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A publication of the
Committee to Protect Journalists
|9. Online Rules: A Study in Paradox
Online journalists, especially those who file for overseas Web sites, can face great risk. Nineteen Internet writers are now imprisoned in China.
Published estimates suggest that the Chinese government could have many thousands of people monitoring Internet activity. “The Ministry of Public Security will be dispatching virtual cops to China’s major Web sites,” boasted an April 24, 2007, article by the official Xinhua News Agency, one in a long string of such official pronouncements. “By the end of June, all major portals and online forums will be monitored.”
Such a massive effort means online journalists, especially those who file for overseas Web sites, can face great risk. Nineteen Internet writers are now imprisoned in China, accounting for about two-thirds of the journalists held in the country’s prisons, according to CPJ research.
Yet sheer numbers also offer potentially good news for free expression. An estimated 137 million people were online in China by 2007, and that is only about 10 percent of the mainland population. The China Internet Network Information Center said the raw total is up by almost 25 percent from the year before, and subscription rates are accelerating, unlike the trend in many Western countries where Internet penetration has leveled off. The government, for all its efforts, is fighting a rearguard action to keep up. Bloggers constantly pop up, change addresses, hide behind proxy servers, and use a full range of hit-and-run tactics to sidestep the government.
With the traditional press tightly controlled, bloggers break news in China. A 2006 CPJ report, “China’s Hidden Unrest,” found that the job of reporting on widespread rural protests and environmental degradation has been taken up increasingly by members of China’s emergent civil society, including activists, lawyers, and intellectuals whose work relies heavily on the Internet.
The government is clearly watching. In the five years after China first allowed private Internet accounts in 1995, it issued more than 60 sets of regulations to tighten its control of online content, Human Rights Watch reported—and the regulations continue to come. In January 2007, President Hu Jintao once again made a public call to “purify” the Web and said that the Internet, among other things, threatens the “stability of the state.” China’s chief censor at the time, Long Xinmin, warned that more rules would be issued because “advanced network technologies such as blogging and Webcasting have been mounting new challenges to the government’s ability to supervise the Internet.”
The government’s first move following these remarks was a crackdown on Internet cafés. Realizing it couldn’t close the more than 113,000 smoke-filled gathering places already in operation, Beijing simply told local officials to stop issuing licenses for any new ones. Existing Internet cafés were required to register with the state and to take responsibility for material posted from their terminals. The government did back down, in the face of industry resistance, from its plan to require Chinese service providers to obtain verifiable personal details from all users. Instead, it is enlisting Chinese Internet companies to sign a pact promoting real-name registration.
This typifies a government approach that is both technological and regulatory. China relies on service providers to do much of its bidding—filtering searches, blocking critical Web sites, deleting objectionable content, and monitoring e-mail traffic. The details are closely held and ever-changing. China’s tactics are so dynamic that the Internet research group OpenNet Initiative said it is “very difficult to render a clear and accurate picture of Internet filtering in China at any given moment.” Blocking user access to Web sites is still a favorite tool, though, and search engines are routinely reconfigured to filter out taboo locations. For example, a Web search for “Falun Gong” or “Taiwan” or “Tiananmen” would not draw a blank, but it would yield carefully vetted sites that present the government-approved line.
Shifting tactics aside, OpenNet Initiative found, China engaged in “substantial” or “pervasive” filtering of political, social, and security-related content.
Technology’s partner in Internet censorship is an old-fashioned one—regulations, strict and thick, imposed on service providers. Bulletin-board systems, Web sites associated with search engines, and online text-messaging services are required to register as news organizations. Web sites that have not been established by an official news outlet such as a newspaper or broadcaster are forbidden from gathering or editing their own news or commentary; legally, they can only reproduce material that has passed through censors at approved media organizations—and all media in China are government-controlled.
The regulations outlaw the kind of self-generated news and commentary that had become a fixture of search portals such as Sina and Sohu and popular bulletin-board systems such as Xici Hutong. Administrators of these sites had long censored their own news content and monitored public discussions to avoid being shut down by authorities, but the new restrictions added a layer of direct government involvement while circumscribing the sites’ legitimate scope. Century China, which launched in 2000, was an outright casualty of the rule-tightening. A collaboration of the Chinese University of Hong Kong and a Beijing think tank, its eight online forums combining news and opinion were widely read by Chinese academics until the Beijing Communications Administration ordered it closed in July 2006.
Sites tied to publications were once more aggressive than their print versions, but they, too, have dialed
back on their coverage. Baixing (Ordinary People) saw its online version shut down several times. After running
exposés on corrupt land seizures, Baixing was finally reconfigured in print and online as a “youth lifestyle”
magazine that reproduces nonobjectionable material that it finds online. Its former editor, Huang Liangtian,
was fired and reportedly reassigned to Agricultural Products Weekly.
Yet videos of events embarrassing to the government, from village unrest to coal mine explosions, still find their way onto the Web. Given the viral nature of the Internet, even when such material is pulled down, it continues to live on in bulletin boards and e-mail trails within China, and on outside Web sites, many based in Hong Kong, that follow the mainland closely.
E-mail monitoring might be the loosest brick in China’s firewall, but users have learned to watch their backs. The most notorious case of e-mail repression was that of jailed Chinese journalist Shi Tao, who is serving a 10-year sentence for “providing state secrets to foreigners.” Officials from the Changsha security bureau detained Shi near his home in Taiyuan, Shanxi province, on November 24, 2004, several months after he e-mailed notes detailing the propaganda department’s instructions to the media about coverage of the anniversary of the crackdown at Tiananmen Square. The U.S.-based Internet company Yahoo acknowledged that it helped Chinese authorities identify Shi through his e-mail account.
Rather than try to stay abreast of the flood of e-mail
traffic crisscrossing the Internet, a 2005 study by Open-
Net Initiative found, the government relies on individual
service providers to monitor traffic, mostly through
technology similar to that used for spam filters. In the
case of an investigation or prosecution, providers are
expected to make records of e-mail traffic available to
the government—a system that is also used by courts
in Western countries. OpenNet said its 2005 tests of
China’s e-mail filtering system found sporadic blocking
of messages with politically offensive subject lines or
body text in both Chinese and English.
Although China’s efforts to control the Internet have met with much success, its “virtual cops” are rushing to stay ahead of its Web-using citizens. This pattern of commerce and control is bound to be repeated as officials, seeing that information flow is critical to economic growth, wire the countryside with everfaster connections.