BEIJING (AFP) — The Internet in China is providing a platform for people to express criticism of authorities over the deadly earthquake, amid a barrage of positive news in the tightly controlled traditional press.
Dodging the government's censors and a potential backlash with nationalist sentiment at a high, some Chinese netizens, including journalists blogging under pseudonyms, are managing to express voices of dissent and anger.
Some are compiling lists of schools that collapsed in the horror quake, amid concerns that corrupt local government officials colluded with businesspeople to take fatal shortcuts in constructing the buildings.
Others are daring to question the government's portrayal of Premier Wen Jiabao as the compassionate leader of the nation's rescue efforts, as state-run TV and in newspapers run blanket coverage of him touring quake-ravaged areas.
"You can not like Wen JB (Jiabao) -- almost everyone has genuine feelings because of a disaster, his reaction wasn't that extraordinary," one blogger wrote on the popular Chinese Internet community site www.douban.com.
One of the most common themes of dissent rippling through the Internet has been why China's seismologists failed to predict the earthquake, which measured 8.0 on the Richter scale and has left more than 66,000 people dead or missing.
Some netizens suggested that China's Earthquake Administration had information that indicated a major tremor was imminent, but did not act on it.
The administration was forced to respond on Tuesday, insisting it did nothing wrong.
"Before this earthquake the China Earthquake Administration did not... receive any opinions on a short-term prediction of this earthquake," a senior official with the organisation, Che Shi, said in a statement.
"The information on the Internet... does not conform with reality."
China's communist rulers are renowned for their strict controls of the traditional media, and overseas press freedom and rights groups have repeatedly criticised them for trying to implement similar curbs on the Internet.
Paris-based Reporters Without Borders has labelled China an "enemy" of the Internet, and said dozens of Chinese journalists and cyber-dissidents have been jailed for work that angered authorities.
China's propaganda czar, Li Changchun, visited the major state-run media outlets -- Xinhua news agency and CCTV -- last week to deliver an edict on what angles the press must take in covering the aftermath of the quake.
In comments published by Xinhua, Li said the Communist Party chiefs' reactions to the quake must be portrayed in a positive light, and there must be "moving stories" of the army in its rescue efforts.
The major Chinese Internet news portals appear to have faithfully followed the same orders.
And while there are pockets of dissent on the Internet, the vast majority of postings have generally focused on the positives of the rescue efforts, as well as the sense of the nation pulling together at a time of crisis.
Government censorship is one explanation for there not being more criticism appearing on the Internet, said Joseph Cheng, professor of political science at the City University of Hong Kong.
In China, critical blogs and news postings are often pulled off websites or blocked by censors.
"But there is another deterrent. During this period of intense emotions and patriotism, tolerance of dissent and criticism is very, very low," he said.
"Anyone who attempts to say anything politically incorrect will be severely criticised."
But as more time elapses since the earthquake struck, more voices of dissent are expected to appear, according to Xiao Qiang, director of the China Internet Project at the University of California.
"After the national mourning period, we can expect more such critical voices in Chinese cyberspace and to a lesser degree, in Chinese media as well," Xiao told AFP via email.
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