Those Worried Young People

(CBN Weekly)  Those Worried Young People.  By Yang Xiaoyu, Gong Hongyan and Liu Ping.  January 21, 2010.

January 13.  6pm.  Blogbus.com CEO Dou Yi got out of his chair with his mobile phone in his hand.  He took two steps forward in his office and then made a full turn on the same spot.

It had been eight days and nine nights since Blogbus.com was blocked on January 5 during the Internet clean-up campaign.  On January 13, Dou Yi made untold many calls.  His phone battery ran out four times.  He repeated the same words over and over on the phone.  Now there was only the final step of notifying his domain registration service to unblock the website.  "But they cannot be reached on any telephone number."

The dry-mouthed Dou Yi is actually one of the luckier ones.  Compared to the other entrepreneurs who were affected by the Internet clean-up, at least he knew what steps he had to go through and where to work towards.

Wang Xing's micro-blogging service Fanfou found its service suddenly stopped by China Unicom's Beijing Internet Data Centre (IDC) for "violating the relevant state regulations" in July 2009.  As of now, service has not resumed.  In November 2009, Chen Haozhi (who is Yeeyan's chairman and president) received notice from their IDC that Yeeyan has violated the "administrative regulations for news/information services."  One month later, BTChina's webmaster Huang Xiwei received a letter informing him that the registration of his website has been cancelled ...

I interviewed four young people.  The oldest among them was only 33 years old.  They are a new generation of entrepreneurs, they are in the vivacious Internet market and they put their unlimited creativity into action.  But they are not a happy lot.

It shouldn't be this way.  The websites that they founded all have sizeable numbers of users.  With so many fans, they are the objects of admiration for peers who could not attract users.  But today, they are just several young people who were affected by the 2009 Internet clean-up campaign in China.

According to the tally by People Net, more than 100,000 websites were affected in the Internet clean-up campaign that began in 2009, including Google, Baidu, Tudou, Douban, etc.

From being closed to re-opening, Blogbus.com took 8 days and Yeeyan took almost 50 days.  Those were days of anxiety.  Chen Haozhi said that his son was born on November 19.  When the website was shut down on November 30, he almost did not get to see his son for the next month.  "Who can understand the loss?"

Wang Xing and Huang Xiwei were definitely even grimmer because their websites have not re-opened yet.  Wang Xing had founded multiple businesses before and he is now working on a new project.  Huang Xiwei who could not come up with 10 million yuan in capital said helplessly "my capability is limited" and "let it be closed then."

During the same period, Twitter founder Jack Dorsey began his next business by formally entered the electronic payment business.  In 2009, his Twitter was the Internet company that drew the most attention.  He felt fantastic because there are so many things still to do.

He and Dou Yi, Chen Haozhi are of the same age.  33 years old.  But he has something that these other young men don't have -- a genuinely smiling face.

On January 8, 2010, Yeeyan registered a new domain name yeeyan.org.  There is no news yet about when the former domain name yeeyan.com will be restored.  Chen Haozhi hopes that yeeyan.com can be unblocked quickly.  He felt that it is a very sad thing when the Internet environment is such that a person who "creates social values and new enterprises" like himself feels trapped.  Therefore, "if I have to shoulder this, I will."  But he also said, 'Frankly, I don't know how long I'll have to shoulder this."

At around 8pm on January 13, Dou Yi and his people have waited almost one full day.  A worker sitting in front of the computer suddenly yelled out, "We've been unblocked!"  Several people clustered around and applauded spontaneously with smiles.  "Issue a notice immediately!"  Dou Yi ordered.

At 20:05, the Sina.com microblog posted the latest information about Blogbus.com.

At that moment, Dou Yi took out his mobile phone by habit.  He took a look at it and then put it back into his pocket.  The phone can take a break.

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Interview with Dou Yi of Blogbus.com

Q: Why was Blogbus.com shut down on the afternoon of January 5?
A: There was some harmful, vulgar information.  We had deleted them in September 2009.  Maybe the supervisory department found out before then and followed up ... then that day ...

