September 30th, 2005
Almost overnight, the Internet has emerged as the single most important forum the Chinese people have to criticise government policies and participate in politics. This is the good news. The bad news is that China's leaders have also noticed this phenomenon, and are doing everything in their power to reverse it. The really awful news is that Western Internet companies are only too happy to help the government.
On September 25th, two powerful Chinese government agencies, the State Council Information Office and the Ministry of Information Industry, jointly issued an important legal document: Rules on the Administration of Internet News Information Services. Particularly aimed at online forums, Web logs and even SMS wireless services, these new regulations represent the latest wave of forceful measures that the Chinese government has undertaken in a desperate attempt to regain control over the Internet.
The regulations are not entirely new. Since 1994, China's government has issued at least 38 laws and regulations aiming to control the Internet. The latest batch restates those laws, but also adds some important new expansions.
Significantly, the new rules include two additional categories of forbidden content left out of previously released regulations. One is the ban against "inciting illegal assemblies, associations, marches, demonstrations, or gatherings that disturb social order," and the other targets "conducting activities in the name of an illegal civil organisation." This is an apparent attempt to eliminate netizens' capacity to organise online. The massive anti-Japanese protests in some major Chinese cities this spring demonstrated the medium's potential for spontaneous organisation.
The most obvious feature of the new regulations is that they focus on "Internet news." The following statement from the official news agency Xinhua makes the intention clear: "The state bans the spreading of any news with content that is against national security and public interest." The regulation defines "Internet news" as, "current events news information, and includes reporting and commentary relating to politics, economics, military affairs, foreign affairs, and social and public affairs, as well as reporting and commentary relating to fast-breaking social events."
Ever since the Internet entered China, this flexible and pervasive new medium has been adopted by information-starved Chinese users to circumvent the Communist Party's traditional information-control mechanisms. Journalists have learned how to evade government guidelines by distributing and collecting information online. Ordinary Internet users can also write about events they witness and broadcast their reports online, making the suppression of important breaking news almost impossible.
Online discussions of current events, especially through Internet bulletin board systems (BBS) and Web logs, or "blogs," are having real agenda-setting power. The Chinese government has used enormous financial resources to set up government-sponsored Web sites at all levels of government, from national to regional and provincial. About 10% of all sites in Chinese cyberspace are directly set up and run by the government. Over 150 news sites have been directly established by the central and local government.
The problem is that these official sites have signally failed to gain the trust of the 100 million mostly young, urban and educated netizens. On the contrary, people simply go to any number of independent Web sites, including BBS and blogs, to read what they think is interesting. Popular BBS such as Tianya community and Xicihutong and individual bloggers enjoy far more online popularity, and therefore real influence, among netizens, than official Web sites such as Xinhua.com.
This is where the newly promulgated rules come in. The rules encourage self-censorship, particularly at smaller, unofficial news Web sites. The Chinese government mandates that all online forum- and weblogs-hosting companies, and even wireless text messaging services, bear responsibility for any information distributed through their sites or their services.
Authorities use licensing regulations and financial penalties to punish any companies that fail to comply. This regulation also applies to international Internet companies such as Yahoo and Microsoft, among others. Eager to expand their Chinese market share, many of these companies are more than keen to collaborate with these censorship mechanisms.
All major Internet Service Providers and Internet Content Providers in China have to hire people who do nothing but watch online information on their Web sites, and are ready to delete content considered "sensitive." In addition to human censors, all Web site-hosting services have also installed keywords filtering software. Posts on politically sensitive topics, such as Falun Gong, human rights, democracy, and Taiwan independence are routinely filtered. A list obtained by the Berkeley China Internet Project last year found that over 1,000 words, including "dictatorship," "truth," and "riot police" are automatically banned in China's online forums.
This regulation is backed up by real policing power. Since 2000, China's police force has established Internet departments in more than 700 cities and provinces. The Chinese net police monitor Web sites and email for "heretical teachings or feudal superstitions" and information "harmful to the dignity or interests of the state." They also have access to software which enables them to detect "subversive" key words in emails and downloads as well as to trace messages back to the computers from which they were sent.
In a recent case that shocked many around the world, Chinese journalist Shi Tao was sentenced to 10 years in prison for sending an email about news censorship in China to an overseas pro-democracy Web site. The catch here was that the net police traced the email back to the sender not through their state-of-the-art surveillance software technology, but thanks to the willing collaboration of Yahoo. It is instructive that the California company turned the information over even though it was stored in Hong Kong, outside the jurisdiction of the mainland police.
But Chinese authorities do not only rely on the threat of police action or imprisonment, but also adopt more subtle approaches to "guide opinion" online. Propaganda agents work undercover online pretending to be ordinary netizens, monitoring Internet debate as well as "guiding" online discussions.
Ironically, while government agents hide their identity online, Chinese authorities have ordered that all users of blog-hosting services and other individual Web sites register their identity, even at Internet cafes. All of these control mechanisms have a clear goal: to hold individuals directly responsible for what appears on their Web sites.
The problem for the authorities is that these measures are running up against the networked, decentralised and ephemeral nature of this new medium. The leaders are trying to halt a power shift in which Internet surfers get to choose which site to visit, what information to believe and distribute, and whose opinion to listen to. What's important online is credibility. The real opinion leaders and influential voices are coming from Chinese BBS and the blogosphere, not the official media.
These grassroots media activities will continue to take place despite the new regulations. New-generation technologies such as peer-to-peer file sharing and voice over IP phones (Skype is a brilliant example), will provide new communication platforms that can make it easier for users to bypass the censors' control. The capacity of the government to implement these new regulations effectively, therefore, is very questionable. The many-to-many and emergent nature of the Internet empowers information users far more then censors.
In the short-term, the new rules may have a chilling effect on Chinese cyberspace. In the long term, however, the Chinese censors are fighting a losing battle. The deeper problem here is that the Chinese Communist Party itself is morally bankrupt and intellectually exhausted. More regulations will not make official propaganda any more attractive or credible to Chinese netizens. Undercover commentators, self-censorship by Web site hosts, and occasional harsh police action against political activists will not help China's leaders gain legitimacy and trust either. Those in the West that helped trying to suppress speech may come to regret their decisions.
Mr. Xiao is the director of the China Internet Project at the Graduate School of Journalism of the University of California at Berkeley, and editor-in-chief of the China Digital Times.
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