Chinese Censors and Web Users Match Wits

Published: March 4, 2005 – Copyright 2005 The New York Times
SHANGHAI, March 3 – For many China watchers, the holding of a National People’s Congress beginning this weekend is an ideal occasion for gleaning the inner workings of this country’s closed political system. For specialists in China’s Internet controls, though, the gathering of legislators and top political leaders offers a chance to measure the state of the art of Web censorship.
The authorities set the tone earlier this week, summoning the managers of the country’s main Internet providers, major portals and Internet cafe chains and warning them against allowing “subversive content” to appear online.
“Some messages on the Internet are sent by those with ulterior motives,” Qin Rui, the deputy director of the Public Information and Internet Security Supervision Bureau, was quoted as saying in The Shanghai Daily.
Stern instructions like those are in keeping with a trend aimed at assigning greater responsibility to Internet providers to assist the government and its army of as many as 50,000 Internet police, who enforce limits on what can be seen and said.
“If you say something the Web administrator doesn’t like, they’ll simply block your account,” said Bill Xia, a United States-based expert in Chinese Internet censorship, “and if you keep at it, you’ll gradually face more and more difficulties and may land in real trouble.”
According to Amnesty International, arrests for the dissemination of information or beliefs via the Internet have been increasing rapidly in China, snaring students, political dissidents and practitioners of the banned spiritual movement Falun Gong, but also many writers, lawyers, teachers and ordinary workers.
Already the most sophisticated in the world, China’s Internet controls are stout even in the absence of crucial political events. In the last year or so, experts say the country has gone from so-called dumb Internet controls, which involve techniques like the outright blocking of foreign sites containing delicate or critical information and the monitoring of specific e-mail addresses to far more sophisticated measures.
Newer technologies allow the authorities to search e-mail messages in real time, trawling through the body of a message for sensitive material and instantaneously blocking delivery or pinpointing the offender. Other technologies sometimes redirect Internet searches from companies like Google to copycat sites operated by the government, serving up sanitized search results.
China’s latest show of growing prowess in this area came in January after a major political event, the death of the former leader Zhao Zhiyang, who had been held under house arrest since appearing to side with students in 1989 during the Tiananmen demonstrations.
When the official New China News Agency put out a laconic bulletin about his death, placing it relatively low in its hierarchy of daily news stories, most of the rest of China’s press quickly and safely followed suit. On their Web sites, one newspaper after another ran the news agency’s sterile bulletin rather than take risks with commentary of their own.
What happened on campuses was far more interesting, though. University bulletin boards lit up with heavy traffic just after Mr. Zhao’s death was announced. But for all of the hits on the news item related to his death, virtually no comments were posted, creating a false impression of lack of interest.
“Zhao’s death was the first big test since the SARS epidemic,” said Xiao Qiang, an expert on China’s Internet controls at the University of California at Berkeley.
But if the government is investing heavily in new Internet control technologies, many experts said the sophistication of Chinese users was also increasing rapidly, as are their overall numbers, leading to a cat-and-mouse game in which, many say, it is becoming increasingly difficult for the censors to prevail.
At 94 million users, China has the world’s second-largest population of Internet users, after the United States, and usage here, most of it broadband, is growing at double-digit rates every year.
“What they are doing is a little bit like sticking fingers into the dike,” said Stephen Hsu, a physicist at the University of Oregon who formerly developed technologies for allowing ordinary Chinese to avoid government censorship. “Beijing is investing heavily in keeping the lid on, and they’ve been pretty successful at controlling what appears. But there is always going to be uncontrolled activity around the edges.”
As with the policing efforts, the evasion techniques range from the sly and simple – aliases and deliberate misspellings to trick key-word monitors and thinly veiled sarcastic praise of abhorrent acts by the government on Web forums that seem to confound the censors – to so-called proxy servers, encryption and burying of sensitive comments in image files, which for now elude real-time searches.
For those reasons and others, some Chinese experts have publicly advocated that the government gradually get out of the business of Internet censorship.
“All of the big mistakes made in China since 1949 have had to do with a lack of information,” said Guo Liang, an Internet expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing. “Lower levels of government have come to understand this, and I believe that since the SARS epidemic, upper levels may be beginning to understand this, too.”
The most eagerly watched key word in China today is probably Falun Gong. “I don’t know the number, but I would guess every Chinese has received a Falun Gong e-mail,” Mr. Guo said. “There is no way to stop it. You can shut down the Web site, but you cannot kill the users. They just go somewhere else online, sometimes keeping the same nickname.”

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