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Internet Censorship in China

By Wu Yisan
Dong Xiang Magazine
Nov 10, 2006

(Peter Rogers/Newsmakers/Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images)

Li Yonggang, a professor at the School of Public Management at Nanjing University, is the well-known founder of the Frontiers of Thought Website (www.sixiang.com), a collection of articles and commentaries by many prominent Chinese intellectuals.

The website hosted lively discussion on a wide variety of intellectual and academic topics until, tragically, it was forcibly shut down by the Chinese authority on October 14, 2000. These past few years, Mr. Li has continued to express concern over Internet censorship in China, and has recently completed some research on the issue, which he has released as Internet Censorship in the People's Republic of China.

A peer of Li's, Feng Guangchao, who is a professor at Hong Kong University, published an article in the June 2006 issue of Twenty-First Century Review called "The Great Wall on Our Doorstep: A Survey of the Banning and Blocking of Hong Kong Websites in Mainland China."

Another champion of the issue, Hu Hua, published an article "Not a Single Air Vent Left" in the September edition of Ming Pao Monthly.

In addition, the recently released book The Fogged China—How the Chinese Government Controls the Media, by He Qinglian, provides valuable analyses and insight into the Chinese media control system. This rash of scholarly publications has turned Internet censorship into a hot topic among educated Chinese.

I mainly wish to comment on the published research of Mr. Li in this article. I would stress that these are all my personal views and should not, in any way, be taken as the views and beliefs of Mr. Li.

In 2006, at least 62 Chinese citizens were arrested for surfing the Internet.

The Current Situation of Internet Censorship in China

According to publicly available figures, the number of Net surfers in China has reached 120 million—nearly 10 percent of the total population—which means there is still a lot of room to expand. As of June 2006, the number of operating websites is said to be roughly 788,400. Over half of the Net surfers are below the age of 24—and they are relatively educated.

Statistics report that 70 percent of Net surfers have at least a high school diploma or vocational degree. Around 36 percent of those surfing the Net are students. According to one study, the most popular Web activities include: reading information, playing online games, communicating with and sharing from the Internet or making friends, e-mail, and online shopping. Popular places to access the Internet include: homes, offices, Internet cafes (29 percent), and schools (roughly 20 percent.)

The Chinese regime's blocking efforts are focused mainly on schools and Internet cafes.

Based on a Harvard University study, Net surfers in China are denied access to 18,931 Web sites out of the 200,000 currently in existence. Ten percent of these sites have actually been filtered by the Chinese authority to counteract any information they consider divergent from the interests of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Internet censorship in China is only getting worse. Not only are sites being blocked and altered, those who run these targeted sites are being arrested and abused, threatened and harassed. In 2006, at least 62 Chinese citizens were arrested for surfing banned content. This puts China on the top of the list of countries suppressing the free flow of information on the Internet.

Net surfers in China are denied access to 18,931 Web sites out of the 200,000 currently in existence.

As of July, 2006, 14 Chinese regime agencies have promulgated over 50 sets of regulations or measures concerning the Internet, including the National People's Congress, Ministry of Propaganda, Ministry of Public Security, State Council Information Office, Ministry of Information Industry, Ministry of Culture, Administration of Press and Publication as well as State Administration of Radio, Film and Television.

You could say that China has become the country with the most laws and regulations in this regard. On the Worldwide Press Freedom Index 2005 released by Reporters Without Borders, out of 167 countries, China was ranked in 159th place, followed by Nepal, Cuba, Libya, Myanmar, Iran, Turkmenistan, Eritrea, and North Korea.

Meanwhile, Hu Jintao has been regarded by Reporters Without Borders as the worst predator of press freedom on earth for three years in a row.

This past April, fourteen Chinese Web sites—including www.qianlong.com—decided to voluntarily censor their own content. During their self-censorship, they deleted two million words and photos posted on their sites, and closed more than 600 forums that had been deemed "harmful." They also issued regular warnings to their members about "inappropriate" content. On June 24, the Department of Public Security of Guangdong Province claimed they would focus on "rights-defense problems" at home and overseas. As a means to monitor Net surfers, the police in Shenzhen City demanded the Internet cafes install a program called Window Spy. The program allows Internet police to monitor whoever has browsed "harmful" Web sites. On January 1, 2006, Shenzhen City also first introduced the "Net Police"—a couple of animated police figures who follow all of a surfer's movements on the Internet. When they catch someone accessing banned material the terminal is immediately connected to the monitoring system and the offender is thus "caught".