Q: Did you feel the shutdown was unexpected?  Or did you have a premonition?
A: Very unexpected.  We did not receive any notice through the normal channels.  They did not go through the city bureau, or the branch division.  Direct removal of the domain name has never happened before.

Q: What did the website do that day?
A: At the time, I thought that we would recover the next day because it was not very serious.  Firstly, we had already deleted the information; secondly, this was not a serious problem compared to what we had previously.  At the time, I did not imagine that we would be blocked for so long.

Q: What serious problems did you encounter before?
A: Political speeches, and materials that were even more vulgar.

Q: You originally thought that it was a trivial matter that could be resolved quickly but it went on for some time.  Were you worried?
A: Yes.  The next day, we found that we were still blocked.  I began to contact the supervisory department.  The public security bureau, the Ministry of Information Industry, the Telecommunications Administration, the Domain Name Service ... we took them through step by step.  Everybody tried to negotiate this matter.  We were worried.  But I still thought that this was normal.  It was normal to supervise at all times.  But I thought that we cannot hurry these things along.  Ultimately, we are working with the government.  But I began to lose patience when the matter dragged on.  Perhaps it was because I still lacked experience.

Q: Why did you tell your team?  I see that many workers are worried.
A: Actually, I did not talk to anyone except the managers.  But everybody knew because the information was public.  Actually, the thing is to tell the users about what happened.  I said it on Douban the next day.

Q: You can breathe a sigh of relief now.
A: Actually we knew that we would come out okay this time.  But I did not know how long it would take.

Q: So do you know all the rules and regulations by heart by now?
A: Actually, I knew them before.  This time, it was mainly because we did not take the matter too seriously.  After a few days, we got concerned and we were prepared to go to Beijing.  Then we communicated with the Beijing department.  They said that it was okay and we just had to wait.  So we became more patient.

Q: After re-opening the website, do you plan to make any changes in self-monitoring?
A: We will be more strict in self-monitoring.  There were some gaps in what happened before.  Over the past few days, we have done some testing and also increased the number of workers in order to conduct effective supervision.

Q: Many users are concerned that monitoring will be stricter afterwards.
A: We will still actively provide a good environment for everybody.  At the same time, we will obey the relevant regulations.  Only by doing so can we guarantee that the majority of our users will be able to function normally.

Q: Balancing the two is an art.
A: But it is feasible.  This is part of our work, and we will run across this again.

Q: This means that you are treating this as normal?
A: Experience makes it a custom.

Q: Where did the greatest pressure on you come during the time when the website was down?
A: It came from needing to give an account to the users and letting them blog again normally.

Q: Have you figure out the impact of this incident on Blogbus.com?
A: It is mostly invisible.  The key is how you run your business in the future.  We do this based upon our consideration of our product and our understanding of our users.  Most users understand Blogbus.com.  They choose Blogbus.com after making comparisons with other services.  Some people may move away.  But those people who know our website and its products will continue to choose Blogbus.com.  We think that there may be some impact, but it won't be too great.

Q: Did this experience make you feel that there are many risks beyond your control?
A: Not necessarily.  For everything, there is always a key to open the lock.  So far, I think that all the problems that we have come across can be solved.  We always found the key.  The biggest problem will be when we can't find the key.  Then we can't open the lock and enter.

Q: Do you think that you will always be in the Internet industry?
A: So far at least, I will be here for a long time.  I have not thought about switching to another industry.

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Interview with Wang Xing of Fanfou

Q: I remember that Fanfou was monitoring itself during that time.  You weighed Fanfou deleting certain user contents against Fanfou being shut down itself.
A: At the time, we thought that it was a bad thing when that incident took place (note: the Urumqi riots on July 5, 2009).  We took emergency measures to prohibit certain keywords and we turned off the searching function.  We put in both technical and human resources.  But in retrospect, we were still unable to satisfy the requirements.  We were unable to cope with the first suddenly breaking emergency situation.

