June 8, 2005
By HOWARD W. FRENCH – Copyright The New York Times
SHANGHAI, Wednesday, June 8 – In its latest measure to tighten policing of the Internet, China has begun requiring bloggers and owners of personal Web sites to register with the government or be forced offline.
The new regulations, announced in March, took effect this week, with a warning on the Web site of the Information Ministry that the sites of those who failed to comply would be shut down.
The measures come against the backdrop of explosive growth of Internet use in China, and the development of Web logs and personal sites as alternative sources of news, as in many other countries.
The ministry’s notice asserted that more than 75 percent of Chinese Web page owners had complied with the measure. A China-based blogger told Reporters Without Borders, however, that the Shanghai police had recently rendered his site inaccessible because it had not been registered. He then phoned the ministry to ask what he had to do in order to register, and was told that in his case it was “not worth bothering” because “there was no chance of an independent blog getting permission to publish.”
“The Chinese authorities use this type of announcement above all to intimidate Web site operators and bloggers,” Reporters Without Borders said in a statement. “The authorities also hope to push the most outspoken online sites to migrate abroad, where they will become inaccessible to those inside China because of the Chinese filtering systems.”
Signs of the Internet’s growing power in China came this spring during a wave of popular demonstrations against Japan in which organizers relied heavily on private Web pages, blogs and mass cellphone messages to mobilize protesters. In the space of a few weeks, as many as 40 million signatures were collected online to demand that Japan be barred from obtaining a seat on the United Nations Security Council.
The Chinese authorities may have tacitly approved of the anti-Japanese demonstrations, but in a system built around tight state control over political expression and association, the idea of millions of citizens using the Internet to rally around political issues is anathema.
Growing concern among China’s leaders about the destabilizing potential of the Internet comes during a campaign of increasingly harsh measures against political dissent, arrests of journalists and other restrictions on expression. The tone has been set by President Hu Jintao himself, who, quoting Mao, has warned against insurrection, saying, “A spark from heaven can light up an entire plain.”
Mr. Hu has also recently ordered stepped up efforts to enforce “law and order,” by which Chinese authorities often mean clamping down on opposition or criticism of Communist Party rule.
The new measures against personal Internet activity come after months of increasingly restrictive controls of Internet usage at other levels, whether through heavy investment in technologies that allow the government to monitor and censor use or through tightened rules governing Internet cafes and Web servers.
In March, for example, bulletin boards operated by the country’s most prominent universities were blocked to off-campus Internet users as part of what was called a campaign to strengthen ideological education of college students.
Users of Internet cafes must also now produce identification and are issued user numbers, which make it easy to follow the activities of individuals. Web administrators at popular online services have also been warned that they will be held responsible for politically offensive communications, thereby enlisting them in the policing efforts. It is now common for administrators to remove from their servers any messages they deem politically sensitive.
In another step to control the Internet, a newspaper, Southern Weekend, recently reported, the government has begun employing online commentators whose job is to defend the government’s point of view when negative comments appear on Internet chat rooms. The propaganda agents pose as ordinary users and try to steer discussion in the government’s favor.