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China Continues Efforts to Limit Access to the Internet

April 18, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT


ANONYMOUS CHINESE-BORN COMPUTER SCIENTIST: Yes, those Web sites are usually now blocked.

SPENCER MICHELS, NewsHour Correspondent: In a cluttered apartment in Northern California, a Chinese-born computer scientist, who doesn’t want his identity revealed, is waging a technological war on the Chinese government. He is working to improve a software program he designed that people in China can use to get around their government’s Internet censorship.

ANONYMOUS CHINESE-BORN COMPUTER SCIENTIST: We invented a technology that can breakthrough China’s great firewall so that it enables Internet users in China, can visit any Web sites from the United States or from other free world.

SPENCER MICHELS: The technology, which masks the Web sites visited, is called Ultrareach. It uses both encryption and a constantly changing computer identification that allows access to banned Web sites.

ANONYMOUS CHINESE-BORN COMPUTER SCIENTIST: I don’t think China government likes it. You know, they see the Internet as a threat in the freedom of the information expression.

SPENCER MICHELS: The founder says he is afraid Chinese agents could find him and try to silence him.

ANONYMOUS CHINESE-BORN COMPUTER SCIENTIST: One of my partners, actually, got beaten up.

SPENCER MICHELS: Have they threatened you personally?

ANONYMOUS CHINESE-BORN COMPUTER SCIENTIST: I don’t think they have find me yet.

SPENCER MICHELS: In China itself, the Internet is booming. Even nightclubs boast Web connections.

One hundred and fifteen million Chinese go online only to find that the government uses filters to block sites that provide information about democracy or the uprising in Tiananmen Square or dissident groups.

In order to get around those restrictions, more than 100,000 Chinese use Ultrareach and other technologies every day, which in turn has led authorities to fight back, inventing new technologies and buying foreign programs to foil the anti-censorship software.

On the Berkeley campus of the University of California, Xiao Qiang directs the China Internet Project and advocates for a freer Internet policy. Chung says the Chinese government encourages the use of the Internet for its economic benefits in a global economy.

XIAO QIANG, China Internet Project: On the one hand, we see this very rapid development of the Internet infrastructure, the practices. And on the other hand, we also see these unprecedented, enormous resources being put into the control, the filtering, the monitoring, the censorship, surveillance, what we call altogether China’s great firewall.

FREDERICK WAKEMAN, University of California: The Chinese have a millennial tradition of censorship and of literary inquisitions.

SPENCER MICHELS: Frederick Wakeman, professor of history and Asian studies at Berkeley, says the Chinese have long tried to limit information, and rebels have always tried to circumvent censorship. He thought the Internet might change things.

FREDERICK WAKEMAN: I think, when it first appeared, we thought, well, this is going to open up channels of communication that the Chinese themselves cannot control. I can remember, back in the days when the fax machine was first introduced, and I would send a fax from Peking, and there would be a Chinese security officer at my elbow to make sure the fax was secure. They had enough manpower to do that.

Now, they obviously are trying to extend that into the area of the Internet, which is much more difficult. The Chinese will find ways to get around it.

SPENCER MICHELS: For now, the Chinese are keeping the pressure on. They are requiring that Internet companies operating in China, like Google, Microsoft, Cisco and Yahoo, keep Chinese users from forbidden sites.

Google’s announcement in January that it would play by the Chinese rules, eliminating offending Web sites on its Chinese service, provoked a storm of criticism, led by Republican Congressman Christopher Smith.

REP. CHRISTOPHER SMITH (R), New Jersey:, China’s search engine, is guaranteed to take you to the virtual land of deceit, disinformation and the big lie.

SPENCER MICHELS: In Beijing last week, Google’s CEO defended his company.

ERIC SCHMIDT, CEO, Google: We’ve made a decision that we have to respect their local law and culture. So it’s not an option for us to broadly make information available that’s illegal, or inappropriate, or immoral, or what have you.

SPENCER MICHELS: Practitioners of Falun Gong, a Chinese spiritual exercise purporting to improve the body and spirit, are among those protesting the loudest. They say the Chinese government has banned the practice, jailed and allegedly tortured some members, and banished Falun Gong from the Internet.

Consequently, members have condemned American companies for complying with Chinese demands for self-censorship.

California chemist and software developer Sherry Zhang, a Falun Gong practitioner, is helping Ultrareach in working to attack the Chinese firewall, which she says also blocks information coming out of China.

SHERRY ZHANG, Falun Gong Practitioner: I’m a scientist, but I’m actually, because of a persecution in China, so I get involved in the Internet project, because the Chinese government is trying to block the Internet, trying to block all this information, the persecution of Falun Gong and et cetera, human rights abuse and et cetera, is trying to block it from coming out from China.

