The Great Firewall of China

Xiao Qiang, a 2001 MacArthur Fellow, is executive director of Human Rights in China, a monitoring and advocacy organization based in New York and Hong Kong. Sophie Beach is Asia research associate at the Committee to Protect Journalists.

NEW YORK — Last month, the Chinese government announced that some 45.8 million of its citizens had access to the Internet. Three years ago, only 2 million Chinese people were online. At this rate, half of China’s nearly 1.3 billion people will be online in five years.

For supporters of a free and open exchange of ideas, this sounds like progress. But while the rapid development of the Internet in China is indeed impressive, we must not ignore a less cheerful corollary development: The country’s leaders are also escalating efforts to strengthen the “Great Firewall,” which controls what information China’s Internet users can view and distribute.

Since 1995, more than 60 laws have been enacted governing Internet activities in China. More than 30,000 state security employees are currently conducting surveillance of Web sites, chat rooms and private e-mail messages–including those sent from home computers. Thousands of Internet cafes have been closed in recent months, and those remaining have been forced to install “Internet Police 110” software, which filters out more than 500,000 banned sites with pornographic or so-called subversive content. Dozens of people have been arrested for their online activities; in 2001, eight people were arrested on subversion charges for publishing or distributing information online.

This month, a court in Tianshui City, Gansu province, sentenced former police officer Li Dawei to 11 years in prison for downloading and printing 500 “reactionary” articles from the Internet, which could include a broad range of information that the government simply finds politically unacceptable.

The newest section of the Great Firewall is a set of regulations enacted Aug. 1 requiring Web publishers to censor their own sites or risk being shut down. Having realized that censoring the millions of Web sites now online is a behemoth task, the government has compelled private Internet service providers, Web publishers and Internet cafe owners to do the job for them.

Such restrictive regulations clearly trample the Internet’s spirit of free expression and democracy. They are also destroying the buds of free expression in China by directly threatening tens of thousands of individual Web sites publishing increasingly independent and diverse viewpoints. In response, Chinese Internet users have launched new protests against state censorship of the Web. At the fore of this movement is the widely circulated Declaration of Internet Citizens’ Rights, which demands free expression and freedom of information and association on the Internet.

The declaration’s authors challenge the constitutionality of the new regulations and defend their rights to publish online by quoting the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights. The Internet declaration then states: “A modern society is an open society. As the Chinese people again face a historic transition into a modern society … any measure that closes China only harms China’s emergence into the international community and Chinese society’s peace and progress…. Defending Internet freedom is an urgent matter.” Initiated by 18 prominent writers, lawyers and private Web masters, the declaration immediately gained the support of more than 600 Web publishers, Internet users and other Chinese “netizens.”

Among the 18 initiators of the declaration is Wan Yanhai, Web site publisher of the AIDS Action Project, a Beijing-based education and activism group whose offices authorities closed in June. With reporting on AIDS officially censored in the state media, Wan’s Web site, now on a server outside China, is the only independent source of information about the impending HIV/AIDS crisis. (A U.N. report has predicted that 10 million people in China will be infected with HIV by 2010.) On Aug. 1, Wan initiated a rare act of civil disobedience in China by circulating an online appeal to all independent Web publishers, asking them to join him in protesting the new regulations by turning themselves into authorities for operating “illegal” Web sites. Since then, Wan has continued to push the boundaries of free expression by using Internet chat rooms, online forums and e-mail groups to boldly advocate for his cause. Overseas organizations have helped amplify domestic voices like Wan’s by providing distribution channels, content that is forbidden domestically and technological means to evade the firewall. While Chinese citizens are fighting against Internet censorship, the reaction from some leading international high-tech corporations has been shameful.

Since March, more than 300 businesses, government offices, universities and other organizations have signed the Public Pledge on Self-Discipline for China’s Internet Industry, drafted by the government-approved Internet Society of China. Signatories agree to refrain from “producing, posting or disseminating harmful information that may jeopardize state security and disrupt social stability.” Yahoo, an Internet pioneer that designed one of the Net’s most popular search engines, was among the first foreign companies to sign the pledge, and a visit to the Yahoo China site demonstrates the company’s compliance. Its search engine has effectively filtered out the vast majority of sites containing terms usually considered subversive by the Chinese government–including “human rights,” “Falun Gong” and “Tiananmen 1989.”

This self-censorship is shocking, especially since Yahoo is currently defending itself on freedom-of-expression grounds in a legal battle with the French government over the right of French users to access online auctions of Nazi memorabilia.

The growing Internet rights movement is at the forefront of using Internet technology to open Chinese society. International corporations can and should facilitate this goal by refusing to abide by domestic Internet regulations that violate China’s international obligations, including those that come with World Trade Organization membership. As a first step, corporations should refuse to sign the self-discipline pledge and instead support the Internet citizens’ rights declaration. The 45.8 million Internet users are also Chinese citizens, and this is what they want and deserve.