China’s Web Watchers: The Internet was supposed to be immune to censorship, but Beijing has found ways to stifle dissent


Copyright Time
Nothing in Zheng Yichun’s upbringing foreshadowed his landing
in a political prison. His English-speaking father
interrogated captured American G.I.s during the Korean War,
and as a teenager two decades later, Zheng led his middle
school’s Communist Youth League. Only when the reform era hit
China in the 1980s did the aspiring poet have what his family
calls an “awakening.” China’s leaders were corrupt and
tyrannical, he said, and he would fight them with words. Yet
despite the provocative title of his self-published 2002
collection of poems, The Era of Brainwashing, his work went
mostly unnoticed. If not for the Internet, Zheng, now 57,
might still sit in his mildewed sixth-floor walk-up near the
Manchurian city of Dalian, surrounded by bookshelves of
Russian literature, tapping verse onto his Legend computer.
But Zheng also shared his thoughts on overseas
Chinese-language websites. China’s one-party system is “the
root of all evil,” he wrote in an essay that was one of 63
signed articles he posted on, a website popular
among Chinese intellectuals. Even though Web surfers in China
can’t normally access$#8212;it’s among a long
list of sites blacklisted by government censors$#8212;police
arrested Zheng last December on charges of inciting
subversion. On Sept. 22, he was sentenced to seven years in
prison. Beijing had once again sent a stern message to
Chinese who dared to use the Internet to express their
political opinions. “Zheng’s arrest served as a warning to
people like me,” said Yang Chunguang, another Dalian-based
writer critical of Beijing, shortly before Zheng’s
sentencing. “I e-mailed asking it to take down
the things I had posted.”
A decade ago, the Internet was hailed as a breakthrough
technology for promoting freedom and democracy because its
pervasive reach would make it impossible for repressive
regimes to control free speech and the flow of information
within their borders. The Chinese government has proven this
to be wishful thinking. Employing much of the same
information-screening and filtering technology used worldwide
to combat pornography and spammers, Beijing has built a Great
Firewall of China that restricts viewing of scores of foreign
websites (such as those for Amnesty International and
numerous news sites); the government has also deployed tens
of thousands of Internet police to investigate online crimes,
including political offenses. While some tech-savvy surfers
can find ways through the firewall and past Web police
monitors, the vast majority of China’s 100-million online
population will search in vain for Mandarin equivalents of
the Drudge Report, blog screeds and independent journalism
that define free online speech in most of the world. A recent
study by Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet &
Society concluded that “China’s Internet filtering regime is
the most sophisticated effort of its kind in the world.”
But as Zheng’s arrest shows, China’s taming of the Internet
depends more on old-fashioned muscle than on new technology.
Above all, Beijing maintains control by instilling the fear
in Web scribes and online businesses that they are being
watched—and that, if they cross the line, they are risking
their investment, their business, even their freedom. The
threat is real: Human Rights Watch estimates that 60 Chinese
are serving prison sentences for Internet-based political
crimes, and Beijing frequently closes down websites operating
on Chinese soil whose owners allow controversial postings.
Indeed, far from loosening up, Beijing is intensifying its
scrutiny of the Web. Last week, the State Council released
even more stringent regulations—aimed at online forums, blogs
and wireless SMS messaging—that bar postings of news that
goes against “national security and the public interest.” The
latest clampdown continues a campaign that started almost 10
years ago when China began building its own version of the
World Wide Web. It was relatively simple to keep tabs, with
authorities quickly learning to program off-the-shelf network
routers—the switches that zip data around the Internet—to
block offending Web addresses. Then, in 2000, Beijing spelled
out its strict Internet philosophy: State Council Order No.
292 barred nine types of content from websites, online
bulletin boards and chat rooms, including anything that might
“harm the dignity and interests of the state” or “disturb
social order.” The government has also made it difficult to
maintain anonymity. The majority of Chinese go online at
cybercafés, and in order to rent computer time users must
register with their national ID numbers. Cybercafé employees
watch what their customers are viewing, keep logs of sites
visited and share that information with local Internet police
departments, which have been set up in more than 700 cities
and provinces.
