Falling Short: Online Rules: A Study in Paradox

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9. Online Rules: A Study in Paradox

Online journalists, especially those who file for overseas Web sites, can face great risk. Eighteen Internet writers are now imprisoned in China.

China is not the only country to manage public opinion by controlling the Internet—CPJ has documented Internet censorship in 22 countries worldwide—but it was the first to launch a comprehensive program to censor online speech and to monitor e-mail and text messaging. China’s approach to online censorship is so expansive and technically sophisticated that countries such as Vietnam, Zimbabwe, and Thailand have adopted its practices.

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. … All major portals and online forums will be monitored,” boasted an April 2007 article by the official Xinhua News Agency, one in a long string of such official pronouncements. By February 2008, Xinhua reported, the National Office for Cleaning Up Pornography and Fighting Illegal Publications had removed more than 200 million “harmful” online items during the prior year.

Such a massive effort means online journalists, especially those who file for overseas Web sites, can face great risk. Eighteen 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.


 Type something as benign-sounding as “open letter” into a Chinese Internet search engine, and it’s likely you won’t get a complete list of the Web’s offerings on that topic.

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Yet sheer numbers also offer potentially good news for free expression. An estimated 210 million people were online in China by 2008, and that is only about 15 percent of the mainland population. The China Internet Network Information Center said subscription rates are growing at double-digit rates, unlike the trend in many Western countries, where Internet penetration has leveled off. The government, for all its efforts, is fighting a rearguard action. Bloggers constantly pop up, change addresses, hide behind proxy servers, and use a full range of hit-and-run tactics to sidestep the government.

Zhao Jing, a former researcher for The New York Times and The Washington Post who blogs under the name Michael Anti, says many Chinese bloggers are journalists who work at mainstream outlets. He told CPJ that “a large number of the famous bloggers in China are journalists. They are an extension of the media. They blog because they can’t speak out at their newspapers.” Zhao, who worked for several Chinese papers and did a stint as a correspondent in Baghdad, said he wound up blogging because “I thought that I wouldn’t be allowed to write a political column. So I turned to the Internet.” Zhao’s work drew international attention in 2005 when U.S.-based Microsoft Corp. deleted his blog on the orders of the Chinese government. As in freer countries, he said, China’s online journalism is the tail that is starting to wag the dog: “Blogging has become mainstream. The blog has become the center of the media. It is the mainstream media that are following blogs.”

With the traditional press tightly controlled, bloggers break news in China. Blogs, text messaging, and social networking sites played prominent roles in spreading on-the-ground reports about the May 12 earthquake that shook Sichuan province, leaving tens of thousands dead or missing. Eyewitness accounts, photos, and maps were posted on sites such as Twitter in the hours after the quake. In 2007, environmental activists used text messaging to derail plans for a chemical factory in Xiamen, on China’s southeast coast. Their alarming reports sparked large demonstrations that drew national attention and prompted officials to halt construction so environmental studies could be carried out.

The government is clearly watching—and is prepared to use the bluntest forms of censorship when necessary. In the weeks before the politically sensitive 17th Communist Party Congress, in October 2007, public security officers restricted Internet data centers that hosted even a single Web site deemed politically offensive. Authorities ordered Waigaoqiao, one of the country’s biggest data centers, to suspend operations, and instructed other data centers to disable interactive features such as bulletin boards and comment sections while the Congress was in session. Tens of thousands of Web sites were either blocked or shut down entirely.

Typically, authorities use a mix of technological and regulatory tactics to try to control the Internet. The government 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 OpenNet Initiative—a research project on Internet censorship conducted jointly by Harvard and the universities of Toronto, Oxford, and Cambridge—found that China has engaged in “substantial” and “pervasive” filtering of political, social, and security-related content. Blocking user access to forbidden Web sites is a favorite tactic, as is reconfiguring search engines to filter out taboo locations. For example, a Web search for “Falun Gong,” “Taiwan,” or “Tiananmen” would not draw a blank, but it would yield carefully vetted sites that present the government-approved line.

Technology’s partner in Internet censorship is an old-fashioned one—regulations, strict and thick, imposed on service providers. In the five years after China first allowed private Internet accounts, in 1995, the government issued more than 60 sets of regulations to tighten its control of online content, Human Rights Watch reported. The regulations continue to come. In January 2007, President Hu Jintao once again made a public call to “purify” the Web, saying that the Internet threatened, among other things, 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 those 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.

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 unobjectionable material culled from online sources. Its former editor, Huang Liangtian, was fired and reportedly reassigned to Agricultural Products Weekly.

Denouncing the president, covering pro-democracy activities, mentioning Falun Gong, exposing corruption, reporting on the military, or even publishing photos of sleeping representatives at the National People’s Congress is off-limits online. If such material is posted domestically, authorities will move to delete it. If the postings find their way to international Web sites, which cannot be controlled, far more severe action is taken, as evidenced by the online journalists now imprisoned throughout the country. Many of those jailed wrote for U.S.-based Web sites such as Boxun News.

Yet videos of events embarrassing to the government, from village unrest to coal mine explosions, still find their way onto the Web. Video-sharing Web sites, in fact, have tested the government’s media-control model. In 2007, officials considered but eventually abandoned a plan that would have allowed only state-controlled companies to run video-sharing sites. Given the viral nature of the Internet, even when embarrassing videos are pulled down on government orders, they continue to live on overseas Web sites.

E-mail monitoring is another loose 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 June 1989 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 the OpenNet Initiative found, the government relies on individual service providers to monitor traffic, mostly through technology similar to that used in 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 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.

The current government’s drive to control not only online content but also e-mail and text messaging is stunningly contradictory. Successive administrations have recognized the economic benefits of digital communication and committed themselves to a wired China. “Never have so many lines of communication in the hands of so many people been met with such obsessive resistance from a central authority,” Ann Cooper, then CPJ executive director, said in written testimony to the U.S. Congress in 2006. “The Chinese government has merged its participation in the world market and political affairs with a throwback attachment to Mao-era principles of propaganda. By fostering technological and commercial growth, it has placed the media in the hands of ordinary citizens—and then used these same capabilities to block its citizens from blogging the word ‘democracy,’ publishing an independent analysis of relations with Taiwan, sending a text message about a protest, or reporting on the workings of the propaganda department.”

Although China’s efforts to control the Internet have met with 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 ever-faster connections.

» continue to Chapter 10:
Opportunity Dissolves: Foreign Media Still Obstructed

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