SPENCER MICHELS: She related what happened to an American friend of hers in China.

SHERRY ZHANG: He went to an Internet bar, just typed in two words, “Falun Gong.” Instantly, the sirens went off. And then the police came in front of him within one minute. So that’s how bad it is, because they have the ways to monitor what people are doing on the Internet, especially in the Internet bar.

SPENCER MICHELS: News reports say the Chinese employ at least 30,000 Internet police. And according to human rights groups, between 42 and 87 people have been jailed for Internet crimes.

Berkeley’s Xiao Qiang says it is not just Falun Gong members who are benefiting from the new software.

XIAO QIANG: Once people are using this software, they don’t just come to the Falun Gong sites. They see every other sites that they couldn’t see inside of China, which is really helping expending the scope of information in China.

SPENCER MICHELS: Several dissidents, including Sherry Zhang, say a united front by American companies could force the Chinese to back down.

SHERRY ZHANG: I think the solution for the whole business community, to really know that it’s not that they need China, but China needs them, too. They need to stick to all of us in the international business community, to stick to our principles, you know, the freedom and the democracy, and that way we can slowly force China to change, rather than China changing us.

SPENCER MICHELS: Xiao Qiang says that high-tech, combined with high principles, should eventually prevail.

XIAO QIANG: Most importantly is those companies also know, if they fight against the censorship mechanism, they are on the right side of history. They’re also on the right side of technologies.

Ultimately, it’s the Chinese people wants to have a freer Internet, a freer society. And the great firewall, no matter how great it is, it just is like the Great Wall in China. It’s not going to stop the history going towards a freer, more human society in China.

SPENCER MICHELS: While much of the Great Wall remains standing after 2,000 years, parts have crumbled. Xiao Qiang expects much of the great firewall to crumble as well, in a country where repression has always been part of the landscape.

JIM LEHRER: And to Gwen Ifill.

GWEN IFILL: China’s president, Hu Jintao, made Seattle the first stop today on his four-day American visit. While there, he will spend time at global titans Microsoft, Boeing and Starbucks.

The business-heavy agenda provides a window into China’s priorities with the West, even as disagreement persists over intellectual property, Internet censorship, and trade issues.

To talk about that, we turn to China scholar and author Minxin Pei. He’s a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment.

And author and journalist Orville Schell. He’s dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley.

Mr. PEI, this dispute over censorship in China, is it a culture clash between the West and China?

MINXIN PEI, Senior Associate, Carnegie Endowment: Not necessarily. I think China and the West do have ideological, at a government level, differences, where China is a one-party state and the West is consisted of democracies.

But I think there is, at an individual level, some discomfort about how much control the government should have over the type of information people should have. I think in the West there’s a lot more distrust; in China, I think there maybe a higher degree of tolerance of government control of information.

GWEN IFILL: So there’s not really any outcry that this is wrong?

MINXIN PEI: Oh, there’s outcry. Certainly, I think people who are more liberal-minded definitely find this, the kind of practices described in your set-up piece, very distasteful. And, of course, people have been victimized by government repression of information flow over the Internet.

GWEN IFILL: What do you think of that, Dean Schell?

ORVILLE SCHELL, Journalism Dean, University of California, Berkeley: Well, I think, you know, China has sort of a double-jeopardy tradition of control. On the one hand, the old Confucian system did emphasize hierarchy, obedience, control. And then along came the Marxist sort of Leninist era, which had another version of control.

So I think, in many ways, there’s an antithetical bias in each of our societies. In America, of course, founded on a much more open tradition. China is changing. And half of it, I think, on the economic side has come now to be much more open.

But we wait for the other shoe to drop, to see if this new openness bleeds over from economics into politics. And to date, it’s been two relatively discrete universes. And the economic reforms have been very advanced, whereas the political reforms have been much less so.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask you a little bit more about that, Orville Schell, because some people would separate the political reforms and the economic reforms and say they’re separate things. Some would say one leads to the another. Does the economic pressure have a chance of weakening that firewall that Spencer Michaels was talking about?

ORVILLE SCHELL: Well, I think you have to say that an open-market system certainly doesn’t mitigate against a more open society and open political environment, but I think one would be somewhat naive to assume that, ipso facto, it leads to it.

I think we’ve seen now these 20 years of economic reform have, in fact, not led to certain kinds of critical political openness. So I think there are other elements that need to be brought online, and that’s the willingness of leaders to be able to have countenance for political reform.

And, of course, they’re very wary of it, because they are trying to maintain social stability in China. And they see an open media, you know, greater quotient of rights, as being a real threat to their ability to keep economic progress going and to keeping the society as a whole on a relatively even keel.