Perhaps most important, the 2000 decree held content
providers responsible for information published on their
sites. The result: knowing they were being watched, all but
the bravest Web users played it safe. “The best censorship is
self-censorship, and China relies on solid work by the secret
police to make people censor themselves and keep the Internet
under control,” says Xiao Qiang, director of the China
Internet Project at the University of California, Berkeley
journalism school.
Beijing’s control of the Internet is bolstered by its success
at enlisting the aid of foreign companies such as Microsoft,
Google and Yahoo!, all of which run online operations on the
mainland. The fast- growing China market is key to their
global strategies, and they are loath to antagonize their
host nation. Yahoo!’s China operation was widely criticized
last month for turning over information to the police that
helped send journalist Shi Tao to prison for 10 years (Shi
had posted a list of topics that Chinese newspapers were
forbidden to cover, including the anniversary of the 1989
Tiananmen massacre). Yahoo! officials said they had no choice
but to abide by the “laws, regulations and customs” of
countries where it does business. It isn’t alone in its
sensitivity to local customs: Microsoft’s MSN portal blocks
the Chinese words for “democracy” and “freedom” from the
blogs it hosts, while Google omits banned websites from its
search results.
Likewise, mainland Internet companies have become virtual
appendages of the government censorship apparatus, employing
their own human monitors to ensure their sites remain free of
banned content. China’s leading blog host, Bokee, which just
received $10 million in foreign investment, employs 10
full-time inspectors to keep an eye on postings and to delete
those that might anger Beijing. “You have to know where the
pressure lines are,” says a monitor at Xici Hutong, a site
where Chinese journalists share ideas. He says he removes
pornography, which is illegal in China, as well as personal
slander and “political things.” One of China’s two biggest
portals,, routinely talks with government regulators
about what topics to add to the forbidden list. “China is
undergoing a huge experiment in its transition to a free
society,” explains Charles Zhang, Sohu’s CEO. “We need to be
responsible to see that reforms go steady and stable.”
Beijing deals harshly with those who test the rules. One site
run by students at China’s top school, Peking University, was
“the epicenter of political sensitivity,” says a former
manager there. Its name, Yitahutu, meant “a big fat mess,”
and its 300,000 registered users often posted critiques of
China’s one-party system. In July 2004, someone posted an
article by a Hong Kong researcher claiming that the Communist
Party’s approval rating was lower than 20%. Officials from
the Party’s Central Discipline Inspection Commission arrived
at the website’s office to remove the article. In its place,
they substituted dozens of comments written by party
propagandists masquerading as ordinary web users critical of
Yitahutu. “Without the Communist Party,” read one, “the good
times would end.” Two months later, the site was shut down.
The closure order said it had “disseminated political
rumors.” Since then, cities around China have created teams
of Internet propagandists to pose as citizens and post
comments supporting the party.
Still, determined Chinese web surfers manage to tunnel
through today’s firewall with the help of software that
guides them to overseas “proxy servers,” computers that
enable them to fetch and view banned content. Activists
smuggle proxy software into China and pass it hand-to-hand on
flash memory devices. “It’s really cat and mouse,” says Bill
Xia, president of U.S.-based Dynamic Internet Technology,
whose product bounces users among many proxy servers, making
it hard to track the surfer’s identity.
On a recent afternoon, a Chinese reporter in Beijing used one
of these programs to watch a video of the Tiananmen massacre
on his IBM ThinkPad. “See that boy facing down a line of
tanks?” he says. “I’d heard about that.” In most countries,
this ability to track down elusive information is now little
more than a mundane miracle of modern technology. In China,
this unconstrained curiosity remains a perilous
threat$#8212;to both the browser and Beijing.
With reporting by Sonja Steptoe/Los Angeles
From TIME Asia Magazine, issue dated October 10, 2005 Vol.
166, No. 15
Copyright © 2005 Time Inc. All rights reserved.

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