Shenzhen City's "Net Police;" they look cute, but their function is frightening.

On June 29, the spokesperson for the State Council stated that the focus of the Internet censorship in China is on blogs and search engines, because currently the number of people keeping online diaries is somewhere between 30 and 60 million.

This past year China has virtually completed its censorship of the Internet. As far as the CCP is concerned, it has been fairly successful at keeping "subversive" and "sensitive" content from the hands of the people. Google, Yahoo and Microsoft have been effectively neutralized.

A search for "June 4" (the date of the Tiananmen Masacre) on Google.com yields about 2.67 million hits, while the same search on Google.cn nets only about 10,200 hits. As we can see, the scope of information being filtered out is tremendous. There is a note on the Google.cn's search results page, "To comply with local laws, regulations and policies, some search results are not displayed." This is Google trying to cover up its complicity with the CCP censorship regulations.

Yahoo.cn has even boasted that it has helped the CCP regime to track down dissidents. The company says that it was instrumental in apprehending Shi Tao and Li Zhi, both dissidents.

New York Times columnist Ji Sidao registered his blogs with two websites, one of which was sina.net, and conducted an interesting test of China's Internet freedom—or, more specifically, the lack thereof. He first posted a news story about the arrest of Zhao Yan, and then posted the question: "Why didn't President Hu push ahead with political reform?" He then posted content on the June 4th Movement. Hence he commented in article in The New York Times that the Chinese authority has not controlled over the Internet in China. However, his blogs were shut down afterward.

Harvard and Cambridge Universities both participated in the study—dubbed "The Open Net Initiative"—along with several other prestigious scholarly institutions. Results from the study were published in April of 2005, which alleged that China's Internet filtering system is the most advanced and extensive in the entire world. The report said that China has utilized extremely complex and delicate techniques and achieved a significant success. The system encompasses multi-layer legal restrictions and technical control, and it involves various state agencies and tens of millions of civil servants and business employees.

A search for "June 4" on Google.com yields about 2.67 million hits, while the same search on Google.cn nets only about 10,200 hits.

The "Garbage Can Model" and the Special Crackdown

The "garbage can model," which is commonly used in Western society to study public policies, can also be employed to analyze the development process of China's Internet filtering. The Chinese communist regime's process of Internet management is a tutorial in public policy. As it is a brand new technique, the collective first impression of the older generation of proletarian revolutionists and the then managers in their fifty's or sixty's was: "What is it?" They thought it seemed novel and then scary. Eventually, a supervisory unit was established to deal with the matter.

As it started from ignorance or from the state of knowing very little, the decision-making model was indeed a mess. As to whether we should focus on the Internet's scientific, technological and business value, or regard it as a means for committing crimes against the Chinese citizenry or as a tool for dissidents to spread information that challenges the power of the CCP; everyone has his own opinion. Thus the "garbage can model" could be formed in the way—everyone throws whatever they want in to the can and takes out whatever they like. As a result of the "garbage can model" a single senior cadre's anger or a conflict against the interests of some organization could lead to a campaign within the entire Party leadership.

Since the Institute of High Energy Physics of the Chinese Academy of Sciences linked its scientific research computer network to that of American universities through the Submarine Optical Cable for the first time in 1994, the Chinese regime's control over the Internet can be roughly categorized into the following three stages:

  • Before 1998, it was the period of "fire-fighting"-style passive management. As there were only about 620,000 Internet users in China at the time, only those most obviously hostile websites were blocked, and the rest were pretty much left alone.

  • A period of moderate Internet censorship in China began in 1999. Both crackdown and prevention approaches were taken at the same time so as to censor and manage the Internet. The regime also contemplated enacting laws to regulate and prevent the negative impact of the Internet. In 1998, Falun Gong practitioners' appeal at the State Appeals Office near Zhongnanhai and the subsequent reaction that ensued on the Internet marked the first time the Chinese communist regime was really forced to acknowledge the powerful impact of high technology employed by appellants or opposition groups.

