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John Dowdell

Chinese Bloggers Stage Hoax
Aimed at Censorship Debate
By GEOFFREY A. FOWLER and JUYING QIN
March 14, 2006; Page B3

Some well-known bloggers in China used an unlikely tool last week to make a point that Western news media and politicians misunderstand Chinese censorship. They shut themselves down.

Notices posted on the Chinese-language blogs Massage Milk and Milk Pig announced that "Due to unavoidable reasons with which everyone is familiar, this blog is temporarily closed."

Within hours, English-language bloggers and Western news media spread the word that the Chinese government had closed the sites. The BBC news service reported that Massage Milk was "closed down by the authorities," adding that the act had coincided with the annual session of the Chinese legislature. Picking up on that report and others from news services, French free-press group Reporters Without Borders issued a statement condemning the closure of the blogs.

China has recently stepped up its censorship of dissent and monitoring of the Internet, late last year asking Microsoft Corp. to take down the blog of journalist Michael Anti, among other acts. After the topic hit the front pages of U.S. newspapers and magazines, Congress held hearings in February about the ways in which U.S. Internet companies cooperate with Chinese censorship.

But in this case, it appears the Chinese government wasn't involved. By Thursday, a day after the shut-downs, the blogs were back up and running.

In an interview, Beijing-based journalist Wang Xiaofeng of Massage Milk says he shut his blog down to make a point about freedom of speech -- just one directed at the West instead of at Beijing. He calls the Western press "irresponsible" and says that the hoax was designed "to give foreign media a lesson that Chinese affairs are not always the way you think."

"They are not just supposed to report based on their own perceptions, without understanding the circumstances in China," he says, noting that the BBC's report was exactly what he expected. The BBC didn't call him to discuss the issue before publishing its stories, he says.
[climbing fast]

London-based BBC reporter Sebastian Usher, who wrote the original BBC report, says he did try to contact Mr. Wang but wasn't able to reach him. "There is a knee-jerk reaction amongst journalists -- including myself -- to stories that seem to show the Chinese cracking down on freedom of expression on the Internet," he wrote in an email. The BBC later corrected its story citing a government role in the shutdowns.

Reporters Without Borders issued a correction to its statement on March 9, calling the incident a "joke." But Julien Pain, who runs the organization's Internet Freedom Desk, says he doesn't think Mr. Wang understands the consequences of the incident.

"If some bloggers start crying wolf this way," Mr. Pain says, "nobody will listen to us when we try to support those who really need help. Censorship exists, as well as repression against Internet writers."

Mr. Wang says he and Milk Pig acted jointly. Milk Pig couldn't be reached for comment.

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