Q: What did people talk about after the website shutdown?
A: Internal discussions within our team was rational.  When we encounter a problem, we discuss how to solve that problem.  I was mainly responsible for external communication.  The other partner was responsible for the technical aspects.  We get together to prepare materials.

Q: What are the contents of the materials?
A: It was mainly to state the facts.   We were notified by the server company that our website would be suspended.  Then we described our existing problems.  We spoke about the measures that we were taking in order to guarantee that our website won't be a conduit for harmful information.  We are not particularly skilled at this sort of communication.  We can only try our best to write in a standard and professional manner.

Q: Did you estimate how long it will take to re-open?
A: At first, we figured that we could re-open after National Day.  But we were still unable to re-open after that.

Q: Did you feel a lot of pressure?
A: At first, I wanted to re-open as quickly as possible and I did not think about anything else.  Therefore, I didn't feel any pressure.  But when I see people say in Douban, Baidu and other blogs that they are still waiting for Fanfou to come back after six months of waiting, I think that is a kind of pressure.

Q: Have you felt despair?
A: No.  I really don't know what despair is.  Perhaps you think that I am insincere in saying so, but those are my true thoughts.  We are still young.  No matter what happens, life goes on.  I often think that when I look back fifty years later at what I was doing today, it is really no big deal.  Anyway, this is what I think.

Q: How was the business situation at Fanfou before the shutdown?  Did you have contacts with venture capitalists?
A: Good.  The number of users was increasing quicker and quicker.  HP place ads.  More were in negotiations.  We had good discussions with venture capitalists.  After the website shutdown, the venture capitalists helped us to get in contact with certain people.  But when the website remained closed after two months, the whole thing ended.

Q: What is biggest existing problem with your company right now?
A: The biggest problem is that Fanfou doesn't exist anymore!  Our product doesn't exist anymore!  We cannot operate or improve it.

Q: So have you started thinking about a new project?
A: It will be about this period of time.  Exactly six months.  But it will still be in the general area of SNS.

Q: Do you intend to give up on Fanfou?
A: No, we are still trying.  But when six months has passed, we cannot continue to wait.  Our original goal is to do something meaningful.

Q: Are you afraid that if the website re-opens or the new project begins, you will encounter the same situation?
A: Of course we must avoid this problem!  We did not pay enough attention to this before.  We must learn our lessons after we make mistakes.

Q: Have you ever thought about leaving this industry?
A: No.  I feel that the Internet is the most interesting thing in our era.  We may have encountered difficulties now, but fifty years later, it will be seen that all our difficulties are not so difficult after all.

Q: Do you feel that you understand the rules now?
A: I can't say so.  Even if you think that you understand now, the rules will always be changing.

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Interview with Huang Xiwei of BTChina

Q: How did you find out that your website was shut down?
A: On December 4, the IDC mailed a letter to me to say that our registration has been canceled.  At first, I thought that it was a hoax.  I called up and learned that the website was really going to be shut down.  Some portion of it was directly shut down by the IDC, while I had to shut down the remaining portion.  When the registration was canceled, the latter obviously had to be shut down too.

Q: What did you do after the shutdown?
A: I told everybody about the shutdown, including the detailed causes.

Q: Before this, how many persons maintained BTChina on a part-time basis?  You put in a lot of money and effort.  Did you count how much?
A: Because everybody does this part-time, I can't be sure.  Fewer than 10 persons.  We all gave our time when we had spare time.  There were no requirements as such.  At first, we put in more.  When we first started, we did everything from scratch.  It was easier later on.  There were no requirements.  The process was stable, just some normal maintenance and some content issues.  I didn't have much to do unless there were technical problems.  With respect to the contents, it took one to two hours per day on the average.

Q: Did you encounter this type of monitoring before?
A: We ran across it more or less.  But this time it was different in nature.  In the past, we only had to change some things.  This time, there was nothing we can do about the shutdown.

Q: Did you think before that the website might be shut down?
A: I thought about it.  It was completely expected.  Now that it has really happened, it was alright.  One year ago, there came the <Administrative regulations on Internet audio-visual services>.  I read it immediately, and I thought that there was no way that we could comply several of the detailed regulations.  Sooner or later, we were going to be shut down.  I was psychologically prepared.  When the shutdown came, I just let it be.

