Kids, Cadres And "Cultists" All Love It: Growing Influence Of The Internet In China

A March 2001 report from U.S. Embassy Beijing

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 Growth Quantified

 The Internet in China is undergoing phenomenal growth.  According to a  China Internet Network Information Center  survey released in January 2001, 22.5 million Chinese used the Internet at that time.  By the end of 2000, there were 892,000 computers linked to the web.  According to the same report, there are now more than 122,099 domain names registered under "CN" and 265,405 websites in China.

Who Uses the Net?

 All agree that the vast majority of users are in their 20s and 30s.  While only a very tiny fraction of all Chinese people use the Internet, many of China's intellectuals and opinion leaders now routinely surf the net.  Use is expanding far faster than many anticipated.  As in other countries, most Chinese net surfers use the Internet from home, while others log on-line at work or  at net cafes.  One very large net cafe, the Feiyu Net Cafe (www.feiyu.com.cn) near Beijing University's South Gate, has one thousand computers.

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.

Leadership Dilemma

The Chinese authorities are on the horns of a dilemma.  They know China needs the economic benefits the Internet brings but fear the political fall-out from the free flow of information.  In August 2000, President  Jiang Zemin told delegates to a computer conference that "the melding of the traditional economy and information technology will provide the engine for the development of the economy and society in the 21st century."  In an interview on 60 Minutes one month later, however, Jiang told Mike Wallace "We need to be selective.  We hope to restrict as much as possible information not conducive  to China's development."

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 ProvinceChina 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
information.

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.

Conclusions

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.