BEIJING – Floozie or role model, attention monger or free spirit? For months, China has been debating what to make of its latest Internet-born star, a young woman known nationwide as Furong Jiejie, aka Sister Furong.
She is seen as a pioneer pushing the boundaries of traditional media controls but in the process has become a target of government censors in the tightly controlled country.
Sister Furong started the craze by posting pictures of herself — draped back-down over a stone ball, bent at the knees with her chest thrust out suggestively and in other poses — on Internet bulletin boards of two top Beijing universities to which she had tried but failed to gain entrance.
The shots, and accompanying captions and passages she wrote proclaiming her own beauty and talent, became a campus sensation.
But when her cult status began to sweep the whole country, Beijing stepped in.
“They've cracked down on me,” Sister Furong, a 28-year-old girl next door whose real name is Shi Hengxia, told Reuters.
In late July, authorities told the country's top blog host to move Furong-related content to low-profile parts of the site. Her pictures can still be found online, but links to them and chatrooms about her have disappeared from the front pages of major Web portals.
And after blanket coverage earlier this year, newspapers, magazines and television have recently given almost no time to Sister Furong, who originally came from a rural area of central Shaanxi province.
“When I first heard about it I was really disappointed,” she said. “My friends all said the government should be encouraging a positive, helpful girl like me,” said Sister Furong, whose nickname means Hibiscus.
Beijing has worked hard but struggled to extend its heavy-handed control of domestic media to the country's booming Internet, which is forecast to have 120 million users, second only to the United States, by the end of the year.
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The government has created a special Internet police force believed responsible for shutting down domestic sites posting politically unacceptable content, blocking some foreign news sites and jailing several people for their online postings.
Bulletin boards operated by some of China's most prestigious universities have been barred to outside users, while a number of Internet cafes and online game companies have been shut for allowing users to access pornographic, violent or otherwise off-limits content.
Cities have even reportedly formed teams of undercover online commentators meant to sway public opinion on controversial issues in discussion on Internet chatrooms and bulletin boards.
Despite all of Beijing's controls, pockets of free speech still appear online and more and more Chinese are tapping the Internet for information outside of official sources.
China's latest crackdown has clearly dampened Furong fever, but Beijing-based film production company Zongbo Media is betting she has star power.
The company had hired her to star in a series of short films shot on digital video that would be broadcast only online to both appeal to Sister Furong's Internet fan base and slip through loopholes in government Web controls, Zongbo chairman Chen Weiming told Reuters.
“People will be able to watch these and see new sides of me and my talent,” Furong said.
Media regulators had basically approved the project because they could not determine which rules applied to Internet video broadcasts, Chen said.
“Chinese youth are looking for different new ways to express their freedom,” he added.
“Some people still have the old mentality of wanting to control everything, but these days, with the Internet, they can't control things any more. There's no use trying.”