Chinese bloggers get free rein as earthquake slows censors

Doubts that the current trend toward Web leniency will last long

Chinese blogger Paul Denlinger noted in his blog Monday that for the first time ever, Chinese flags are lowered to half mast to commemorate the loss of ordinary citizens. The flags have been lowered for the tens of thousands of victims down during a three-day national mourning period that ends on Wednesday.

Another Chinese blogger wrote about the three minutes of silence the country observed this week to remember the 40,000 people who are believed to have perished in the 7.9-magnitude quake. "I was by my office window and could see people stopped in their tracks on the sidewalk, all standing still," the blogger identified as Richard wrote. "The traffic stopped dead while the horns blared. The migrant workers in the concrete and steel pit alongside my building all stopped their work and stood up as well. Everyone faced the same direction, their heads lowered."

In the wake of the devastating earthquake, Chinese bloggers and reporters have been given much freedom - far more than the government usually allows -- to publish details of the tragedy and to offer online expressions of mourning. Just two months ago, the same government faced harsh criticism for instituting a media lockdown following the dispatching of Chinese troops to Tibet to crack down on protestors.

The desire to avoid the type of national criticism it faced over the Tibetan situation, combined with a desire to appear more open to the world as the Beijing summer Olympics get closer, prompted the government to allow more transparency from bloggers and other online writers, according to observers who are familiar with the government's traditionally strict requirements for the media. For example, they noted that the government often has yanked critical blogs posts from Chinese Web sites.

Daniel Chow, a law professor at Ohio State University who focuses on Chinese matters, said that the government has typically prevented any information pertaining to disasters from leaving the country until well after the event.

"China has come under a lot of criticism lately because of the Tibet protests," Chow said. "This is a way for China to get some favorable international publicity. The Chinese government wants to show that it is caring for its people and is responding well to a disaster."

Chow said that he doubts that the current trend toward Web leniency will last long.

"Does this mean a fundamental shift in policy toward opening up the Internet? I don't think so," he said. "If we didn't have the Olympics and the whole Tibet protest issue problem there would not be as much transparency and there would not be the loosening of the control on the Internet."

Other examples of the Chinese government opening the flow of online information out of the country, include a Chinese soccer commentator's blog post describing a disabled student's ordeal during the quake and photos of students from a school that was devastated by the quake playing at recess the day before the earthquake.

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Heather Havenstein

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