In the United States, the Internet has been the catalyst to a sustained economic boom and the purveyor of an unprecedented information explosion, but in China, that economic benefit has been thwarted by the communist nation’s higher priority of controlling at all costs the free flow of information.
A new report by the Committee to Protect Journalists examines China’s attempted stranglehold on the Internet, crystallizing the issue in a quote by Chinese President Jiang Zemin given during an interview with CBS correspondent Mike Wallace:
“Freedom of the press should be subordinate to the interests of the nation,” he said. “How can you allow such freedom to damage the national interests?” Acknowledging that many foreign news websites have been banned in China because of their political content, he said, “We need to be selective. We hope to restrict as much as possible information not conducive to China’s development.”
Written by A. Lin Neumann, a consultant to the Committee to Protect Journalists, the report, titled “The great firewall,” examines China’s relationship with the Internet, from the controlling Communist regime to the independent journalists and the multitude of truth-hungry readers.
The Communist Party, while wanting China to grow to be an economic, as well as military, superpower, has maintained its absolute control of the press. No private citizen may own a newspaper or media outlet, and all state-owned outlets are run by party officials.
Then came the Internet — “a dream come true” for entrepreneurs and the champions for technology, according to Neumann. “Closed for half a century in a state of perpetual socialist revolution but now wide open to global commerce, China has been hyped as the ultimate digital frontier, a vast nation of eager Netizens anxious to trade news and ideas as well as goods and services,” the journalist wrote.
Based in Bangkok, Neumann visited Beijing and Shanghai, where he “found ample evidence that students, entrepreneurs, and even state employees were using the Internet as freely as they possibly could.”
Yet, they risk being shut down — and even imprisoned.
On June 3, 2000, police in Chengdu arrested Huang Qi, the founder of China’s first human-rights website. The site was critical of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre — still a contentious issue in China — and also exposed a racket that was forcing Chinese fishermen to undergo appendectomies, apparently so that local officials could make money from the surgery, Neumann reports.
For his reporting, Huang was accused of “subverting state power,” a charge that may earn him 10 years in jail. Seconds before his arrest, Huang posted a final bulletin to his site: “There is a long way in front of us,” he wrote. “Thank you all, thanks to everybody devoted to democracy of China. They are here now (the policemen), so long.” The activist’s supporters quickly copied his site to a U.S. server, and its content remained accessible from China in early January. Huang, who was still in jail at the end of 2000, is one of seven people arrested for Internet-related “crimes” in China since 1998, says CPJ.
Qi Yanchen, a free-lance journalist, has been imprisoned for about a year-and-a-half on similar grounds as Huang, noted CPJ in a press release. Police arrested Qi on Sept. 2, 1999, at his home in Cangzhou, Hebei Province for allegedly “spreading anti-government messages via the Internet.” On May 30, nearly nine months after his arrest, Qi was prosecuted for subversion in a half-day trial before the Cangzhou People’s Court.
All Internet service in China is funneled through government servers whose administrators block access to Western newssites, Chinese dissident sites, Taiwanese newspapers and other material deemed objectionable, Neumann notes. There are some servers, though, that are able to operate outside the government’s control. “Surfers” with the requisite technical savvy are able to connect to the outside through those servers. The Ministry of Information Industry regulates Chinese access to the Internet, while the Ministry of State Security monitors local use of the Internet.
“Despite all this bureaucracy, or perhaps because of it, government regulation of the Internet has been sporadic and disorganized,” wrote Neumann. “During CPJ’s visit to China, The New York Times site was blocked, but Times articles on China appeared on the unblocked International Herald Tribune site. Many dissident sites were blocked, but not all. The site for Human Rights in China, a U.S.-based dissident group, was not blocked. CPJ’s site (www.cpj.org) was accessible, but Human Rights Watch (www.hrw.org) was blocked. Time magazine’s site (www.time.com) was blocked, along with CNN.com. But the Far Eastern Economic Review site (www.feer.com) was not blocked, even though it often features blistering critiques of the Chinese government.
“And although the Falun Gong spiritual movement is officially classified as a social evil, information about the movement is readily available from a number of sites. CPJ was even able to download pictures of the Tiananmen Square massacre, although most Tiananmen-related dissident sites were blocked.”
New Chinese laws that went into effect last year take Internet regulation even further, placing Internet service providers and content providers in the role of virtual spy. Each ISP must now record all information it receives from a content provider, including the time information is released and the address or domain name of the website. ISPs are also required to record “the time of its subscribers’ access to the Internet, the subscribers’ account numbers, the addresses or domain names of the websites, and the main telephone numbers they use.” Such information is to be kept on file for 60 days and given to “the relevant state authorities when they want to see these records.”
Neumann’s report includes text of China’s new laws, which defines banned material on the Internet as including:
(1) Information that goes against the basic principles set in the constitution;
(2) Information that endangers national security, divulges state secrets, subverts the government, or undermines national unification;
(3) Information that is detrimental to the honor and interests of the state;
(4) Information that instigates ethnic hatred or ethnic discrimination, or that undermines national unity;
(5) Information that undermines the state’s policy for religions, or that preaches evil cults or feudalistic and superstitious beliefs;
(6) Information that disseminates rumors, disturbs social order or undermines social stability;
(7) Information that disseminates pornography and other salacious materials; that promotes gambling, violence, homicide, and terror; or that instigates the commission of crimes;
(8) Information that insults or slanders other people, or that infringes upon other people’s legitimate rights and interests; and
(9) Other information prohibited by the law or administrative regulations.
Before use of the Internet in China became widespread, communist officials considered creating a Chinese intranet where all content and access could be controlled by the government. But as the worldwide Internet caught on and government agencies began using the information superhighway, the idea was abandoned. However, CPJ notes Jiang’s son has recently resurrected the idea.
CPJ Asia program coordinator Kazita Menon says the success of such an endeavor is “unlikely” since China appears to be moving toward engagement in the world community. However, she cautions against full inclusion of China without holding the country to a human rights standard. While many believed trade with China would naturally lead to an improved Chinese human-rights record as the country became exposed to the practices of other nations, Menon says the “repressive standards have prevailed.” In other words, there is a “worrisome trend,” she said, whereby governments and businesses have chosen to operate according to China’s requirements, rather than demanding conformity to more universally accepted human-rights practices.
“It is up to governments that deal with China and private businesses that invest in China to put pressure on the Chinese government to change the policies,” she told WorldNetDaily.
Nevertheless, “China is a different place than it was 10 years ago,” Menon added, pointing out that the government does not have the information monopoly it once had and is limited in its ability to control the Internet. But she also noted that though enforcement of its laws may be sporadic, authorities do have the ability to invoke them at any time.
Menon described China as “much more diverse than one might imagine.” Though media outlets are controlled by the Communist Party, officials within the party have different ideas about what is good for China, and so they differ in opinion about what information should be censored. For example, Premier Zhu Rongi advocates rooting out corruption from within government. But “people are treading a very fine line,” cautioned Menon. The climate within the party is very tenuous regarding what is “good” for China.
“They’re clearly on the cusp of something,” she concluded. “It’s just not clear which force will win out.”
Read Anthony LoBaido’s commentary, “Life with Beijing’s bruisers,” in today’s WND.