Q: Afterwards, did you think about forming a new company and registering again?
A: I don't think about things that I am not capable of doing.  I do not have the qualifications.  Those qualifications are not within the means of an ordinary person.  I can afford 10,000 yuan or 20,000 yuan to register an ordinary company.  But the regulations stipulate that the registered capital must be 10 million yuan.  I cannot do that.  This is not to say that I am not trying.  But I really can't pull it off.  Within my capability, I can work all night if I have to.  But the threshold is there.  If I want to commercialize, why didn't I commercialize from the very beginning?

Q: Did anyone try to commercialize before?  Such as venture capitalists?
A: Some did, but I didn't care too much about.  From the very beginning, I told the outside world that we were not professionals.  We did not think otherwise.  I stated my position at the time.  The venture capitalists wanted to commercialize it, but they lost interest in us later.

Q: Why did you start BTChina?
A: I thought that China did not have such a website, so I went ahead and did it.  It was not professional.  Once it was created, it had to be maintained.  At first, I did not want a commercial website.  I was only hoping that people will like it.  I never thought about commercializing it.  Amateurism means amateurism.

Q: How did you feel after the shutdown?  What are you doing now?
A: I was definitely depressed.  I cannot say that I was happy to see the website gone.  But we don't care too much about depression because it is pointless.  There is no difference between being depressed and not.  I am working normally.  I am taking a good rest for the rest of the time.

Q: Do you feel that you have spare time all of a sudden?
A: I don't have too much leisure time because I still have to work.

Q: Will you start some websites in the future?  Have you thought about what what to do?
A: I think that I might, but not in the short term because I want to rest.  I have been working on this website for six years, and it has been shut down suddenly.  It is impractical to immediately start another one.  There are many policies right now.  Let us wait.

Q: Do you feel that the website might be re-opened?
A: Everything is possible, but I don't think so.  If it is closed, it is closed.  I don't think that anything will change.  There is no reason.  The action is based upon a state document which cannot be easily changed.

Q: How much has been invested so far into the website?
A: That is hard to say.  In the early stages, there was the equipment.  Since we were all amateurs, we did not get paid.  But each of us had to put in time to do maintenance.  The biggest cost was the wages.  Later on, we got some commercials but the servers also cost money.  Basically, we were able to sustain ourselves.

Q: Do you feel that you understand what you called the rules of the game now?
A: I understand what I can see.  I still don't understand what I cannot see.

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Interview with Chen Haozhi of Yeeyan.com

Q: When were you first notified that the website was shut down?
A: On November 30, the IDC gave us a call to say that the website was shut down for violations.  The supervisory department said that we violated the regulations on news/information services.  Our website contained contents that violated those regulations and we were being punished.  We were very shocked at the time.  Our domain name registration Yeeyan.com was cancelled, and would not be restored until we cleaned up in accordance with the corresponding state regulations.  Frankly, for the past three years, we thought that we were doing something that was good for society.  Very simple and very pure.

Q: Were there any details about what the violations were?  Did anyone tell you when the website can be restored?
A: Yes.  Some of the contents on our website involved current and military affairs.  Actually, we did not consider obtaining the rights of foreign-language articles about current affairs in order to translate.  But our website actually had those kinds of articles.  When we received the notice, we combed through the contents immediately.  When we were shut down, we were not told when we could return.  We wanted to go through the normal channels to propose our clean-up plan.  We tried to communicate.  But this was a rigorous process that had to go through the IDC.

Q: At the time, were you prepared for the worst?
A: Yes.  During that time, it was right at the peak of the storm.  We also considered the possibility that we may not be able to return.  But the shareholders and the team members shared the same view that even if Yeeyan.com were shut down, we will do something else.  That was the worst case.  But we still followed the process to take steps to come back and we keep our hopes up.

