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Bloggers Help Free Chinese Filmmaker

New America Media, News Analysis, Eugenia Chien Posted: Jul 25, 2006

Editors Note: Thanks in large part to bloggers, Chinese blogger and filmmaker Hao Wu is finally freed after spending nearly five months in a Beijing jail. While China is trying to crack down on Internet dissidents, notes NAM writer Eugenia Chien, the Internet community is fighting back, despite the obvious risks.

When Chinese filmmaker Hao Wu did not show up on Feb. 22 to meet a friend at the gym in Beijing, the Internet community jumped into action. A picture of Wu on a shocking red background and bright yellow text that said Free Hao Wu soon popped up on hundreds of blogs in China as well as around the world.

Within weeks, about 1,000 websites carried the picture of Wu, which linked to a website called FreeHaoWu.com where information about the case was constantly updated. It was a virtual version of going block by block to post fliers for a missing person.

Wu, a Chinese citizen with U.S. permanent residency, was finally released on July 11 after nearly five months in detention. His case is a testament to the power of the blogging community to generate information and gather support. With an estimated 60 million bloggers in China, blogs have become a powerful tool of social support for causes ranging from feminism to freedom of speech.

Technology has been a way to thwart the governments efforts in controlling the public. In 1989, Tiananmen Square protesters used fax machines to reach out to the international press. Last year, 12,000 workers mobilized using cell phone text messages to go on strike against their company. The blogospheres high interconnectedness made Wus case very visible in the blogging community, and by extension, on the Internet.

When there are a significant number of visible blogs all putting up the same information, such as information about Hao Wu, it greatly increases its Google searchability and raises its online profile, said Xiao Qiang, the director of the China Internet Project at the University of California, Berkeley.

The Chinese government has not commented on why Wu was arrested, but media watchers speculated that it has to do with his involvement in a documentary about underground churches. But even after he was released, the reason for his arrest remains unclear.

By most accounts, Wu was not considered a political dissident before his arrest. He lived in the United States between 1992 and 2004, first as a graduate student, then as a project manager for software companies including Excite and EarthLink. In 2004, Wu quit his job to become a documentary filmmaker in Beijing.

Because of his fluent English and his job as a filmmaker, Wu began getting more and more interviews from Western media. Two weeks before he was arrested, Wu was interviewed on BBC radios program, Have Your Say, to discuss censorship in China.

Though Wu had not been openly harsh about the Chinese government in his public interviews, he had become more critical about government censorship in his blog. In February, Wu began working as the Northeast Asia Editor of the Harvard-based blogger network, Global Voices. Headed by Ethan Zuckerman and Rebecca MacKinnon, who was the former Beijing bureau chief and correspondent for CNN, Global Voices is a media project that tracks blog conversations around the world about news stories that are under-reported in English-language media.

MacKinnon and Zuckerman created FreeHaoWu.com with the permission of his older sister, Nina Wu, and urged bloggers and readers to write letters and put up Free Hao Wu logos on their websites. Nina herself began blogging about her efforts to free her brother. A group of volunteer translators at Global Voices translated Nina Wu's blog from Chinese to English for the website.

"Nina's blog became a fascinating document with the level of detail and transparency that we have not seen before," said Zuckerman at Global Voices.

In her blog, Nina Wu, who lives in China, wrote detailed accounts of her encounters with the police. She even included a list of people and agencies that she has written letters to plea for her brother's release. "I was angry at myself for my political naivet and angry at this place that displayed the police insignia but did not actually 'Serve the People.'"

Visitors began leaving messages for Nina Wu on her blog site in both English and Chinese.

I dont know what I can do, but Im silently praying for this brave man, said one Chinese reader.

Other bloggers spoke out on Wus behalf.

I see it as a personal outrage because, although Ive never met himone of my dearest friends is his personal friend, said Richard Burger on his popular blog, Peking Duck.

Yan Sham-Shackleton, a Hong Kong-based blogger who was on the same BBC World Service radio show as Hao, said I am totally in shock at the moment, so very upsetplease help him. Put up the banner. Write it on the blog. Just let people know.

Freedom of speech remains a main source of criticism of the Chinese government. This week, Amnesty International blasted Google and Yahoo for bowing to the Chinese governments censorship pressure. The Chinese government has increased the number of Internet police, at least 50,000. Despite the governments efforts, the blogosphere is proving to be a quick and effective way to gather attention for the freedom of speech.

Well never know what we did that worked, but bloggers try very hard to support each other, Zuckerman said. Bloggers who dont know about each other might well take up the cause for each other for someone elses right to speak.

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