SPEAKING FREELY: Beijing ahead in the Internet game

Tamara Renee Shie – Asia Times

The Internet, long proclaimed a conduit for democratization, is meeting its match in China. While Western libertarians believe China is fighting a losing battle as protestors and dissidents increasingly organize online, the Chinese leadership is betting its dual strategy of censorship and development will ultimately succeed.
The Internet provides an unprecedented ability to create, access and exchange information. Unlike other mass communication mediums, cyberspace allows for the multi-directional and (theoretically) borderless free flow of information. These characteristics imply that it cannot be controlled like traditional forms of media. Or can it? Technological libertarians maintain that autocratic leaders face a zero-sum dilemma: embrace information technology and sacrifice political power, or suppress it and pay the economic price.
The Chinese leadership, however, appears undeterred. From modest beginnings of about 2,000 Internet users in 1993, the number has surged to more than 94 million in 2005, the second-largest population online after the United States. China also boasts the world’s largest number of mobile phone subscribers, the second-largest personal computer market and the third-largest number of personal computer users.
Contrary to popular thinking, Chinese leaders do not need to block all Internet content in order to reap major economic and political benefits.
An OpenNet Initiative report on Chinese Internet filtering revealed a sophisticated system of control combining technological checks and social persuasion. Access to some websites is intermittently blocked while others may be accessible but filter certain keyword searches. Provincial and local governments hire employees to scan e-mail and chat rooms for sensitive discussions.
Self-censorship is “encouraged” with myriad regulations placing responsibility on the user, from Internet content (ICPs) and Internet service providers (ISPs), cybercafes and website creators, down to the individual subscriber. Businesses are pressured to endorse a self-regulation pledge. Even foreign companies like Yahoo! have signed in order to gain access to China’s burgeoning IT market.
China’s experiment in Internet management is literally paying off. Information technology is driving China’s development – from military modernization to domestic business competitiveness on a global scale. E-commerce is exploding in China; it’s expected to reach $6.5 billion by 2007.
The political advantages may be even greater. On one hand, e-government is improving the efficiency and effectiveness of central administration. On the other, the Internet may be used to promote the party line. In July, to counter the Pentagon’s report on the People’s Liberation Army, the Chinese government posted a censored version of the document and organized online chats with military analysts.
Nationalistic sentiments have also found voice online during such incidents as the 1999 North Atlantic Treaty Organization bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade and the anti-Japanese demonstrations in April. Such protests can divert attention from thorny domestic issues. Some potentially damaging local news stories circulated online have forced the central government to be more forthright with information – often with positive results.
From greater access to educational and cultural cyber content, to online dating, chatting, shopping and games, the Chinese are enamored with the Internet. Few want to chance participation in politically risky behavior such as browsing dissident websites or posting controversial messages in chat rooms. A study funded by the New York City-based Markle Foundation found a majority of respondents said when the Internet provides more opportunities for citizens to criticize government policies, they trusted online content, and supported some Internet restrictions.
So far the Chinese government is staying one step ahead of the game. China Telecom has enlisted China’s Huawei Technologies, US companies Cisco Systems and Juniper Networks, France’s Alcatel and Sweden’s Ericsson to upgrade its backbone network ChinaNet, the country’s largest and most extensive. Called the ChinaNet Next Carrying Network or CN2, the system will connect more than 200 cities with China’s international access network, further establishing domestic mechanisms of control.
China is not alone. Although the Internet developed without much regulation, governments around the world are adapting and cyberspace monitoring is increasing.
Singapore implemented the world’s first Internet censorship regulations in 1995. Now China is serving as an archetype for other countries that wish to restrict online usage while reaping its benefits. From Australia to Zimbabwe, Saudi Arabia to Vietnam, governments have been establishing more Internet controls.
OpenNet Initiative studies have revealed infrastructure and regulations akin to China’s in place in countries such as Iran, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Kyrgyzstan. Utah recently passed a filtering law targeting content harmful to minors.
Not all filtering and surveillance is inappropriate, but it does raise questions over the fine line between legitimate and illegitimate controls. Consider e-mail authentification programs currently under development in the US. Ostensibly being created to combat spam, they will permit the identification and tracking of e-mail senders. How might China and other like-minded governments adapt such technology?
China’s experience challenges the view that the Internet is an irrepressible instrument for democracy. Yet while the Chinese government is successfully harnessing information technology to maintain its political monopoly, the Internet is also contributing to China’s political transformation. It remains a positive force for economic development, improved quality of life and better governance.
Tamara Renee Shie, Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University. Author of: “The Tangled Web: Does the Internet Offer Promise or Peril for the Chinese Communist Party?” Journal of Contemporary China 13, 40 (August 2004), PP. 523-540. The opinions expressed in this piece are those of the author alone and do not reflect NDU, Department of Defense, or US government policy.
(Copyright 2005 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved

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