Q: Apart from cleaning up your contents, what else did you do?
A: We prepared to register again.  We followed the same process as other companies and go through a review for registration to apply for Yeeyan.org.  We also continued to operate during this period.  Since there was no revenue, we put up several hundred thousand yuan ourselves.  Right now, we keep a good watch on the contents and we don't have anything on current affairs.  The translated articles are screened first before publication.  Eventually, we want to see Yeeyan.com restored, but that will take time.

Q: Was there a lot of pressure on you that month?
A: Frankly, the psychological pressure was tremendous.  The loss of the traffic and the sustainability of the revenue were worrisome.  Yeeyan was the result of the work of the many workers and partners.  If it folds up like this, I think many people including me will find it hard to take.  For me, my son was born on November 19.  On November 30, the website was shut down.  I did not have the opportunity to embrace him for almost a month.  How can you explain this loss?

Q: What is the cumulative investment so far in Yeeyan?  How is the business situation?
A: About 3 million yuan has been invested, and we are near breakeven.  Yeeyan was commercialized in October 2008.  For several years before that, we were basically in an exploratory mode in which we did some simple translations to draw traffic.  We were basically relying on advertising revenue.  Internet advertising pays attention to micro-level market positioning.  Eventually we figured out the current profit model.  We were hoping to reach 20 million yuan per annum revenue in three years' time.

Q: Do you feel that your thinking had undergone any obvious change during the one month when your website was closed?
A: I haven't.  Ultimately, I am not a novice entrepreneur and I am not idealistic.  A website is like any company.  If there is any value to society, it will be apparent in a few years' time.  But I frankly have no idea how many years, so it is a process of persistence.  Actually, the present affair is a profound lesson.  In commercializing, we gave too much thought to the revenue side and we did not consider risks and resources enough.  I think that it is inevitable that many regulations will appear in the future.  As entrepreneurs, we cannot shackle ourselves just because of that.  We still need to innovate.

Q: When you re-open under the new domain name, are you afraid to getting into trouble again?
A: Technical manuals, literary and science fiction materials, lifestyles ... there are too many subjects that are looking for attention.  The contents of Yeeyan basically do not touch anything sensitive.  The translators and the users know about Yeeyan's previous woes.  Furthermore, Yeeyan has added a screening system.  Therefore, there won't be any violations.

Q: So you won't get involved in articles on current affairs in future?
A: Basically, we won't do this in the short run, because this relates to the administrative regulations.  We don't carry any news information, and we don't have the resources anyway.  As for military and current affairs, the state has required since 2003 at least 10 million yuan in investment capital in order to apply for approval by the supervisory department.  This is somewhat difficult at our current operational scale.

Q: Have you considered quitting this industry?
A: No.  Since 2000, I have gone through several successes and failures.  I built an SNS website that failed after more than 2 million yuan in investment.  I suffered from a moderate case of depression which took two years to come out of.  Therefore, I really don't feel that there is anything I cannot overcome today.


(Global Times)  Publish and be deleted    By Zhang Lei.   February 26, 2010.

He couldn't take it anymore.

When Hong Kong writer and poet Liao Weitang found his online photo album had been deleted by douban.com, he quit, leaving behind the 3,000 friends he had made over two years.

"I had a great time here," he wrote in his leaving statement to users of the Chinese mainland social networking service, "despite my account twice being suspended and having 100 posts deleted.

"But just lately this website has gone insane. It's like half of the 5,000 most-commonly-used words are banned."

The final straw for Liao was the deletion of The Beautiful and Strong People, an album featuring Hong Kong youths and artists involved in a protest against the HK$66.7-billion Hong Kong to Shenzhen and Guangzhou high-speed rail link. Photos of kneeling, barefoot youths were apparently deemed too political.

"I shot beautiful young faces, nothing radical or provocative," Liao said. "But they just couldn't let it go."

"I stuck it out for two years with Douban, posting poems and comments, trying to bring a little truth and alternative values to my friends behind the Great Firewall.

"But I've got to have a bottom line somewhere. The Web master repeatedly tested my principles. So finally I decided to leave this website that is becoming renowned for self-castration."

