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In China, a New Year's cartoon tests boundaries of free speech

BEIJING — Wang Bo, the manager of a Beijing cartoon company, had a daring idea for a video greeting card to mark the Year of the Rabbit, which begins Thursday.

He and his team produced a clip in which a world of rabbits suffer under authoritarian rulers (represented by tigers, the outgoing zodiac sign) who give them few rights and demand that they "build a harmonious forest."

In less than four minutes, the rabbits watch their children die from bad milk, have their homes torn down, and weep as protesters are beaten.

The tale is a thin allegory — the events and slogans were based on real life happenings in China, or graphic interpretations of them. Only the ending, in which the rabbits stage a violent revolt, is pure imagination.

"There's an old saying in Chinese that even rabbits will bite people when they get angry," said Zeng Zhi, a 26-year-old designer at Wang's firm with an easy laugh and slightly tussled hair, who helped with the background animation. "The meaning is very understandable to Chinese netizens."

But of China's estimated 457 million Internet users, just a small portion saw the film during its few days of life on the Web. The clip was scrubbed from Chinese sites last week, or "harmonized," in local parlance.

The disappearance of the bunnies was a colorful reminder that despite China's ballooning Internet usage, the wide expansion of freedom of political speech that many Westerners assumed would accompany the technology hasn't yet arrived. Even as some observers credit online social media for helping organize recent protests against repressive regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, China's authoritarian government continues to closely manage and suppress information in the largest Internet market in the world.

Expectations abroad that the Internet could create significant political change in the Middle Kingdom were badly misplaced, said Guan Shijie, a professor in media studies at Peking University.

"Westerners emphasize freedom but overlook responsibilities and obligations," Guan said. "Westerners tend to think that . . . there should be limitations on the government's power, but in China it's different."

Officials in Beijing have so far kept up with the country's rapid growth in Internet usage with a sophisticated and opaque system of give and take censorship, overseen by legions of watchers thought to number in the tens of thousands.

For example, state newspapers have carried reports about the ongoing demonstrations in Egypt, but searches for the country on China's version of Twitter are currently forbidden, presumably to discourage Chinese Internet users from drawing public comparisons between Cairo's government and their own.

"The picture of new (Internet) opportunities has to be balanced against the picture of evolving controls," said David Bandurski, the editor of the China Media Project website at the University of Hong Kong, which analyzes Chinese media.

Bandurski, in an e-mail exchange, added: "The Internet is not a game-changer."

On one hand, there's no question that the Internet has brought average Chinese a greater flow of information — they can access news (as long as it's not blocked), have wide-ranging conversations on the Web, and go so far as to air complaints about local governance and corruption issues. On the other hand, any information that seems to seriously question the nation's political system or the legitimacy of its ruling Communist Party is quickly taken down.

In individual cases it (the Internet) can make a difference, but that doesn't mean there's going to be systemic change," said Jeremy Goldkorn, the editor of the Beijing-based website, which closely tracks Chinese media and Internet trends and has itself been blocked since July 2009.

In other words, Goldkorn said, "as long as the rule of the Party and social stability remain the top goal, it's hard to see how things are going to change."

Even for rabbits gone wild, that means a short public airing before being deleted.

In one scene of Wang's cartoon, a member of the ruling tiger elite runs into a girl rabbit with his car and, after a graphic depiction of her death, leaps out and yells "My father is Tiger Gang!" before driving over even more rabbits.

It's an obvious reference to the case of Li Qiming, the son of a local deputy police chief who ran over and killed a female college student in October. Li is said to have dared onlookers to try punishing him, yelling, "My father is Li Gang!"

While there were initial efforts at suppressing news of the death in a city south of Beijing, Chinese websites swelled with rage over the apparent display of a privileged youth flouting the law. Li Gang later appeared on TV, weeping and asking for forgiveness, and Li Qiming was recently sentenced to six years in prison.

Wang said he's not received any notification from Chinese websites about why his cartoon version of that incident and others was exiled.

Left not knowing where he stood in the censors' eyes, Wang spoke in elliptical terms when asked about the film's meaning.

"Because our society is very complicated, this video can be understood in many ways," he said in a phone interview. "I only made a fairy tale."

The deputy manager of Wang's cartoon company also was hesitant during a recent conversation at the firm's offices in a warehouse art district in northeast Beijing. The company, Hutoon Animation, has done work for state TV in the past. It also won an award at a state-sponsored animation festival in 2009, despite having previously been admonished and fined for another cartoon that featured a schoolhouse getting blown up.

"I don't know if it's a good thing or a bad thing to accept this interview," said Si Shuolu, when meeting a McClatchy reporter.

Asked whether the phone on his desk had been ringing with official complaints about the video, Si, in hipster glasses and jeans, gave a half-smile and said, "No, but I think it will be very soon."


Year of the Rabbit Greeting Card cartoon video (Warning: Graphic images)

A Western Beijing blogger's translation and commentary about the video (Warning: Graphic images and language)


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