The Internet is revolutionizing the way Chinese communicate and interact.
Government and business leaders recognize the medium as a key tool for
economic reform, and encourage e-commerce and information technology investment.
Intellectuals, dissidents, non-governmental groups -- and the Chinese government
itself -- have all embraced the Internet to spread information, ideas and
opinions. Authorities have reacted to limit "dangerous" content,
and many are deterred from writing or seeking out sensitive material.
Many others, however, see Beijing's efforts as speed bumps, not insurmountable
barriers. Even the Chinese press is finding the Internet an important tool for circumventing otherwise tight controls. As China's market economy develops, the Internet will almost certainly become a more important, positive force in facilitating rights of Chinese users to be informed, and to be heard.
Internet Business Key to Growth
Officials consider the internet to be a key element of the nation's
economic development strategy. China now has over three hundred Internet
Service Providers (ISPs) and more than six hundred Internet Content Providers
(ICPs). As commercial ventures, China's Internet businesses face
major difficulties. Network connections, increasing expenses, regulatory
uncertainty and competition from the telephone monopoly often hurt such
firms. The earliest ISPs in particular have
experienced price controls that restricted profits and limited the extent of competition. Despite extensive risks, however, China's Internet businesses are growing rapidly and are gaining attention from foreign firms with technological and financial resources to apply to China's market.
Most experts agree, once China opened the door to the Internet, it lost
much of its ability to limit Chinese citizens' access to information.
Its very size and ease of data retrieval make it easy for interested citizens
to verify, or refute, versions of events they hear from the Government.
Writers who have difficulty getting published sometimes circulate their
work by email or on websites. Chinese newspaper editors and writers have
told Embassy officials that the net has become an important communications
medium to Chinese intellectuals who want to promote political reform
and freer expression. Some websites regularly post surprisingly frank
critiques of Chinese society, the Party and the Government (which are usually quickly erased, but attract much attention).
New Regulations Ineffective
The Ministry of Information Industry (MII) regulates access to the Internet while the Ministries of Public and State Security (MSS) monitor its use. In late 2000, the Government issued regulations governing ownership, content and other aspects of Internet use. In October 2000, Internet Information Services Regulations went into effect banning the dissemination of any information that might harm unification of the country, endanger national security, or subvert the government. Promoting "evil cults" was banned as was providing information that "disturbs social order or undermines social stability." One new regulation, covering chat rooms, requires all service providers to monitor content and restrict controversial topics. Another requires Internet cafe patrons to register with "software managers" and produce a valid ID card to log on.
Most of these regulations are simply codifications of existing internal rules and are sketchily enforced. We have read numerous postings on electronic bulletin boards, highly critical of the government. The anonymity provided by the Internet has allowed inclined individuals to air their grievances in ways that harken back to the "big character posters" in past times of ideological loosening.
Intellectuals and Dissidents Pile On
Information on how to use proxy servers as relays to bypass official blocks appears regularly in the PRC press and on Chinese websites. Electronic Chinese-language publications such as VIP Reference, Huaxia Wenzhai and the VOA's emailed news reach many Chinese readers. The many books available online in China (and easy to find using a Chinese language search engine) include the full texts of some books that cannot be openly published but are sometimes available under the counter such as "The Private Life of Chairman Mao" and Nobel Laureate Gao Xingjie's "Soul Mountain". See also the January 2000 report China's Internet Information Skirmish .
Even the Bible is Online
The Bible is easy to find on the web. Bible website lists from Sohu, Sina.com.cn, Yahoo China and Netease show hundreds, sometimes thousands, of hits. Characterizing the Gospel of Matthew a "must-read," one Chinese software magazine recently suggested Chinese Internet users use the Bible to practice English. The story continued, saying the Bible is "chock full of words that appear in the GRE examination." The free software CD that came with the magazine contained not only the English translation of the Gospel of Matthew but also a 20 megabyte audio file so students can listen to as well as read the Gospel.
It's Harder to Kill News Stories
The web has allowed Chinese journalists to overcome the constraints of long-standing guidelines requiring that most new stories have a positive spin, especially when dealing with local issues. Journalists have taken articles their local editors killed to the web and offered them broadly across China. Not infrequently, the more sensational of these stories are picked up by papers and magazines in other provinces, where airing a neighbors dirty linen is not an issue, as a means of boosting revenues.
One recent example involved news of widespread HIV infections in Shangsai County, Henan Province that was published in Hunan and Sichuan Provinces in late 1999. A related example involved the spread, through website postings, of a November 1999 report (since confirmed by experts) on how mismanagement of over two hundred Henan Province blood donation facilities may have spread HIV to hundreds of thousands of people in Henan Province during the early 1990s. See Revealing the Blood Wound of the Spread of AIDS in Henan Province , China Health News And the Henan Province Health Scandal Cover-up and Recent Reports on HIV/AIDS and STDs in China .
