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china and the internet
China's leaders see an embrace of the Internet as an economic necessity, but a political threat. Here's a look at China's increasing ability to control what its citizens can see and read online.

The Internet's evolution in China is in many ways a microcosm of the sweeping economic changes initiated 25 years ago by Deng Xiaoping, which were designed to liberalize China's markets and open them to the world. Just as Deng understood that he could better consolidate power through economic progress than through ideological purity, so the Communist Party leadership today has realized that it needs to embrace the economic potential of the Internet. And yet, while Beijing has taken steps to encourage the growth of its Internet sector -- giving tax breaks to high-tech firms, for instance, and building low-cost office space for Internet start-ups -- China's leaders also view the Internet as a threat to their authority.

Even as China's entrepreneurs leap onto the Internet, the government is developing some of the world's most sophisticated filtering technologies to control speech and access, and is cracking down on various forms of online "subversion," imprisoning pro-democracy advocates who have used the Internet for political purposes. Much as Deng set the country on a course toward what he called "socialism with Chinese characteristics," today's leadership has put its stamp on the Internet by fiercely regulating it. The government handed down rules in September 2000 prohibiting Internet content providers (ICPs) from posting "information that is detrimental to the honor and interests of the state" or that "undermines national unification," among other offenses, and an Internet "police" force -- estimated to be 30,000 to 40,000 strong -- constantly monitors Web content and usage.

Indeed, China has the most extensive Internet censorship in the world, more effective even than Saudi Arabia's according to a December 2002 study by Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. The authors found that of 200,000 websites they tried to access, fully 50,000 were inaccessible from China on at least one occasion. While the authors note that the filtering was inconsistent -- for example, a site might be blocked to users in one geographic area but not in another -- they say it could be due to a delay in updating the "block lists" in certain regions. They also noted that there was a "documentable leap" in the sophistication of China's Internet filters beginning in September 2002. (Recent articles and an Amnesty International report have pointed out that North American companies -- including Cisco Systems, Microsoft, Nortel Networks, Sun Microsystems, and Websense -- have provided important technologies that help the Chinese government censor the Web.) In addition, according to various reports, the Chinese authorities have been able to cut the average life of a proxy server -- which allows users to surreptitiously access sites that the government has blocked -- to approximately 15-30 minutes, a mere fraction what it used to be.

As the government grows more adept at censoring the Internet, many have cast doubt on the potential of China's Internet "revolution." A working paper from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace maintains that China's experience has defied the traditional wisdom that the Internet is a "democratizing" technology. In addition to the government's "reactive" efforts to control the Internet -- not only censoring or blocking websites, but also monitoring chatrooms and closing thousands of Internet cafes -- the authors write that the Chinese leadership has also developed "proactive" ways to reinforce its propaganda. The government, for instance, set up websites to present its official views on various events, such as the mistaken bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade by the U.S. during the 1999 war over Kosovo, and its reaction to the U.S. spy plane incident on Hainan Island in 2001.

The government also exerts significant control by encouraging Internet businesses to practice a form of self-censorship. In March 2002, more than 100 Internet businesses in China signed a public pledge to promote "self-discipline," agreeing not to post any information online that would "jeopardize state security." "The pledge reflects the eagerness of many Internet entrepreneurs in China to reap the economic benefits from Internet use while protecting the country form elements that the government considers threatening," declared the Digital Freedom Network, a New York-based advocacy group. The results of such self-censorship can be dramatic. Yahoo, the Internet portal and search engine, filters its content in China. In September 2002, The New York Times found that a search from Shanghai for "Jiang Zemin" on the popular search engine Google (which does not filter its content) turned up 154,000 results, the first of which linked to a website that was highly critical of the Chinese president. On Yahoo, meanwhile, the same search returned just six references; the first one linked to the "Life Story of President Jiang Zemin" from People's Daily, the official paper of the Chinese Communist Party.


A Sampling of Blocked Sites

Meanwhile, China's high-tech prowess is increasing, and the number of Internet users is exploding: from 2.1 million in 1999 to 33.7 million in 2002. According to BusinessWeek, China is "poised to move up the technology ladder at a pace unprecedented among nations," and is on track, Amnesty International reports, to have the world's largest population of Internet users in four years. Yet despite this phenomenal growth, skeptics remind us that China's Internet "revolution" has reached only a tiny fraction of China's population: With 33.7 million people using the Internet in China, that still means merely 2.6 percent of China's total population is online. Furthermore, since a computer costs about as much as a rural villager's annual income, Internet access is likely to remain available only to the most affluent, primarily those in the cities, for some time to come.

Undoubtedly, the Internet will continue to grow in China, and it will continue to bring economic and social benefits along with it. But as Nina Hachigian, a senior fellow at the Pacific Council on International Policy in Los Angeles, wrote in a March 2001 article in Foreign Affairs, "The United States should not harbor hopes for Internet-led democratization in China. Even if the Internet does amplify a crisis that leads to the demise of the [Communist Party], democracy -- or even a more tolerant autocracy -- is not a guaranteed or likely outcome in a country with no organized opposition party."

[Editor's note: Explore this selection of links and readings on the Internet in China.]



 

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