GWEN IFILL: Let me talk a little bit more about that economic impetus, Minxin PEI Tonight, at dinner in Seattle, Hu Jintao will be dining with Bill Gates, the richest man in the world, Microsoft. Microsoft, and Google, and Yahoo have all, to some degree, cooperated with China in their efforts to limit this kind of Internet activity. Is this something which can sustain itself?

MINXIN PEI: Well, I think, at the moment, the Chinese government appears to have blunted quite successfully the impact of the information revolution, but over the long run I believe that they will not be able to continue to defend the great firewall of China.

Because I was in China about three weeks ago, and I found something which was truly amazing. I went to see, a much criticized Web site. And what I found was that Google has introduced a revolutionary technology of translating English into Chinese instantly with about 75 to 85 percent of accuracy.

And that opens a huge new world of information to the non-English-speaking Chinese public.

GWEN IFILL: So you’re saying that the things that you can get from these companies’ presence there outweigh the things that you can’t get?

MINXIN PEI: On balance, I would agree. I think that Google, in the ideal world, should not have caved in to the Chinese government’s demand, but by being there, they are allowing more Chinese to have access to more information. And in the long run, such information will undermine the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask Orville Schell about that. Do you think, on balance, one thing balances the other out?

ORVILLE SCHELL: Well, I would agree with PEI Minxin that, you know, things are opening up. But on the other hand, I think one does have to make some acknowledgment that the Chinese have been pretty successful to date of, by and large, bringing the Internet to heel when it comes to political questions.

They’ve used it for business, education and things that they find, you know, to be commensurate with their whole program. But the future is a little bit unknown. But I think, for most people in China, the firewall, packet-sniffing, registration, all of these techniques have meant that most people are living within an intranet within China rather than connected without any obstruction to the Internet as a whole, which of course embraces the world.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let’s talk about this for a moment, because I’m curious then whether one leads to the other. If, indeed, just the very presence of these forces in an intranet, as Orville Schell described it within China, is an improvement, then does that next lead to what many U.S. leaders would like to see, which is reform on other issues, currency, human rights?

MINXIN PEI: I think the Internet has not led to a direct challenge to the authority of the Chinese Communist Party, but it has led to direct challenges to specific public policies of the Chinese government. And I’d cite two examples.

The Chinese health care system is a scandal. Two-thirds of the population do not have any form of insurance. And that discussion is now very hot on the Chinese Web sites, and that discussion has also forced the Chinese government to acknowledge its failure in that crucial area.

Another example is mining accidents. Thousands of miners in China die every year. And now, each time there’s a big mining accident, the Internet would spread the news very quickly so the government cannot hide the news. And that mobilizes public opinion against the government.

And now the government is shutting down very dangerous small mines, so democracy, not yet, but more accountable government, perhaps. We have some signs of progress, very tentative.

GWEN IFILL: Dean Schell, as Hu Jintao comes to Washington and has lunch with the president, something they’re very carefully describing as an official visit, not a state visit, the president’s activities abroad have all been focused on spreading democracy, which we just heard Minxin PEI say is not necessarily the next immediate step. Does the twain ever meet?

ORVILLE SCHELL: Well, it’s undeniable that, you know, President Bush has taken a very strong position on sort of exporting democratic values. And we saw it in the Middle East, in Iraq.

And in a certain sense, you know, he does meet his maker in China, because we need China, China needs us. We have a very strong sort of economic common cord.

But on the other hand, China is very, very resistant to human rights talk, and I think all the more so right now, because in many ways China, like other countries in the world, don’t really believe the United States has much of a foundation to evangelize on this topic.

So it will be interesting to see how far he gets. I wager it’ll be downplayed, but he’s going to have to make some representations on this issue, because it’s such an organic part of everything that the Bush administration has evangelized for over the past few years.

GWEN IFILL: Briefly, is this visit more important for the president of China or the president of the United States?

ORVILLE SCHELL: Well, I think it’s very critical for Hu Jintao to see and be seen, to be sort of in the big top, if you will, which is Washington. So I think his reception is very important to him, and that’s why they really wanted this to be a state visit. And the 21-gun salute will be very gratifying to him and very gratifying to Chinese, I believe.

GWEN IFILL: And same question to you.

MINXIN PEI: I think if it were more important for President Bush, he would not have scheduled it during the Easter recess in Washington. So it is taking place during the Easter recess.

GWEN IFILL: When Congress is out of town.

MINXIN PEI: It is more important for the Chinese president than it is for the U.S. president.

GWEN IFILL: Minxin PEI, Orville Schell, thank you both very much.