.5 million in March -- for the first time surpassing the number of users in the United States, 217.1 million, according to the Beijing-based research firm BDA China.

Almost as soon as the news about the Tibet violence broke in mid-March, the Chinese government's initial response was to do what it had always done in times of crisis: It imposed a news blackout. Foreign news Web sites deemed controversial were blocked and faxes were sent to administrators of online discussion sites requesting that certain postings be deleted.

Then, just as quickly as online news and discussion about Tibet disappeared, it reappeared -- overwhelmingly in support of the Chinese government.

The situation in Tibet and the controversy over the Olympic torch relay is now the most popular discussion topic on Tianya, one of the largest online discussion sites in China, even though the site used to follow a very clear rule: No politics.

"Chinese Internet users very much like to express their opinions, and the environment on the Internet as compared to traditional media is more open to allowing them to do so," said Xing Ming, 39, chief executive of Tianya, which was founded in 1999 in Haikou, a city on an island in southern China.

Improving China's domestic image
Xiao Zengjian, founder and editor of another discussion site, KDNet, said that the new openness has done wonders to help China's image domestically. "Our Internet users do not just believe what Xinhua News says," he said, referring to the state-run news service. "They will verify it. The Chinese media wants to cover things up for the sake of China but it backfires. It's better to tell the truth and let people discuss it."

On Tianya, with 20 million registered users one of the largest online discussion sites in China, the conversation about the Olympics is emotional.

"China is in danger," wrote one user. "We should stick together. Even if there is something wrong with the action of the government, we should pull together. Resistance to foreign invasion necessitates internal pacification."

Internet users hailed Jin Jing, the athlete who carried the Olympic torch while in her wheelchair only to be confronted by protesters in Paris; reports say she protected the torch "at the cost of her life." (She was not injured.) Others referred to "stupid Westerners" and compared the Dalai Lama to Hitler.

Online anger's real-world consequences
Postings criticizing the Chinese government or supporting Tibetan independence are rare but prominent -- mostly because they are immediately followed by a storm of angry responses, including ones that call for the "immediate execution" of the authors.

In some cases, the online anger has had real-world consequences.

An Internet mob went after Lobsang Gendun, an ethnic Tibetan who lives in Salt Lake City, after anonymous online posters wrongly identified him as one of Jin's attackers. They posted a Google map of his neighborhood, a photo of his house, and his home phone number, employer and e-mail address. He's gotten thousands of angry e-mails, many he cannot read because his computer does not recognize Chinese characters, and unless he disconnects his phone, it rings through the night. On Tuesday, his boss persuaded him to take his family and move into a hotel until things calm down.

"It's scary," Gendun said in a phone interview. "I replied to some e-mails trying to tell them I'm not the person they saw on the news."

The comments about Wang are mostly unprintable -- they are sexually explicit and violent -- but she is most offended by how online users have targeted her family.

"It's really shocking," Wang said from her dorm room as she looked at an image posted online of her parents' front door in Qingdao, a city on China's east coast. An overturned bucket of excrement is lying in front. "They are directly, physically attacking my parents."

Wang and her mother communicate only though e-mail these days, sending short messages once in the morning and once at night that they are safe. Wang has not telephoned because she fears possible government eavesdropping that could cause more problems for her parents.

Her mother told Wang recently that someone -- she doesn't know who -- installed a video camera outside their apartment. She and Wang's father have moved out.

Wang's father is a Communist Party member. He sent her two long e-mails right after the incident telling her to publicly apologize. "After the opening up and reform, China has made great developments and been steady, so that you and our family have all we have today," her father wrote in Chinese. He said she should concentrate on her studies and stay away from politics. He told her that he and her mom loved her but that she needed to tell people she had chosen the wrong path.

But as Wang describes the events of the April 10 vigil and her involvement, she stands by her actions.

Effort to mediate fails
She said that she when she arrived at the vigil, a couple of dozen pro-Tibetan students were facing off with around 400 Chinese students, waving Chinese flags and shouting slogans. She decided to try to mediate between the two groups but found that neither side wanted to listen. The Chinese students surrounded her, shouting insults and peppering her with questions about her national loyalty. She eventually asked a police officer to escort her back to her dorm.

A few hours later, Wang wrote an essay and posted it on a forum run by the Duke Chinese Students and Scholars Association. In it, she explained what she had tried to say at the demonstration: She did not support Tibetan independence but called for tolerance and dialogue.

The forum was soon aflame with critical posts.

Wang says she has gotten hundreds of phone calls and thousands of e-mails, most vilifying her but some that are supportive.

"One-sixth of the population of the world now knows my personal information as detailed as my identity number," Wang said. "I'm not going to let them easily call me a traitor, such a name that can ruin my future forever."

Drew reported from Beijing. Researcher Liu Liu contributed to this report.