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Archive: July 31 2004
China websites lead way in exposing graft

They are beating other media at reporting corruption, prompting speculation of high-level support

By Chua Chin Hon

BEIJING - Declaring themselves the 'guardians of public opinion', several websites here have been gaining attention lately for casting an uncomfortable spotlight on official corruption and encouraging Internet users to report such abuses.

One of the photos posted on the Internet claiming to show Jining Vice-Mayor Li Xin kneeling down to plead for forgiveness.

Webmasters running two of the websites, fanfubai.com and yuluncn.com, told The Straits Times they had been publishing incriminating evidence of official wrongdoing well ahead of some of the more daring newspapers here.

Citing the example of the 'scandal of the moment' involving Vice-Mayor Li Xin of Shandong province's Jining city, who is under investigation and faces imminent arrest, fanfubai. com's webmaster Liu Lishun said he published several damning photos and documents a week ahead of mainstream news portals and newspapers like the Southern Weekend.

Photographs splashed on almost every popular news portal here since have shown a teary Mr Li kneeling down for forgiveness, apparently to try to dissuade someone from exposing his alleged misdemeanours involving money laundering and embezzlement.

Mr Liu said: 'I started the website in 1999, largely out of personal interest. I'm not sure why similar websites have cropped up recently, but I think the overall impact is positive. After all, rooting out corruption is a key focus of the party and the country.'

The Internet's growing influence in China and the seemingly mysterious origins of these websites have prompted speculation in some media reports that they have high-level backing.

The reports have also suggested the websites could be part of the government's push to root out corrupt local officials who might otherwise use their influence to cover up their tracks or hush up the whistle-blowers.

But three of the webmasters running such sites maintained that they were merely acting as concerned citizens.

'Why do I need any special status or background to do this?' asked a Chinese journalist helping to run chinatousu. org. He declined to identify himself.

However, media scholars familiar with the development of the Internet in China said with certainty that there had to be some level of official support for these sites.

They pointed out that the sites fit in with the government's intention of using the Internet and e-government to promote transparency and root out abuses of power.

'It is a technological solution to a deeper cultural problem,' wrote Nanyang Technological University's Associate Professor Randolph Kluver in an e-mail reply.

He added: 'There is a 'tolerance' of websites that focus on criticism, especially on corrupt or incompetent local officials. If the criticism turns to the party as a whole, however, or top-level officials, it will get shut down.'

The speed and scale of distribution of websites like fanfubai.com also bring a whole new dimension to the way corruption in China is viewed, pointed out Dr Jack Qiu Linchuan, a communications scholar with the University of Southern California.

These websites have no geographic limits unlike newspapers, and their tight focus allows for sustained attention on critical issues or incidents which may fizzle out in the mainstream media after a few days or weeks.

'Not only are all the local scandals now receiving national attention, they also reach overseas readers,' wrote Dr Qiu in an e-mail reply.

For now, however, there are conflicting signals as to how long these sites will be tolerated.

Fanfubai.com said it had been shut down for exposing the scandal involving Vice-Mayor Li, while a note on chinatousu.org said it would be closed in days.

A note on chinacomplaint.com yesterday declared the site to be 'under construction'.

It remained unclear if they would be shut down for good, or if they were merely suspended for 'rectification'.

Vowing to soldier on, yuluncn.com's webmaster Li Xinde, said: 'I'm just a down-to-earth person. I don't harbour any grand ambition of promoting democracy or invigorating the Chinese people.

'I'm merely helping ordinary people to speak up.'


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