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Q&A: China's New Internet Restrictions

China's new Internet rules

China tightened its already stringent regulations on Internet content this week. A September 25 statement from the Ministry of Information Industry banned "subversive" material–including pornography, criticism of the government, and sensitive topics like Tibet and Taiwan independence–from the country's computer networks. Instead, only "healthy, civilized news and information beneficial to the nation" can be posted, the ministry said. It is already a crime in China to defame government agencies, divulge state secrets, or promote separatist movements.

Experts say the move is part of ongoing efforts to curtail free expression in China . The government has shut down Internet cafes, jailed journalists who write about corruption, limited foreign content on satellite television stations, and–as of June 2005–required all writers of weblogs, known as blogs, to register their full identities with the government.

"It's a pretty consistent trend [since Chinese President Hu Jintao came to power in 2003] that we've seen broad-based restrictions on content," says Adam Segal, the Maurice R. Greenberg senior fellow in China studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He says the government is increasingly worried about social instability among both poor peasant groups and educated urbanites, and is threatened by the idea that those groups could get unfettered access to online news information. "It's a huge problem for the Communist Party," Segal says. "They're pushing information technology, or 'informatization', they want China to be a technological power, and they want technology to improve the country's competitiveness. At the same time, they want to control information to keep their own hold on power."

China has roughly 100 million Internet users, second only to the United States' 200 million, and experts say the number of Internet users could reach 750 million in the next few decades. China is caught between the desire to open its media industry to international competition and its traditional use of the media as a propaganda tool, analysts say. "If the Chinese government wants to be a leader in the global online marketplace, it can't clamp down on the flow of free information," says Tala Dowlatshahi, New York representative for the media advocacy group Reporters Without Borders.

The Great Firewall of China

China limits what its citizens can see on the Internet by using technology built into the country's basic web infrastructure, dubbed the "Great Firewall of China." The technology allows Chinese authorities to block web pages they don't want people to see; hijack web sessions if certain taboo keywords like "democracy" and "freedom" are searched; and cancel links that would take viewers to forbidden sites, including pornography, international news sites, the search engine Google, many blogs, and sites related to Tibet and the banned religious movement Falun Gong.

In addition, automatic censoring software deletes undesirable words or messages from chat rooms and bulletin boards–or freezes the computer until viewers delete the phrases themselves. The police department has dedicated an entire department, estimated at some 30,000 to 50,000 people, to censoring cyberspace. Many companies also self-censor. The Chinese government holds online service firms operating in China accountable for all the content they publish or lead people to, making them liable for objectionable material–unlike in the United States, where the government treats service providers like the postal service; that is, the carrier is not responsible for the content.

How to beat the system

Of course, there is no shortage of creative ways to get around the censors. Some of the methods employed by enterprising people in China include:

* SMS. Short message service, or text messaging via cell phone, is often an effective way to circumvent official control and organize events like protests and marches. China has some 350 million cell phones, many of which have cameras. During anti-Japan protests in the spring, organizers used blogs, text messages, instant messaging (IM), email, and bulletin boards to spread the word. The technique was so widely used, Segal says, that when the Chinese government wanted to stop the demonstrations, Shanghai officials sent a text message to everyone in the Shanghai area warning them not to attend any more demonstrations.
* Tricky passwords. Hackers and other web-savvy users have figured out that the government's censoring software doesn't always work. A search of "elgoog"–Google spelled backwards–led to the site and allowed free searches, until authorities shut it down. Experts say the hackers and the government are in a constant game of cat-and-mouse, with the first constantly finding loopholes and the other moving just as quickly to close them.
* Use of overseas servers. Servers located outside of China do not have to adhere to Chinese government regulations; so many Internet users try to find international connections to access banned information.
* Blogs. The number of blogs in China has skyrocketed from about 1,000 in 2003 to more than 600,000 today, Isaac Mao, a pioneering Chinese blogger, told the BBC. The blog tracking group Technorati said in its August State of the Blogosphere report that a new blog is created every second around the world. The global number of blogs is doubling every five months, with significant growth in Japan, Korea, China, France, and Brazil . Blogs, which can be easily updated to quickly disseminate information, can be an important addition to mainstream news coverage. Chinese web users have even started an Adopt-a-Blogger program, which seeks international servers to host Chinese blogs and avoid censorship.

But despite all this cleverness, the government's censorship is fairly effective, Segal says. SMS messages can be tracked to the phone's owner, and most of the other techniques are labor-intensive and require extensive knowledge of the Internet. "For the casual user," Segal says, "there's no way the government can stop everything. But they can stop a good deal of people from hearing about it within a certain amount of time."


Chinese authorities have moved decisively to maintain their control of cyberspace. The government closed down more than 47,000 Internet cafes in 2004, according to the BBC. A January 2004 Amnesty International report details how China has tightened its restrictions on Internet use, including jailing people for posting information about the 2004 SARS outbreak. The organization estimates that some fifty-four people are currently imprisoned in China for sending "illegal" information over the Internet.

In one of the most contentious imprisonment cases, a Chinese journalist, Shi Tao, was arrested and sentenced to ten years in jail in September for emailing the text of an internal Communist Party message to foreign-based websites. Reporters Without Borders said the message warned of possible unrest as dissidents returned to Tiananmen Square in June 2004 on the fifteenth anniversary of the massacre there. Shi sent the information via his personal Yahoo email account; Yahoo executives gave Chinese authorities access to his account, which led to his conviction and earned the company harsh criticism abroad. Spokesmen for Yahoo said the company is obliged to cooperate with the authorities in every country in which it operates. The Committee to Protect Journalists condemned the ruling as illustrating China's "chokehold" on the Internet.

Pressures to conform

Yahoo and other multinational corporations are in a precarious position. Major firms seeking access to China's market are under pressure to abide by the government's rules. Since 2002, Internet service providers have had to sign pledges to monitor and self-censor their networks before they can get permission to operate in China. Yahoo, in a move to enter the enormous Chinese Internet market, also paid $1 billion in August for 40 percent of the China-based online auction group, Microsoft has pledged to censor some of its news and entertainment coverage. In June, it opened its free MySpace program on the MSN China site; more than a million blogs were created in the first week. Microsoft then came under fire for censoring the blogs. Phrases including "human rights," "Taiwan independence," and "demonstration" were all blocked. Viewers receive a popup warning that tells them the expression is banned and requesting them to delete it before they can proceed further.

The corporations say they have to obey the law, but "they're turning in their U.S. corporate ethics to work with the Chinese government," Dowlatshahi says. In the end, experts say, Chinese authorities have to reconcile two contradictory goals: becoming a global leader in information technology, and maintaining absolute political control over a country of 1.5 billion people. "The Chinese government has to make clear what its rules are," Dowlatshahi says. "China's now trying to become a major player in the international information market, but with that comes certain standards the Chinese government should be held to," she says.

Date posted: September 29, 2005 Last modified: May 23, 2018 Total views: 10