An Avenue for Dissent

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The official People's Daily lets citizens speak their minds in one of China's liveliest online chat rooms
By MIA TURNER Beijing

A penetrating take on the Taiwan election appeared online recently in the Strong Power Forum chat room. Posted by a writer identified only as New Century, it identified the problems that Chen Shui-bian's victory poses for China's leaders. The missive urged Beijing to tone down its threatening rhetoric, concluding: Dropping pretentious airs and listening to public opinion will benefit the Communist Party. Now for the interesting part: the message was posted on a mainland Chinese website. Now for the really interesting part: the site is operated by the People's Daily, the party's official mouthpiece.

The Internet is changing China, throwing the country open to ideas and debates that simply aren't accessible through traditional media. Beijing continues to control, or at least heavily censor, virtually every magazine and newspaper published in the country. But in their eagerness to develop the Net, China's top leaders appear willing to tolerate a certain amount of frankness that would otherwise be stamped out. The People's Daily got into the act last year, launching Strong Power Forum to give readers a chance to react to the news and vent their emotions. And to attract revenue: with newspaper sales plunging and chat rooms popping up on popular portal sites like Sina.com and Netease.com, the People's Daily no doubt hopes the Net can drive traffic back its way. The forum is already one of China's hottest, averaging 70,000 page views a day, primarily among people ages 19 to 35.


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An official chat room is one of the country's liveliest forums

Advertisers look to make money from patriotic fervor The chat room is the brainchild of Jiang Yapin, the 49-year-old chief of the paper's website (peopledaily.com.cn). Jiang was an economics correspondent in 1996 when he was tapped to set up the paper's online presence. These days, Jiang is a creature of the technology. Meeting in his office with a visitor, he constantly turns to his desktop computer, tapping out quick messages or watching discussions develop online. We're a 10-month-old healthy baby, Jiang says about Strong Power Forum. This is the future.

The idea of a chat room for discussing the news was approved early last year, but there was some hesitation over when and how to launch it. We were waiting for a special occasion, Jiang says. That came on May 8, when NATO warplanes bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. A day later the People's Daily launched online what was then called the Protest Forum; within 24 hours it had 50,000 visitors. Although NATO insists the attack was an accident, most Chinese are convinced it was intentional. As students demonstrated outside the American embassy in Beijing, pelting it with stones, the website's visitors angrily bashed the West. Said a writer identified as Awakening: Let the United States open its eyes wide to see the Chinese people stand up! Warned another: NATO's decision to take a great political risk will become the fuse for World War III.

When the protests died down a few days later, Jiang and his staff of five searched for a way to keep the forum going. (There are six other chat rooms on the People's Daily site, including areas devoted to sports, health and Sino-Japanese relations.) We realized we couldn't only protest, says Jiang. So the team expanded the discussion topics and changed the name to Strong Power Forum, or Qiangguo Luntan. (Its Web address, qglt.com, is an abbreviation of the Chinese name.) As Jiang sees it, the site is tapping a growing trend toward outspokenness. After two decades of Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms, he says. Chinese people want to express their ideas to the government.

Some wonder if this openness will prove short-lived, as did Mao Zedong's 1957 political campaign that called on Chinese to let a hundred flowers bloom. That interlude ended in the Anti-Rightist campaign, in which many people who spoke up were persecuted and arrested. Jiang, for one, thinks the current climate is risk-free. The government needs to know what the people are thinking, he says. Nevertheless, there are restrictions on what can be posted. As Jiang puts it: Postings can not break Chinese law or use foul language. If they do, they get weeded out. But what's remarkable is that even the cheekiest messages (all are anonymously submitted) go online for everyone to see -- for a few minutes, at least. At any given time, there are likely to be a number of statements strongly critical of the government or the party that have yet to be zapped by Jiang's team of watchdogs.

The passion reminds some Chinese of the dazibao (big-character poster) writing of the Cultural Revolution, when people openly criticized one other. Again Jiang stresses how times have changed. The big-character posters were full of abuse and personal attacks, he says. The key is to have a standard so that our users know what they can and cannot do on the Web.

Contributors clearly feel they can do plenty. The chat room is a far cry from the staid voice of the mother paper. When the deputy governor of Jiangxi province, Hu Changqing, was executed last month for taking bribes, the People's Daily opined: For such a flagrant criminal, only the death penalty is sufficient to safeguard national law, satisfy popular indignation, rectify the Party work style and fight against corruption. A contributor online put it a bit differently: Bad luck! Everyone else is still alive! Another critic of corruption, calling himself (or herself) Sweet Tongue, wrote: There is only one way to deal with corruption -- Democracy! Democratic elections! The really, really interesting part: the government fully supports the site.