Beijing Struggles to Control the Internet with a little Help from Silicon Valley

William Dowell, The Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, Summer 2006

Nothing illustrates the inherent absurdity of China’s efforts to control the flow of information better than the case of Shi Tao, a thirty-seven-year-old Chinese business reporter arrested in November 2004 and sentenced in April 2005 to ten years in prison. Shi Tao’s crime was sending an e-mail to a New York-based Web Site; the e-mail, which was eventually passed around the Internet, included the text of a government warning that the return of a handful of dissidents who had witnessed the Tiananmen massacres might prove socially destabilizing. The memo, the government insisted, was top secret. Shi Tao argued, reasonably enough, that there was nothing particularly secret about the government’s opinions concerning political dissidents and Tiananmen anniversaries.

Shi Tao’s arrest was not unusual. Human Rights Watch (HRW) estimates in its 2006 World Report that at least sixty political prisoners are now in Chinese jails because they revealed information on the Internet that the government wanted kept quiet. Reporters Without Borders claims that roughly forty of those prisoners are journalists. Suggesting that the Chinese government is in need of reform, without first obtaining official permission, is enough to warrant a hefty jail sentence. After a series of crackdowns during the summer of 2005, the government announced a new set of guidelines that ban unauthorized Internet discussions touching on “politics, economics, military affairs, foreign affairs, social and public affairs, and fast-breaking events.”

A number of American corporations dealing with the Internet entered the Chinese market convinced that modern communications would force Beijing into liberalizing. The promise of enormous profits appears to have enabled Beijing to reverse the situation, and to make U.S. corporations willing accomplices in Chinese repression.

The American Internet Giants and the Chinese Market

In an editorial piece published on HRW’s Web Site, HRW’s Asia correspondent, Brad Adams, notes that Chinese leaders “still remain afraid of their own citizens and the healthy diversity of news and views which defines modern society.”
Unlike other arrests, which typically receive no national or international media coverage, Shi Tao’s case sparked interest because the Chinese subsidiary of a U.S. corporation, Yahoo!, had willingly provided Chinese authorities with the evidence needed for a conviction. The Yahoo! subsidiary insisted that it was merely complying with Chinese law. To break into the burgeoning Chinese Internet market, Yahoo!, in 2002, had voluntarily signed China’s "Public Pledge on Self-Discipline for the China Internet Industry." While many observers had expected the Internet to weaken censorship in China, the opposite appeared to be happening. Instead of opening up China to free thought, the enormous attraction of the Chinese market appeared to be corrupting western companies and enrolling American technological prowess in efforts to further limit free speech. Before long, not only Yahoo!, but Microsoft, Cisco, and Google found themselves under intense scrutiny for allegedly aiding Beijing’s efforts to track down and control dissent. Corporate readiness to sacrifice free speech in order to break into the lucrative Chinese market was not limited to the Internet.

When Chinese authorities briefly closed Bing Dian (“Freezing Point”), the investigative supplement of the popular China Youth Daily in January 2006, and then demoted its editor and chief reporter, the resulting scandal led thirteen former party insiders to write a letter of protest. The deposed editor’s crime had been to publish an article, “Modernization and History Books,” which discussed the foreign occupation of China at the end of the nineteenth century.

But it is the concessions by U.S. Internet giants that have caught the public’s attention. Google has created a Chinese version of its search engine,, which readily filters out Web Sites that Beijing finds politically offensive. Chinese Internet surfers looking for the words “democracy,” “freedom,” or “human rights” on Microsoft’s MSN network are directed to an error message that states: “This item contains forbidden speech.” Yahoo! has come under the greatest criticism so far for agreeing to turn over information to the Chinese police that has played a significant role in the conviction of dissidents. In October 2005, Yahoo! tried to extricate itself from direct responsibility by merging its Chinese subsidiary with a local Internet provider, Yahoo! holds one of four board seats for the combined company, and handles day-to-day operations. The critical issue for all the search engines is whether they can maintain a network server in China. for the words "democracy," "freedom,"or "human rights" on Microsoft's MSN network are directed to an error message that states: "This item contains forbidden speech." Yahoo! has come under the greatest criticism so far for  agreeing to turn over information to  the Chinese police that has played a significant  role in the conviction of dissidents.  In October 2005, Yahoo! tried  to extricate itself from direct responsibility  by merging its Chinese subsidiary  with a local Internet provider, Yahool holds one of four  board seats for the combined company,  and handles day-to-day  operations. The critical issue for all the  search engines is whether they can  rnaintain a network server in China.  Servers outside China tend to be  extrernely slow when connecting to the  Internet in China. On the other hand,  servers located in China are subject to  police scrutiny.

