China shuts down blogger conference

A meeting of Chinese bloggers due to take place in Shanghai last weekend has been cancelled, after authorities put pressure on the venue for the event.

The annual Chinese Blogger Conference, which has played host to a number of leading online commentators since it began in Shanghai in 2005, had become a forum for criticism of China's government.

Fearing attempts by the authorities to sabotage proceedings, conference organisers this year waited until just four days before the two-day event was due to start before announcing its venue, an office building in the city's Xuhui District, close to Shanghai Jiaotong University.

But late last week, the venue's owners caved in to government pressure and withdrew their invitation to the conference.

The move is part of a wider policy on the part of the Chinese government to crack down on dissident activity in cyberspace. Last Christmas, the winner of this year's Nobel Peace Prize, Liu Xiaobo, was sentenced to 11 years in prison for circulating demands for political reform over the internet.

Initially, organisers of the Chinese Blogger Conference posted a notice on their website citing "well-known reasons", and said that they were seeking another venue. But on Saturday, all of the website's content had been removed, replaced with a message reading "Website Suspended".

Isaac Mao, co-founder of the conference, said that although Chinese authorities had "upset the original scheme of this year's conference," local bloggers would "still find ways to gather in smaller groups".

Conference organisers still found a way to poke fun at the authorities on the meeting's censored web page. Pressing Ctrl+A to select everything on the page highlights some previously hidden text that reads, in Chinese, "The grass mud horse has been harmonised".

"Grass mud horse" refers to a fictional breed of alpaca-like animal called the 'caonima', made famous in a Chinese anti-censorship protest song (available as a YouTube video here).

The words form a homophone for an obscene phrase in Chinese, and the pun has been adopted as an anti-censorship slogan after authorities began a crackdown on political dissent and pornography at the beginning of 2009. Cuddly toy caonima are even available to buy in China.

"Harmonise" is a much-pilloried euphemism for state censorship in China, a reference to President Hu Jintao's campaign to create a "harmonious society".