Microsoft and Bokee mired in Chinese free-speech controversy
Wow, things are heating up quickly on the Chinese censorship front -- and what is most intriguing is that American investors might have some say in this. We will watch this one closely as it develops:
Here is what is happening: The latest controversy started when the Chinese took down the blog of Michael Anti, a Chinese pro-democracy blogger critical of the Chinese government. Anti then moved over to a blog at Microsoft MSN's My Spaces, where he was getting 8,000 hits a day and growing, and posting English translations of other political commentary.
Now, we don't know enough about the sources of all this information to be sure, but what happens next is bizarre. From what we can tell (follow the links in this summary story), a blogger at the largest Chinese blog network, Bokee, denounces MSN for hosting Anti, and calls for readers to rise up and oppose Microsoft.
Then, Microsoft apparently drops Anti. And then Robert Scoble, Microsoft's internal blogmeister, says his employers actions are "not right," and says he learned from his grandmother in Nazi Germany that you have to stand up for the little...
We note that Bokee is getting criticized for launching this attack against a potential competitor, Microsoft. But it was really one of Bokee's bloggers, and not necessarily Bokee. If Bokee is behind this, it is serious stuff, because there are numerous U.S. investors backing Bokee, including some based here, as we mentioned earlier (Granite Global, Bessemer and Mobius). Some of these investors are even on the company's board. If Bokee is not behind this, what does it do? Does it crack down on the Chinese blogger critical of Anti, and thus shut down his free speech rights? Probably not, because Beijing would shut down Bokee instanlty. Failing that, is there a half-way measure? Does it come out and say it does not support the views of any of its bloggers, including the Anti critic, which would be the right thing to do but which would still expose itself to a crackdown by Beijing -- which would destroy its business? Not likely. It will probably stay mum, which will only worsen things for pro-democratic folks. Oy, this is a tough one.
Update. Btw, we have emailed venture capitalist Jenny Lee, who is in the Shanghai office of Granite, and who has invested in Bokee, to see if she has a response. We'll report back...
Update II. Jenny got back to us, via email. As we suspected would happen, she said "no comment."
Update III. Here is a statement that Microsoft sent us this afternoon, which they attributed to Brooke Richardson, MSN Group Product Manager:
As a multi-national business, Microsoft operates in countries around the world. Inline with Microsoft practices in global markets, MSN is committed to ensuring that products and services comply with global and local laws, norms, and industry practices. Most countries have laws and practices that require companies providing online services to make the internet safe for local users. Occasionally, as in China, local laws and practices require consideration of unique elements.
Unique elements, indeed.
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Thank you for continuing to document such stories. This is a good example of the Internet community itself exerting "soft power" on an authoritarian government.
China jails man over protests
Thursday, January 5, 2006 Posted: 0349 GMT (1149 HKT)
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Manage Alerts | What Is This? BEIJING, China (Reuters) -- A Chinese court sentenced a businessman to three years in prison on Thursday for organizing illegal protests after authorities seized oil wells owned by thousands of private investors, family members said.
The landmark ruling by the Intermediate People's Court in Jingbian county in the northwestern province of Shaanxi undermines a government pledge to protect private property, which was seized after the 1949 Communist revolution. The contentious issue has re-emerged since the late 1970s when China began economic reforms.
Feng Bingxian, 59, was convicted of disturbing social order by organizing illegal protests by several hundred disgruntled private oil investors in April and May, said his wife Qu Jianping and his son Feng Yanwei.
"It's a miscarriage of justice. He will definitely appeal," Qu told Reuters.
The Jingbian chief judge and prosecutor were both members of a government task force that went in to seize the private oil wells, she said.
"I was angry when I heard the verdict but I'm helpless ... The court ignored evidence presented by the defense," Feng's son said by telephone.
Security was tight around the court, with the front gate locked, the son said, adding that he was not informed of the sentencing and had to force his way in.
Two co-defendants were sentenced to two years in prison but their sentences were suspended for three years, Feng's family members said.
Court officials reached by telephone declined to comment.
Feng, a former official who went into private business and invested in 13 oil wells in northern Shaanxi, appeared in court wearing an orange prison uniform. He looked frail but calm and smiled when he saw his family, his wife said.
Feng pleaded not guilty during a one-day trial last month, arguing that the protests were peaceful and that officials even took him to lunch and promised further dialogue.
About 6,000 small investors, many local farmers and former officials, bought the wells with the blessing of the government in the late 1990s, pouring in about 7 billion yuan ($867 million) as demand for energy soared.
Feng, who was caught by police in July after evading arrest for two months, invested about 10 million yuan in the wells.
In an about-face after the private investors struck oil, the provincial government seized the wells in 2003 and paid what investors said was paltry compensation.
Their complaints were widely reported in the Chinese press before propaganda mandarins restricted coverage, and the case became the focus of a nationwide campaign for stronger protection of private investors' rights.
Feng's trial was postponed twice and his relatives said officials appeared nervous of press attention and protests.
One of Feng's lawyers, Zhu Jiuhu, was detained along with Feng in July and released two months later after a campaign by human rights advocates and other lawyers. Zhu is still under criminal investigation and was unable to defend Feng.
Protests in China are becoming increasingly common -- 74,000 in 2004 compared with 58,000 in 2003 -- despite the Communist Party's obsession with maintaining stability. The demonstrations have been sparked by public anger over a number of issues from pollution and corruption to a growing gap between rich and poor.
In December, police opened fire on residents of Dongzhou village in the southern province of Guangdong protesting against a lack of compensation for land appropriated for a new power plant. The government says three villagers were killed.
China gave a clear nod to the private sector in March 2005 by enshrining in its constitution theories that effectively opened the doors of the Communist Party to private entrepreneurs, who were vilified in the ideologically strict era of Mao Zedong as "capitalist running dogs."
Copyright 2006 Reuters. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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