“A very good day to get out anything we want to bury.”
That was Jo Moore’s ill-advised take on the events of 9/11, emailed to a press officer 20 minutes after the second plane had hit the World Trade Center, and four minutes before the first tower fell.
Moore, a special adviser to the UK’s Transport Minister, ended up making a public apology, after her message sparked a firestorm of criticism about the evils of the Blair government’s obsession with media “spin”.
At first glance, the spin quotient in the Chinese context would seem to be lower. That is no ringing endorsement: there is less need to disguise bad news when so much of it is prevented from reaching the media in the first place.
Still, press control in China is rarely enforced with the Orwellian discipline often imagined. WiC has commented before on stories that have burned bright in the public attention, usually to the considerable discomfort of the authorities (see WiC5, 22 and 84). But almost all the hardest-hitting items have originated online, which makes the current press discussion of 703804.com, a local bulletin board, an interesting one.
703804 is based in Wenzhou (the numbers in the site’s name sound like slang for “ramble” in the local dialect). But it has been earning widespread national attention in a discussion of whistleblowing.
That has even meant some (rather stretched) comparisons with WikiLeaks, although 703804’s founder, Ye Zhe, is astute enough to stress that he is no Julian Assange. “We just provide a platform for the public to discuss issues freely, and we do not aim to disclose secret government documents,” he told the Global Times earlier this month.
Still, the site has a punchy reputation with the bureaucrats of Wenzhou, says Oriental Outlook Weekly (enough, in fact, for the newspaper to compare it to the ‘Sword of Damocles’ hanging over official heads).
More prosaically, various civil servants seem to have been fired over cases unearthed on the site, which means that many currently employed bureaucrats now start their day with an anxious glance through the latest 703804 material.
Starting out in 2003 as a bulletin board, the site was created to host community discussion. Much of that soon turned to allegations against civil servants, which attracted the disapproving eye of the Network Monitoring Division, Wenzhou’s internet police. Trying to shake them off the scent, Ye moved his server around the country. But the site was still blocked or disrupted on hundreds of occasions, reports Oriental Outlook.
Then, in 2005, a breakthrough. Discussion of the Shen Nuo case (a local incident in which a policeman was involved in a hit-and-run accident) spread to other online news outlets, before reaching the print media. Shen received an official warning, curtailing his promotion opportunities.
That seems to have prompted the monitors to rethink, and they met with 703804’s founders to try to establish a friendlier dialogue. For example, after a major fire in the city, they then provided the site with updates on casualty numbers. A more constructive relationship seems to have been forged.
Might that infer an evolving approach to how Chinese authorities seek to manage unofficial news flow on the internet?
The fact that bigger beasts in the state media like Xinhua, CCTV and the People’s Daily have all lined up to interview Ye might suggest so. 21CN Business Herald has also reported that the working arrangements with the Wenzhou government have been written up as a reference case, which was internally distributed at a “high-level” last year.
But that also leads other commentators to caution that material on 703804 is being “spun” rather than blocked outright.
The sense is that the censors are fine with reports of a few cases of lower rank misdemeanour as long as nothing more significant makes it into the news. Hence the Southern Metropolis Daily laughs off 703804’s casting as “Wenzhou’s WikiLeaks”, predicting that the site will soon be blocked if it starts spotlighting the type of material that freaks the authorities out. Nor does it sound like Ye himself sees the website’s future in ‘Sword of Damocles’ terms. A kitchen utensil sounds like a better fit. That’s because he says it’s best to think of 703804 as a cooking pot, in which netizens provide the ingredients but the government controls the heat.
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