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The Great Firewall of China

Writing from 1930’s Shanghai, China’s great essayist Lu Xun once observed: “Today there are all kinds of weeklies. Although their distribution is not very wide, they are shining in the darkness like daggers, letting their comrades know who is attacking the old, strong castles.” Muckraking broadsheets in the first half of the last century played cat-and-mouse games with Chinese government censors, ultimately helping to expose the corruption and moral bankruptcy of the Nationalist (KMT) government and contributing to the Communist victory in 1949.

If that sounds familiar, its is because the Chinese Communist Party never forgets its history – and is determined to prevent history from repeating itself. Thus, China’s rulers acted in character last December, when they cracked down on news organizations that were getting a bit too assertive. The editor and deputy editors of Beijing News, a relatively new tabloid with a national reputation for exposing corruption and official abuse, were fired. In protest, more than 100 members of the newspaper’s staff walked out.

Most Chinese might not have known about the walkout if it hadn’t been for Chinese bloggers. An editorial assistant at the New York Times, Zhao Jing, writing under the pen name Michael Anti, broke the news on his widely read Chinese-language blog. He exposed details of behind-the-scenes politics and called for a public boycott of the newspaper, evoking strong public sympathy for the journalists, expressed online in chatrooms and blogs.

Zhao’s blog wasn’t under the direct control of the Party’s Propaganda Department. It was published through a Chinese-language blog-hosting service run by Microsoft’s MSN Spaces. On December 30, Zhao’s blog disappeared. Since then, Microsoft has confirmed that its staff removed the blog from an MSN Internet server, citing the need to respect Chinese law when doing business in China.