But Still No Freedom of Speech or Press
Although Chinese surfers who look for it can find a great amount of
material, government net censorship does intimidate many web content providers
into censoring themselves. One Chinese who managed an on-line news
magazine recently told an Embassy official that fear of reprisals and the
constant harassment by local, provincial and central government officials
who disliked one or another article he published caused him to tone down
his stories and eventually stop publishing
political news. One online bookstore was criticized by the authorities and shut down for a time. Now it is back in business. Another Internet entrepreneur recently complained that Government regulations controlling the Internet were so broadly written that a Ministry of State Security official with a grudge could find any web-page operator or e-commerce merchant guilty of violating regulations.
The authorities have also not been afraid to use the same suppressive tactics against dissidents on the net they use against others. In June 2000, Chengdu-based Internet activist Huang Qi was arrested for "subverting state power." Huang had operated a site (www.6-4tianwang.com) exposing corrupt practices and criticizing the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen massacre.
The regulations have a definite chilling effect on individual users, and many simply refrain from expressing their personal views or seeking out sensitive sites. Nonetheless, even these more timid users exist in a much more information-rich environment. News from other than PRC sources flows in via unblocked newspaper sites from Hong Kong and Singapore (most remarkably the conservative, Chinese-language United Morning News). Increasingly, many Chinese net readers also get information from banned email Chinese language journals that arrives in individual inboxes through mass mailings. Beijing has publicized, and protested, the dissemination of information on the crackdown on Falungong through such channels.
Chat rooms and net fora are also increasingly popular ways to express opinions and share ideas. Software products exist to shield senders of information, which -- while not without flaw -- clearly give many the feeling of invisibility needed to boldly participate. A list showing the growing number of net fora and websites can be found at Beijing Bookworm -- Chinese Language Bookstores, Online Literature and Book Reviews (http://www.usembassy-china.org.cn/english/sandt/bjbkwrm.html )
Government Using Internet to Reach the People
Beijing's struggle to limit free speech is not blocking government initiatives to use the Internet to spread information about official policies and provide channels for two-way communication with outlying regions. While the Internet can be a powerful tool for Party propaganda, it has also become a powerful tool for disseminating less ideologically tinged material. More and more Chinese government agencies are posting useful and timely information online. Some Chinese judges have started publishing the reasoning behind their legal opinions on the net, and some IPR enforcement agencies post the latest results of their anti-counterfeit raids http://www.cqi.gov.cn
The government online project http://www.gov.cn
has put information from over two thousand Chinese government offices online.
The large investment in the Internet by the Government has resulted in
attractive, regularly updated websites used to counter the web information
of the increasing numbers of online critics of the Party. Another
example of government use of the Internet is the recent redesign of the
People's Daily webpage, which
includes not only news but also several surprisingly lively online forums
along with pages devoted to recent speeches and travels by China's
top leaders. The December 27 People's Daily carried a
laudatory article about how one university encouraged its students to use the Internet, complete with warnings aimed to help them not be taken in by unhealthy
Promoting Rule of Law
A very important trend is the increasing availability of the full text of Chinese laws and regulations on the Internet. Chinese language search engines at Yahoo! Chinese and Sina.com.cn make it easy to find online Chinese documents. Over the past decade, Chinese regulations have gone from being largely unpublished, confidential, in-house edicts, meant to guide officials and open to very wide interpretation, to published texts that are more detailed with each new iteration. Some Chinese government agencies have even published proposed regulations online and asked for comments, although this is still very unusual.
The China Info website at http://www.chinainfo.gov.cn makes available hundreds of full text Chinese scientific, engineering and medical journals. Increasing transparency, as regulations become widely available on the net, will help China as it makes the difficult transition to World Trade Organization membership.
The Internet and China's Commercial Expansion
The "Internet Bubble" has burst in China, as elsewhere, and many Internet
businesses are laying off staff. Just as in the U.S., however, this
does not mean that the prospects for the Internet are not bright.
Foreign manufacturers of servers and other equipment see big opportunities
in equipping the Chinese web, an indicator of increased expansion.
Decreased costs of purchasing computer equipment and the telecommunications
links to go online, the growing availability of internet cafe
connections in urban areas, the exponential growth in Chinese-language content, and the government's own use of the medium will all continue to spur further expansion of the net.
Attempts to enforce regulations restricting the free flow of information on the Internet, the arrest of several persons who expressed political views on the Internet, and self-censorship are all significant limits to free expression via the Internet in China. Nonetheless, Chinese authorities seem to acknowledge that they can only control the Internet up to a point, lest they risk limiting the flow of commercial and scientific information China needs to modernize. As the number of Internet users grows, we expect the medium will become an increasingly important tool in fostering the development of civil society in China.