  • Since 2004, it has entered a period of tight control and elaboration of rules and regulations. During the SARS threat, the Chinese regime first covered up the information and later had to adopt a rare leniency. It evoked Internet users' passion for online discussions. Nonetheless, after the SARS threat, the momentum was unabated. However, in the wake of some high profile Web protests and "rights defense" campaigns, such as the Sun Zhigang 1 incident in Guangzhou City and the Baoma incident in Harbin City, the Chinese authorities, due to fear, have stepped up efforts to suppress civilians' freedom of expression. They took advantage of the first large-scale crackdown on pornography on the Internet in the summer of 2004 to launch a rigorous crackdown and program of control over political, ideological, cultural and scholastic websites. Since then, "special crackdowns" have become more and more common on the Internet.

The relevant authorities have expanded the Internet supervisory force and enhanced their censorship of public opinion. Currently there are over 30,000 Internet policepersons, and some have alleged that the actual number of Internet police is as many as ten times that number. In addition to controlling political messages, these Internet policepersons are also thought to be responsible for uncovering economic crimes, pornography and frauds.

In 2005, the Ministry of Education began to require that those using university BBS systems register their real names, so as to facilitate supervision and to make it easier to track down the source of public opinions posted on the Internet. The Ministry of Information Industry has created the report Web sites for citizens to report any clues on "hazardous" web sites and "harmful" Internet information. The online commentators recruited by various state agencies are responsible for guiding Internet users toward the authority-endorsed opinions on important issues. They are referred to as the "Internet political workers," and are paid half a yuan (US$0.08) per message they write. Internet users refer to these commentators-in-disguise as "fifty-cents." Needless to say, these undercover Internet agents are not popular among the community of Internet surfers and bloggers.

The authorities also hired supervisors and security officers on the Internet to conduct monitoring of the Internet. Some senior officers of the Central Propaganda Ministry have organized a "Net Commentators." With the implementation of a series of initiatives, including the real-name system, the registration system, the mutual monitoring system, the self-censoring system, the administrative punishment system, etc., the Chinese regime has realized its rigorous control over people, premises and business.

The Web regulations have been intensifying. The CCP says that it is necessary to filter out the "vicious information" propagated by other countries, and to "protect the psyches" of Chinese citizens. Information about Falun Gong, Taiwan Independence, and the Tibetan freedom movement is by far the most diligently censored.

It used to be that Net surfers could chat fairly safely and anonymously from Internet cafes, but tighter regulations and the enhanced monitoring technology has made this far more dangerous. No place on the Internet is really safe now.

According to the blacklist of Internet sensitive keywords, all of the monitored "antagonist websites" are filtered at Guangzhou, Beijing and Shanghai—all information from the outside world arrives in China via one of these major financial and technological centers. This is the so-called "Fire Wall." In the past, when the "Fire Wall" blocked the BBC and other international websites, it caused a protest by the journalists who came to report President Bush's visit to China. The authorities parried these attacks with the excuse of "technical malfunction." After the departure of the journalists, those blocked websites somehow began to experience "permanent malfunction."

After 2002, more sensitive keywords began to be filtered. It is estimated that the blacklist of the sensitive keywords such as "June 4", "Falun Gong", "Wang Dan", etc., reached as many as 3000. Under the monitoring mechanism, the sensitive keywords are blocked once they are typed into the computer. Even the phrase "Chinese Communist Party" is not allowed. The only way to refer to the CCP is by its bombastic self-styled moniker: "great, glorious and correct," which is a promotion of the Party's supposed greatness more than it is a name. In response to this, bloggers began using the name the "Axe Gang" to refer to the CCP.

In fact, the more the CCP bans words, the more the "netizens" invent new terms and phrases to get around the bans.

Another tactic employed by the Internet police is the hijacking of domain names; a person logs on to a website only to be instantly redirected to a CCP propaganda site. Also, Internet cafes are required to install alarm systems in their computers that go off when a customer browses or posts banned content. In this case, the computer makes a copy of the offending content and sends it directly to the police, who then use it as evidence to prosecute the offender.

Characteristics of the Chinese Regime's Internet Censorship

Internet censorship by the Chinese regime features the following four Chinese characteristics:

  • The combination of universal filtering and manual spot-check.

  • Blurring the rules and launching underground manipulation among departments. The criterion for "harmful information," "sensitive information" and "subversion behavior" is not defined within the 50 plus law-cases.

  • Inefficient administration and dismayed legal system causes difficulty in seeking litigation when the authorities illegally run down or delete information from the websites in China. It is difficult to search for definitive terms such as who executes the punishment? What's the law entry that is violated? By which law is the principal punishment being executed? These problems are distinctively manifested in those websites of academy, law and rights safeguarding.