Douban used to be more flexible with him back in the old days, Liao said. For example instead of deleting, website managers might close off content by making it "private" not public. Or entries were not erased immediately, perhaps after a day or two, he recalled.

"That way, hundreds and thousands would see them," he said.

As one of only a few Kong Hong writers willing to operate in this compromised Internet environment, Liao said he had savored the opportunity to communicate with isolated mainland friends.

"I posted on Douban what the public needs to know, saving more personal stuff for my blog."

Initiated in 2005, Douban has 33 million registered users: mostly students and intellectuals who enjoy the social networking service's simple design and user-generated content like books, movies and albums. More recently, Douban's tightening censorship has upset some veteran members.

It got to the point that Peking University student Fang Kecheng wrote an open letter of complaint to Douban for suspending his account, dubbing the website a "dictator".

According to Fang, users and Web masters had been forced into playing hide-and-seek with Big River, Big Sea íV Untold Stories of 1949, a banned book by Taiwan writer Lung Yingtai.

As the book's International Standard Book Number (ISBN) was forbidden on the mainland, users kept the title but altered the ISBN in order to share their comments and ratings.

Douban's Web masters spotted the incorrect ISBN, erased the title and re-inserted the original, correct title. Seeing this, Fang changed the title back again, which led to his account being closed.

"I can't believe contributing entry content can be a crime," Fang said. "Any user can submit information they think is right on a website that relies on user-generated content."

Fang wanted to find out whether the book's sensitivity had contributed to his punishment and so he got his friend to change the title back again. His friend's account was also closed.

It wasn't the censorship per se that enraged Fang and other Web users, it was Douban breaching its own published code of conduct.

"Douban's ban is unreasonable and random," Fang wrote. "It's authoritarian because you can be banned for three days, seven days or forever with no justification and all your diaries, albums, collections and messages are gone."

Douban's rules state users must receive three warnings before such a final, permanent closure: After a first warning, the account is suspended three days. The second warning leads to a week's ban. Only after a third warning is the account supposed to be closed down permanently.

Fang's open letter led to the lifting of a closure on his account.

Commercial survival

Self-censorship is the rule of survival that prevents popular websites from being shut down, Zoe Wang, a veteran website developer told the Global Times.

"I can understand an author being outraged when his post gets deleted, but it's even harder to operate a website as I have to suffer the humiliation of supervisory organs and handle all the criticisms coming from users," she said.

"How can you hope to pay your staff or maintain your users' statistics if the website is shut down all because of one sensitive post?"

"You can never relax," said the small website operator.

"You're always keeping your phone switched on and waiting for that emergency call from the authorities requiring deletion of a post."

What's worse, she said, was the complete absence of clear-cut rules for deciding whether or not to delete an online post.

"The criterion of sensitivity depends on many aspects such as the political environment, the website's background, size and location, as well as the different understandings of Web masters."

Douban was extraordinarily cautious about its content as it had no background or ties to government, according to a source close to an editor at the site.

"Once you're shut down, nobody can save you," the source said.

No editor from Douban would go on the record when the Global Times contacted them.

"Douban recalls clearly the fate of Fanfou, Yeeyan and Blogbus," Fang said.

They were three of the most well-known mainland websites closed down last year, according to the Southern Metropolis Weekly. The latter two were recovered in January.

Fanfou founder Wang Xing was pondering how much to up censorship during the July 5 Xinjiang riot last year when he got his answer.

The Twitter-style microblogging service for 100,000 registered users was closed down almost immediately for "violating related rules", according to the China Business News Weekly.

Wang hasn't given up hope of bringing Fanfou back some day. Seven months on, Wang still refused to comment.

A site that published collaborative user-submitted translations of English and Chinese articles, Yeeyan was shut down in November last year for violating the regulation on "running a news information service".

According to this national regulation, any organization applying for the establishment of an Internet news information service on the Chinese mainland must have registered capital of no less than 10 million yuan and at least five Chinese mainland editors who have engaged in journalism for longer than three years.

