Four months after the Olympic Games, China has begun again to tighten its grip on the internet.
The news that various websites have been blocked in China, including the BBC and versions of YouTube, is bad news for its 253million internet users. It marks an important shift in policy by the ruling Communist Party, and is a strong indication that the regime will not allow concessions made in the run-up to the Olympics to become permanent.
The government has refused to officially give any reason for the block or even to confirm it, but has hinted that the websites have been banned for commenting on the status of Taiwan. Many websites discussing Hong Kong and Taiwan, and the versions of YouTube located in those regions have also been prohibited. In a press conference this week, a spokesman told reporters, "If a website refers to 'two Chinas' or refers to mainland China and Taiwan as two independent regions, we believe that violates China's anti-secession law, as well as other laws."
President Hu Jintao and the government have been accused by some conservative elements in China of jeopardizing its one-nation policy by improving diplomatic and economic ties with the Taipei government. The latest move to block discussion of Taiwanese independence looks like a concession to the hardliners.
The move has been condemned by democracy campaigners and freedom of speech groups. "Freedom of information is widely violated in China," said Reporters Without Borders, whose own website has been blocked in the latest bout of censorship. "The pretence of liberalization is now over. The blocking of access to the websites of foreign news media speaks volumes about the government’s intolerance."
In recent months, further moves to control Chinese citizen’s freedom on the internet have been uncovered. Internet users in Beijing must now agree to having their photograph taken before they can access the internet at several public internet cafes. The authorities are trying to force public-access computers to run a version of Linux created by the Chinese government, increasing the opportunity for surveillance.
Ideologically-sound internet users are also being paid to flood the internet with positive opinions of the Communist Party and its actions. This network of ‘50 Cent-ers’, so-called because they are paid 50 Chinese cents ($0.07) per upload, has been used by provincial authorities in China for over a year, and is now being used by central departments.
And for the most troublesome of bloggers, the final response is arrest. This week, the wife of jailed blogger Hu Jia spoke to the European Parliament about his imprisonment. Jia was seized in 2007, accused of "incitement to subvert state power" through his writings on environmentalism and AIDS.
This week’s censorship is the clearest sign yet that in China, freedom of speech is a long way away, and retreating.