  • Scouting and banning protest activities and the political movements supported by oversea forces. For the sake of "its own security," authorities do not consider influences acting upon the international society. Generally, Internet censorship deals with the Web fraud and the pornographic harm to children in the international society. For the Middle East, only the category of religion will be monitored. Even for Cuba and North Korea, Internet surveillance is trivial compared to that f China, in which a complete, multi-layer, multi-channel and distributing filter system is built into the country.

Role and Logic of the Central and Local Authorities, Ministries, Institutions and Netizens within the Internet Censorship

1. The central regime plays a leading role in controlling the thoughts of the people. The ambition of domination and infatuation with wielding power caused the regime to believe that nothing could escape its grasp. On the other hand, the regime generates the illusion that society would be in disorder without its administration. Censorship must be infiltrated into the affairs of people's daily life. This results in the contradiction between the CCP's assertion that it is "representing the majority" and its practice of distrusting the majority.

A totalitarian regime maintains its stability and legality by propagating its ideology and political achievement. Totalitarian regimes work best in a hermetically-sealed environments created by monopolizing information and consensus, which distorts the citizens' views of outside world and its people. As an example, look at North Korea, where the masses have been instilled with the idea that the domestic people are well off while the rest of the world suffers from hunger.

On the other hand, openness creates a possibility that people might start thinking independently. Compared to the overflow of nonsense and lies, only the concern of "improving our lives" is practical. The increasing awareness of human rights spreading through the common people surely causes anxiety for the party in power.

Doubting the masses' capability of self-management and being scared by dissidents, the CCP is always frightened by the imagined instigation of alien forces. Because government regulation has suppressed people's freedom of speech, association, and dissent, the Internet becomes a cyber-arena that amplifies the effect of events and offers citizens an opportunity to express their idea. It presents a forum for people to release their revolutionary enthusiasm and libertinism, which challenges the traditional value system which claims that "stability is of supreme importance." Due to the powerful mobilization of the Internet, the regime is deeply afraid of "Web sedition" by those "moral militia" which were by stirred up by various political movements, such as anti-Japanese and anti-American sentiments.

2. Departments and localities are the executive organs of policy control. On the one hand, they are willing to have the same opinion as the Party's Central Committee and the State Council to control the Internet tightly under the mechanism of being accused; one the other hand, they would like to control the internet tightly because doing so offers many opportunities to make money. Selling monitoring equipment, installing software and hardware, and putting people into the penal system are all good sources of income.

The CCP Empire is no longer a monolith; it is more like a financial federal system. This federal financial system is a major reason for the expansion of China's economy, but it also has created opportunities for different opinions to arise. Because local governments and departments do not have the central leadership's anxieties about "how long the red flag will fly," these local officials need only concern themselves with balancing the advantages and disadvantages of their official career's safety; they only want to keep their jobs, win promotions, and get rich.

3. Entities such as Internet service providers and suppliers also assist the central powers in controlling the Internet. Faced with political as well as financial pressure, even international corporations have begun to act like local Chinese companies. The huge market's promise of ever-increasing profits have led these corporations to actively join in the effort to control, limit, and monitor Internet content, and access, and use.

Even wealthy and powerful international corporations like Yahoo, Google, and Microsoft have all finally chosen to cooperate with the communist regime. In doing so, they have become forces that not only limit free speech but actively assist in identifying, and prosecuting dissidents.

4. Most people living in the lower strata of Chinese society constantly complain about the CCP but still depend upon the CCP. Whenever problems arise, they ask, "Why doesn't the government take care of this?" This is because the state apparatus is extremely strong while the power among the people is extremely weak. The need to seem to agree with policies along with a feeling of powerlessness has left most citizens apathetic. By meekly accepting government policies, including Internet policies, the common Chinese citizen has become complicit in the CCP's censoring of the Internet.

The willingness of some Internet users to closely monitor and discipline other users is an important facet of the central government's monitoring and control of the Internet, and has greatly decreased the cost of this monitoring. The Golden Shield Project (a high-tech program to control all information flowing into and within communist China) has cost the regime only $800 million so far, because of this.

We can see from here that the "Great Wall" against Internet "invasion: is not entirely external to the Chinese Internet community, or the Chinese community as a whole. Every Chinese needs to do some soul-searching on this.

