Last weekend the Tibetan government-in-exile released a disturbing video of the aftermath of last year’s riots in Lhasa. It showed Chinese police clubbing handcuffed detainees and, more gruesomely, the infected wounds of a man who had been beaten and denied treatment. Watching the video left me feeling upset by the violence. But I was also uncertain about the accuracy of the images. While the initial beatings seemed real, it was hard to make a call about hospital footage of the man with the horrific wounds. How many people, after all, know what rotted flesh looks like?
So I didn’t write anything. Few others did either. Then the Chinese government blocked access to YouTube, one of the sites where you can find the Tibetan video. While the reason for the censorship isn’t known, the most likely explanation is that it was due to that video.
When I first began reporting on China in 2003, the blocking of specific sites wasn’t usually a big story. But that’s changed in recent years, and posts about what sites are blocked or unblocked can attract huge amounts of web traffic. I can’t say precisely why this has changed, but I have a few theories. For one, China is more selective with its censorship. Websites for TIME, the New York Times or the BBC that were once almost always blocked are more likely to be accessible here. So now when a site is selectively targeted by the Net Nanny, it’s more a deviation from the norm, and thus newsworthy.
In addition, the nature of the Internet has changed. The importance of photo, video and blog hosting sites has grown dramatically. While we in the mainstream media like to consider ourselves indispensable, the fact is that we are ultimately just news. Blocking YouTube, Flickr or WordPress not only restricts access to videos, photos and blog posts related to specific news events, it also impedes people trying to view the latest Kanye West video, pictures of their friend’s ski trip or their favorite blog on Korean pop stars. In other words, it screws with a whole bunch of folks’ programs.
And lastly, what’s blocked/what’s not is an easily reported story for people writing from China. You don’t have to leave your desk or even pick up the phone. It’s all there on your computer screen. The censors rarely explain their motivation, leaving everyone free to hypothesize. That’s all fat on the fryer.
But I sense this shift in how people cover the Internet in China may be lost on the government. Last weekend individual YouTube pages carrying the Tibet video were blocked here, which wasn’t a much of a story. Now the entire site is blocked, and the censorship and the Tibet video itself have all become subjects of international interest. Beijing says the video is faked and that it’s not afraid of the Internet. But blocking YouTube makes the very opposite statement. If Beijing has proof the video is fake, then detailing that would be far more devastating to the overseas Tibetans’ assertions than blocking YouTube. But for now it’s relying on equally fuzzy claims, further ensuring this story won’t go away.