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In a sign of official unease about the unrest in Egypt and the fact that it could spark calls for reform at home, Chinese censors are apparently blocking online discussion and sanitising news reports on the subject.
Keyword searches on the protests returned no results Monday on microblogs and the reader comment function on news reports about Egypt was disabled on major portals as China’s pervasive censorship apparatus swung into full gear.
News coverage of the demonstrations against the 30-year rule of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was limited to sparse accounts that largely glossed over the underlying political factors and calls for democracy.
The coverage that there was tended to emphasise the lawlessness in Cairo and the need to restore order — a message hammered home by the foreign ministry.
Major Chinese newspapers on Monday ran no photos from Egypt, while the main midday news omitted footage of street protests, instead showing Mubarak meeting top officials.
“I would imagine the government put out some sort of order for all outlets to use only copy from (state-run news agency) Xinhua. That’s the standard procedure,” said Jeremy Goldkorn, editor of the Beijing-based China media website danwei.org, which also is blocked by censors.
“That way they can sterilise the depiction of the situation or portray it as something negative or a product of Western influence.”
China maintains a tight grip on its online and traditional media, actively blocking content seen as a potential challenge to the legitimacy of the ruling Communist Party.
China’s leaders have faced mounting public discontent in recent years over a range of political hot-button issues including persistent reports of abusive government officials, dangerous environmental damage and now surging inflation.
China suppressed violent ethnic uprisings in Tibet and the mainly Muslim Xinjiang region of northwestern China in 2008 and 2009, while the Nobel Peace Prize won by dissident writer Liu Xiaobo in October also rattled Beijing.
Coverage of Liu’s honour was limited to government denunciations of the decision by the Oslo-based Nobel committee, and foreign TV coverage of the ceremony honouring Liu in December was blacked out.
Beijing’s reaction to the Egypt situation recalls similar curbs put in place during the so-called “colour revolutions” in Eastern Europe a decade ago.
The Global Times, a party-linked newspaper known for its nationalist views, ran an editorial Sunday entitled “Colour revolutions will not bring about real democracy,” that warned of the chaos that could stem from such revolts.
“As a general concept, democracy has been accepted by most people. But when it comes to political systems, the Western model is only one of a few options,” it said.
“It takes time and effort to apply democracy to different countries, and to do so without the turmoil of revolution.”
China’s countless online blogs — the main outlet for relatively free public expression — appeared scrubbed of the subject. Keyword searches on sina.com‘s microblog, the market leader with more than 50-million users, returned no results on the Egypt unrest on Monday.
Searches on major web portals returned an error message saying the topic was not allowed under “relevant laws”.
The explosive growth of Twitter-like microblogging services has emerged as a new challenge for censors seeking to control public discussion.
China blocked Twitter in 2009 — after barring other high-profile foreign internet services such as YouTube and Facebook — after authorities said social-networking services were being used to fan the Xinjiang violence.
However, several Chinese imitations have since filled the void and drawn an enthusiastic following from the country’s huge population of web users, the world’s largest at 457- million.
Users have seized on the platform as a new avenue for mass discourse but controversial issues remain blocked, either directly by the government or by providers hoping to avoid trouble from authorities. – AFP