SCMP April 24, 2004

Beijing's internet dilemma


Over the past 18 months, Beijing - using state-of-the-art technology - has significantly stepped up its efforts to control the country's cyberspace. Some even wonder if it has not already turned the technology to its own advantage as a tool of repression.

But these may be fleeting victories as the growing strength of China's netizens begins to overwhelm the censors - known as 'Big Mamas'. No one knows exactly how big China's internet police force is, although estimates run as high as 40,000. But whatever its size, it is more sophisticated than ever.

Beijing's new capabilities were revealed in September 2002, when it blocked access to the Google search engine for a week. More ominous, it also has the ability to search for key words, and to block 'sensitive' e-mails. Several hundreds of thousands of web pages, like those devoted to Taiwan, Falun Gong or foreign news coverage, are blocked. 

Chinese censors also employ filtering technology to block and intercept e-mails to and from the almost 80 million netizens. Beijing has become quite skilled at hunting down proxy servers that allow users to manoeuvre around firewalls. The average cyber life of a new proxy server is now about 30 minutes.

Cafes in some provinces are experimenting with swipe cards linked to national ID cards. Some Beijing internet cafes have installed surveillance cameras over computer screens. Making matters worse for a government not used to considering public opinion, the internet is emerging as a new and powerful force in Chinese politics and policymaking. According to a survey by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, some 71 per cent of netizens say they have more opportunities to voice their opinions online. It is no wonder the state-run Xinhua reports that members of the National People's Congress routinely use the internet to gauge public opinion and look for new ideas.

It is believed that an internet clampdown in February and March was due to what became known as the 'BMW incident' last October. Su Xiuwen, allegedly the relative of a local official in Harbin, received a suspended sentence after mowing down 13 farmers, killing one, when her BMW's door mirror was damaged. A Liaoning newspaper reported the case and after it appeared on, newspapers around the country ran it. The resulting chat room traffic and postings complaining about the light sentence and judicial corruption soon exceeded 18,000 a day on some websites. Web monitors responsible for censoring were unable to keep up with the flood. The nationwide outcry led to the case being reopened. The sentence was upheld. 

The internet is even influencing China's foreign policy. Japan's arrest of seven Chinese activists who landed illegally on one of the contested Diaoyu islands last month led to the internet being flooded with angry postings calling for a hardline approach by China.

Beijing is in a dilemma. On the one hand, it recognises the need for citizens to have access to the internet. On the other, it fears an uncontrolled internet could pose a threat to the Communist Party's survival. Until now, it has always stopped short of adopting drastic measures. Online freedom fighters - loose collections of Chinese dissidents and 'hacktivists' outside China - will continue to test the censors' ingenuity, while at home, Chinese netizens will continue to push the envelope. In the end, the internet could prove too big to control.

Paul Mooney, a freelance writer, has been based in Beijing since 1994.

Copyright: 2004 Yale Centre for the Study of Globalisation.