Cultural Background for Internet Surveillance and the Future of China's Internet under Strict Surveillance

The CCP exerts authority under the guise of providing a "Father's Love": that is, the CCP describes itself as the parent of the common people, claiming that everything the CCP does is done in the best interest of the people ("Father knows best.") Self-described as the expression of a father's love, the dictates of the CCP are thus too sacred for the "children" (the common people) to question.

The CCP also maintains the tradition of "carrying on the revolutionary fight," even though this would seem contrary to maintaining a harmonious society.

The CCP always asserts that "Enemies are everywhere, the imperialist's intention to destroy us never ends." Whenever there is disturbance or social unrest, the CCP insist that the troublemakers are just a handful of people acting out of ulterior motives, while the great majority of people have been deceived and don't see the truth. The party then arrests that "handful of people," and then "educate" the rest of the people (bombard them with more propaganda.) The CCP believes that the common citizens' mind s are empty, if the CCP does not fill them with CCP propaganda, the reactionaries will surely fill them with reactionary propaganda.

The four billion cell phones, which sent out 300 billion messages during 2005, will become the next target to be controlled by the Chinese authorities. Tens of thousands of messages about anti-U.S.A., anti-Japan and several "Internet Militiaman Rebellion" groups were all sent out by cell phones. Cell phone messages and text messages operate like collecting signatures on petitions and help recruit like-minded individuals. The information about the spread of SARS in Guangdong Province and also news about bird flu were spread all over China—and eventually out of China— through cell phone messages

All these different types of information technology have left the authorities shaken with fright and in a constant state of anxiety. Already members of the National People's Congress have submitted a "Cell Phone Control Draft Law": this law, if enacted, demands that people apply to buy and register cell phones and even phone cards using their real names and personal information. If enacted, this law will prevent cell phone users from having any anonymity, and register their cell phones register with their real names and personal information. Cell phone users have nowhere to hide.

CCP authorities have seen that the Chinese regime is becoming fragmented. It is no longer a centralized state power as it once was. Power and influence have flowed outward to capital groups, opinion makers, and information and knowledge professionals. Some local governments simply ignore directives from the CCP's Central Committee.

At present China is something like CCP Preferred Stock Company Unlimited, with power balanced between the Board of Directors—the Central Committee— and the shareholders— the local authorities. The Board of Directors is is looking for long-term benefits while the shareholders are looking for immediate profits. Regional and departmental benefits are becoming more important than political ideology. Thus we see the Ministry of Culture and the National Copyrights Bureau getting involved in a violent fight over who collects Karaoke copyright fees. Similarly, the Ministries of Education, Food and Medicine Monitoring and Control Bureau, and the Ministry of Health are all getting involved in Internet censorship and control in a effort to reap some reward from it

Despite the examples set by more advanced countries, the CCP, fearful of losing its hold on power and fearing its own population, has decided to choose stability and order, and to sacrifice justice, freedom, and democracy. General affluence and social harmony are just dreams. The power elite of the ruling party use the newfound wealth arising from the new theory of the Three People's Principles and economic reforms to grant petty favors and positions, to co-opt the economists and knowledge professionals who make up a very small segment of the populace but have a big voice.

The CCP's strict control of the media and the Internet have made China's broken society into a pressure cooker with no vents. However, we needn't be too pessimistic about its future, because the flip side of these prohibitions is that they show the weakness of the regime.

The Central Committee of the CCP is losing confidence in its control. Just as local competition stimulates the growth of the economy, the mass media and the Internet can also be a positive stimulus, as users stretch the limits of free expression. While laws are being passed to create more supervisors and monitors, it is also possible for people to learn the law, and thus to fight for the rights granted them by law. Technological improvement is a double-edged sword: it strengthens the ability to break through controls at the same time as it strengthens those controls.

[1] Sun was arrested for not having an ID card and beaten to death while in custody. Four detention center officials and eight inmates were later convicted of murder or related crimes. Cheng Yizhong, editor of the Southern Metropolis News which reported the story was also imprisoned, as were three of his colleagues. The incident created tremendous public outrage, and the regime promised reforms.

Reporters from Nanfang Dushi Bao (Southern Metropolis News), an aggressive daily run by groundbreaking editor Cheng Yizhong, soon discovered an official autopsy report that found Sun had been beaten to death in custody. Though well aware that a story on the autopsy would infuriate local officials, Cheng gave the go-ahead to publish it anyway.

Dong Xiang September 2006

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