China: Cyber Politics


Alexandra Dawes

In November 2003, Liu Di, a 23 year old internet dissident, was released from a Beijing prison. She had been held there for a year without charge after posting several articles critical of Chinese government policies on the internet. The release took place prior to Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to Washington and appeared to signal a relaxation in government internet censorship. However, in reality such a relaxation has not occurred. China currently has the largest number of people imprisoned for posting material on the internet of any country in the world. Amnesty International puts this number at forty and they include pro-democracy campaigners, human rights activists, Falun Gong practitioners, scholars and other dissidents.

In an authoritarian state such as China where control and censorship of information has traditionally played a key role in the maintenance of state power, the issue of government control over the internet is highly contentious. The Chinese government is attempting to balance the competing demands of political control versus economic growth. The result has been a deep government ambivalence towards the internet.

China cannot afford to ignore the enormous economic benefits that can be derived from internet use. Moreover, Beijing realises that a major factor in the Chinese Communist Party’s continued political legitimacy is its ability to maintain economic growth. As a result, the government has actively encouraged increased use of the internet by providing the infrastructure and by ensuring that it is increasingly affordable. User numbers have risen from less than one million in 1997 to 68 million in July 2003. It is estimated that in the next two to three years China will become the largest internet-user-country in the world.

Nonetheless, the Chinese government’s wariness of the possible political ramifications is evident in the wide array of rules and regulations aimed at controlling internet use– at least sixty sets of regulations have been issued since 1994. Bill Clinton once stated that ‘trying to control the internet is like trying to nail jello to the wall’. However, by using a multi-layered approach the Chinese government has thus far managed to achieve some success in limiting the political use of the internet. Regulations forbid, among other things, the publishing or sending of ‘state secrets’ and ‘reactionary’ material. The broad wording as well as the imprecise definitions of terms like ‘state secrets’ has meant that such regulations can be used to prosecute individuals from a host of ‘undesirable’ groups.

Whilst the number of arrests of web dissidents in recent years is not enormous, the effect of the arrests is more widespread. Although government surveillance techniques are improving, it is technically and logistically impossible to monitor all internet content and communications. The real intent of the regulations combined with a number of high-profile arrests appears intended to promote self-censorship by Internet Service Providers (ISPs), Internet Content Providers (ICPs) and users themselves.

The government has found that private sector ‘partnership’ with ISPs and ICPs, is an effective way to control the internet. The regulations make service and content providers legally responsible for their own content, placing the burden of censorship on their shoulders rather than on the government. Service providers are required to monitor their subscribers’ use of the internet and report any transgressions to the authorities. Content providers also censor their chat rooms and websites removing material deemed questionable by the government. Warnings to users advising them as to what material is forbidden are regularly displayed in chat rooms as well as in internet cafes. Although these rules are acted upon inconsistently, combined with the arrests of web dissidents, they are enough to severely inhibit free speech by Chinese internet users.

In addition to promoting self-censorship, the Chinese government also directly blocks access by Chinese servers to many foreign websites. This blocking is not as widespread now as it has been in the past. An attempt in 1996 to build a ‘massive firewall’ around the Chinese internet was abandoned, because the huge number of blocks significantly slowed down the entire network. Some sites such as those related to Falun Gong and the Free Tibet movement still continue to be blocked. However, other sites are blocked more haphazardly; for example, Time/CNN is often blocked whereas the ABC and Newsweek sites are not. Users are also able to circumvent these blocks by using proxy servers which make it possible to search the internet freely by filtering requests through an anonymous ‘clean’ site.

While the Chinese government has striven to minimise the political impact of widespread internet usage, there is some evidence that the internet has changed the way that information is exchanged. One example relates to reporting of an explosion in March 2001 in a school in rural Jiangxi province which killed 38 children. Local officials claimed that a sole lunatic suicide bomber was responsible for the blast. However, based on parents’ accounts, regional tabloids and foreign media reported that the children had been forced to make firecrackers. These reports were picked up on the internet and discussions in chat rooms became widespread, leading to at least one chat room being shut down. However, by that time the story was widespread enough to prompt Premier Zhu Rongji to issue an extremely rare apology.

WATCHPOINT: As the number of internet users in China grows, it will become increasingly difficult for the government to monitor and control internet use. Further, as the demographics of users come to more accurately reflect the Chinese population and as any campaigns for reform will likely be more grassroots-based rather than elite-driven, the political potential of the internet will increase.


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