Yeeyan relaunched 39 days later under tight self-censorship, with all "political" news removed.

"It was difficult to figure out what we can say and what we cannot," Chen Haozhi, founder of Yeeyan, told the Guangzhou-based newspaper Southern Weekend.

The most devastating issue for translators was finding so much of their hard work deleted, said a former volunteer.

"It wasn't our fault because we couldn't twist the original meaning of the news stories," she said.

"I've got absolutely no idea what is sensitive and what is not."

Admittedly, she said, they knew their work was "risky" as "most foreign news about China is negative".

Yeeyan's partnership with the Guardian newspaper had made the staff especially proud, the translator said.

"The website attracted many readers as it helped them bypass the two walls," she said. "Most Chinese face two obstacles: the Great Firewall and the language barrier."

Neutering was the only option for Yeeyan if they wanted to continue in business, she said.

Yeeyan was also bound by copyright law, she said. The translation company had to delete a group translation of Dan Brown's blockbuster The Lost Symbol and apologize to the book's Chinese publisher last year.

No appeal

Aside from suffering censorship or shutdowns for reasons unknown, a common complaint among Internet users and website operators is the lack of an appeal.

"You can only go to related departments and beg them to give you another chance," Liao said.

As the Web master of an online poetry forum, Liao has a list of sensitive words he received from the local Internet authority.

"They hope we will delete posts containing these words," he said, "but I don't see it making much sense."

The forum was shut down twice last year.

"We have no idea why," he said. "It came all of a sudden."

In response, the site's server was moved to Hong Kong.

"It's impossible to rescue your website if you violated the related law," a Web master from China Unicom, Beijing branch, told the Global Times.

"As long as Douban is growing, it won't care about what users say because the real threat comes from the authorities," Fang said.

It's pointless fighting the system, he said.

"We can only fight the slavish social environment and gradually gain a sense of citizenship," he said.

Vague laws

There are 14 general laws and regulations governing illegal online behavior, all vague and lacking in detailed, practical provisions, according to Li Yonggang, a professor of Internet politics from Nan-jing University, in his newly published book Our Great Firewall: Expression and Governance in the Era of the Internet.

"As a result, it's difficult to draw a line when operators and Web users censor, apart from the well-known restricted field of political issues," he wrote.

There are more than 10 government organs entitled to supervise the Internet, Li said. This inevitably gives rise to conflicts, he believed.

Bans are also increasingly unpredictable, he said. Recipients receive no explanation and no comeback. Chinese mainland Web users tend to react with a pessimistic, alienated and impotent attitude.

"Chinese may criticize the evils of society, but at the same time they feel like participants," Li said.

"In fact the Great Firewall is rooted in our hearts as so little 'harmful information' will ever come to light thanks to individuals' self-discipline and website operators' self-censorship."

Online opinion is a double-edged sword, said Wang, also a bulletin board moderator. Irrational online outcries aren't helping anyone, she argued. She cited the online petition for Sun Zhigang, famously beaten to death in 2003 for not carrying a temporary living permit.

Observers attributed the ending of the policy of custody and repatriation to online public sentiment. In fact, Wang said, the change of policy came about because of the SARS breakout.

"They were all eager to sign a petition when something happened but in fact it only led to the shutting down of these significant forums.

"We can't stop censorship, but we can articulate the truth with a more rational attitude. When different opinions coexist, people find their own answers."

Censorship is also necessary to prevent certain kinds of harm being done to others, argued Zhu Wei, a professor at China University of Politics and Laws in Beijing.

"The nude picture scandal wouldn't have run out of control if there was no Internet," he said. "Unrestricted, freedom can lead to violence."

According to the newly-passed Tort Liability Law, any Web user or service provider who infringes upon the civil rights and benefits of another is liable.

This new catch-all is a valuable control over online opinion. According to Article 36, the infringed party can inform the Web service provider to delete, shield or cut the links as well as any other necessary measures.

"The Web service provider who doesn't take necessary measures after receiving this information will bear joint liability along with the Web user," the law states.