SCMP May 24, 2004

Under the firewall


A little over a year ago, 'hactivists' dedicated to ensuring the free flow of information on the internet were beginning to wonder if they weren't banging their heads against China's Great Firewall. The government had just made a leap forward in its ability to control the net, and some were even convinced that Beijing had already turned the technology to its own advantage as a tool of repression. But things change fast in cyberspace.

The hactivists kept pounding away at the wall and Chinese today have found holes to dart through. New software, such as Dynaweb's 'Dongtai' and Ultrareach's 'Roaming without Borders', can be easily downloaded in China, allowing users to surf freely. 'Everyone is using it,' says one writer, who believes Chinese are openly passing the programs around. 'And the government can't trace the internet provider's address.' She says the software is continuously getting better.

'I can get any information I want,' says a grinning Ren Wanding, a well-known political dissident who also uses one of the programs. A few months earlier, he had to rely on foreign friends to give him news of what was going on in his own country.

But there is a bigger problem for the government than people freely roaming the internet. The internet is fast becoming the tail that is wagging the communist dragon.

An example is the scandal surrounding Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison, which has rocked US authorities. Anthony Spires, a Yale University researcher, studied internet postings on the 'Strengthening the Country Discussion Forum', which is operated by the People's Daily internet website. He says that while 45 per cent of those commenting expressed clearly anti-American sentiments, one-fourth of the postings praised the US media for exposing the prison abuse. There also was criticism of the Chinese media for not doing the same at home. More than a third of those posting messages on the site praised America's democratic system, with many saying they were impressed by the public apologies by the US president and secretary of state.

It may just be a coincidence, but on May 12, just days after the first official Chinese reports of the incident in Iraq, the mainland announced that it was going to investigate human rights infringements, including allegations of prison abuse.

Then there was the BMW affair, which fuelled anger over growing inequality between rich and poor. Su Xiuwen, allegedly the relative of an official, became enraged last October when a farm vehicle scratched the side mirror of her BMW. She slapped the farmer, jumped back into her car, and drove over a crowd of 13 farmers, killing the one who damaged her car. Su was handed a suspended sentence after paying compensation to the victims - reportedly due to political intervention.

After seeing the story on the website, newspapers around the country ran with the news. Resulting chat room traffic and postings complaining about the light sentence and judicial corruption were soon exceeding 180,000 a day on some websites.

A national uproar forced the government to reopen the case. Although the hearing ended with the sentence being upheld and the government declared discussion of the court decision off-limits, a glance at popular chat rooms this month still finds angry diatribes about the case.

A official confided to Bill Xia, the head of Dynaweb, that an article about the BMW case on the Sina. com website attracted one million viewers. 'Now, that's the kind of influence we're looking at,' says Mr Xia.

The story of Sun Zhigang had even more far-reaching implications. Sun, a graphic designer from Wuhan, was detained by Guangzhou police last spring for not carrying proper identification. After he was beaten to death by fellow prisoners in a detention centre, his death was reported by a local newspaper and then spread around the mainland via the internet.

The incident led to a public outcry, and shortly after authorities scrapped the hardline, two-decades-old laws on vagrancy. As a result, police can no longer arbitrarily detain vagrants and beggars, a move that Xinhua called 'a pivotal reform of China's social welfare system'.

The Sun Dawu case is another example of the power of web opinion. Sun, a popular entrepreneur dubbed China's Robin Hood, was arrested last year on what appeared to be politically motivated charges of running an illegal bank, and was sentenced to a long prison term. He was set free after just 158 days in prison, after his case was taken up by China's 'netizens'.

Likewise, in March, pressure from the internet likely played a role in the release of three mothers of victims of the 1989 Tiananmen incident - a story the traditional media avoided. When the Sars crisis erupted in China last year, millions of worried Chinese switched on their computers to read news that was being censored in the media. Internet traffic shot up 40 per cent.

While the government quickly threatened to punish Chinese who spread rumours about the epidemic, high-ranking officials reportedly confided to university students that they too relied on the internet for information about Sars.

Visits to the Dynaweb site, which offers an apparently foolproof proxy net for getting around the government firewall, shot up 50 per cent in a 24-hour period, and doubled again within one week. Mr Xia says his site is now seeing 100,000 visitors a day.

'Every big lie that gets exposed is a promotion for us,' says Mr Xia. 'As more and more information gets out, the credibility of the government will decline.'

Dynaweb received another boost during the Taiwan presidential election in March, when state television dragged its feet in getting results out about the voting. The internet craze is also spilling over into the foreign relations arena, where China's leaders have frequently been slapped on the wrist for being 'weak-kneed'.

Experts say that growing anti-Japanese sentiment on a fiercely nationalist website led Beijing to take a tough stance on Japan's arrest of seven Chinese activists who illegally sailed to one of the contested Diaoyu Islands in March.

When the arrests were announced, the internet was flooded with angry postings calling for a hardline approach against 'small Japan', a derogatory term used by some Chinese.

The government had hoped that the case would not upset bilateral relations, but it allowed protesters a rare opportunity to demonstrate in front of the Japanese consulate for several days. And when the central government censored US Vice-President Dick Cheney's speech in Shanghai in April, Chinese surfers were quick to post the uncut original version of the speech -which included comments on individual liberties and political freedoms - on various websites.

They even provided notes on how the official version deviated from the original. Censors may have been fooled by the fact that the Chinese characters for Mr Cheney's name were exchanged for characters with the same phonetic sound to put the monitors off the trail, a routine trick.

'Surveying Internet Usage and Impact in 12 Chinese Cities', a report produced by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences last October, seemingly contradicts the conventional wisdom that says the internet is having a limited impact in China. The study, funded by the Markle Foundation in the US, offers new information about the beliefs of China's online population.

Most important, according to the authors who are also prominent mainland scholars, there is a hope that 'the new technology will fundamentally change the Chinese political system'. The survey indicates that the majority of internet users are increasingly seeing the internet 'as a force for positive change in the country'.

The report said 71.8 per cent of internet users agreed that it provided more opportunities for citizens to express political views.

Another 60.8 per cent said that by using the internet, people had more opportunities to criticise government policies. And 72.3 per cent said that by using the internet, higher officials would have a better understanding of the views of common people. Only 12.9 per cent said political content should be controlled.

While the survey found that the majority of those surveyed had greater trust in the traditional media than in the internet or foreign media, the authors argue that the internet provides news that the state-controlled media can not. They say that the internet has become a medium for evaluating the failings of the traditional media.

Mr Xia says his software will reach critical mass by the end of the year, when half a million Chinese will be using his program.

'When the number of regular visitors reaches this number, pretty much any internet user who wants to access uncensored news will be able to find friends to show him how,' he says. 'When that critical mass is reached, the matrix will crash under another blatant lie like the Sars breakout.'

Asked if the government can't simply outgun him, Mr Xia replies that he's 'pretty optimistic about the technology part'.

'Right now we are running a few steps ahead of them,' he says. 'The Chinese government has a lot of money, but it's inefficient.

'And with the internet, they are on the defensive. And that's a hard territory to defend.'