 For most American cornpanies, the  financial incentives for surrendering to  Chinese regulations are simply too  overwhelming to be ignored. On 23  Septernber 2004, Mary Hennock, the  British Broadcasting Corporation's  (BBC) online business reporter, noted  that the networking-hardware company,  Cisco, had earned roughly $1 billlon  from  helping China build its Internet  backbone. ChinaNex, a consultancy and  Web site covering Chinese business,  reported that although Cisco does not  publicly divulge how rnuch it earns in  China, it was believed to have reached a  peak of around $1 billion in 2004, but  earnings dropped to around half that by  2004.  One of Cisco's problems in  China was competition from a Chinese  corporation, Huawei, which Cisco  eventually sued for allegedly copying and reselling Cisco's software. The case  was eventually settled out of court.  The result of Cisco's initial gamble in  China was explosive growth. Writing in  The Asia Times in August 2005, Tamara  Renée Shie, who researches Chinese  media issues at the Institute for National  Strategic Studies of the National Defense  University, noted that in 1993 an estimated  two thousand Chinese had access  to the Internet. By 2005 more than 94  million Chinese were regularly connecting  to the Internet. According to Shie,  China has the largest number of cell  phone subscriptions of any country in  the world. It represents the world's second- largest PC market, and has the  world's third-largest number of PC owners.  The Chinese e-commerce market is  expected to reach $6.5 billion by 2007.   

The Great Chinese Firewall

The growth of the Intemet has been so explosive  in China that Internet boosters and  pro-democracy advocates regularly predict  that Beijing will ultimately lose its  control over the Internet. That may happen  eventually, but for the moment,  Chinese authorities are proving unusually sophisticated at reining in the  Internet's freewheeling nature. A principal  strategy has been to create a gargantuan  intranet for most of China and to link  this intranet to the World Wide Web  through carefully filtered portals. The  system is often referred to as "The Great  Chinese Firewall." The Chinese govemment  is discovering that American software  designed to protect children from  pornography is ideally suited to political  censorship. They are also learning that  many American companies do not really  care how their software is used, as long as  they are paid handsomely for it. Human  rights activists are increasingly concerned 

that the ease with which Beijing has secured compliance from U.S. companies and the growing sophistication of its capacity to control dissenting opinion is serving as an example to dictatorships and totalitarian regimes in other parts of the world. The eagerness of the Bush administration as well as private employers to eavesdrop on Internet and telephone traffic has bolstered the Chinese govern- ment's argument that it is only doing what is necessary to protect its own security.

Despite the obstacles, the adventurous Chinese individual who is willing to risk a jail sentence in order to obtain information blocked by the Chinese government can still find ways around censorship technology. The BBC's Mary Hennock also reported that a company called Safeweb has developed anti-blocking software, dubbed "Triangle Boy." According to Hennock, the Central Intelligence Agency (ClA) invested $1 million in the company and licensed Safeweb software for CIA use.  The Triangle Boy system, and others like it, operates by using computers outside China to act as proxy servers, letting users in China access Web sites on Beijing's blacklist. Although this kind of scheme can work for a limited time, skeptics question how large a segment of the public really wants to engage in a cat-and-mouse game simply to read material that may not be all that interesting to start with. In an effort to appease the growing public demand for information on the Internet, Beijing has launched a rash of new Web sites. Chinese editor Xiao Qiang, writing in the China Digital Times in August 2005, noted that roughly 10 percent of the Web sites available to Chinese Internet surfers have been established by government agencies." In recent months, at least 150 new government-sponsored Web sites have recently appeared. Yet funneling prepackaged government propaganda through the Internet misses the point of one of the most exciting features of modern blogging-- the spontaneity and experimentation that ultimately enables a population to express its imagination and to come into contact with new points of view that go beyond conventional stereotypes. In short, while Bejing is doing its best to create a uniform, well-behaved culture that will not make waves, the rest of the world is discovering resources that it previousiy never knew existed. That message has clearly not penetrated Bejing yet, and in order to control the more adventurous Internet surfers, the government has reportedly enlisted more than thirty thousand Internet spies who scan the Web for potentially seditious material. Probably the most effective strategy Beijing has come up with is a cocktail that  blends vaguely worded laws with an insistence that the individual is personallv responsible for enforcing government edicts. The concept of what is criminal behavior changes with political fluctuations. Essentially, authorities are saying that they are not sure exactly what the crime is, but they will recognize it once they see it. The result is an overpowering tendency toward self-censorship.

Chinese Leaders Maintain Control

 In the West these Chinese machinations are often viewed as just another self-defeating series of gestures from a retrograde gerontocracy. But the leaders in Beijing clearly Feel that they have reasons to be nervous. The government has historically acted out of fear that loosening its grip on its own citizens might mean losing the tenuous hold Beijing has over its immense population. A Beijing sees it, the top priorities are stability and predictability, rather than creative diversity. This argument is not altogether unreasonable. The Chinese have had extensive experience with the damage that results from political anarchy, and they certainly know more about civil chaos than most Americans. Obviously, the personal survival of political cadre, who fear that they are mentalIy and physically unable to keep up with the pace of modernization, is also a compelling factor. Arnold Zeitlin, a former head of the Freedom Forum Asian Center in Hong Kong, noted recently in the Jamestown Foundation's China Briefs that. "Control is imposed not so much for ideological reasons as to protect the self interests of officials. or to ensure that  the Party does not find itself ernbarrassed by its failures."''   The Chinese Communist party has, in fact, been learning from experience just how fast information can escape from its control. One phenomenon that Chinese leaders have encountered is "swarming."--the explosive phenomenon that takes place when communication creates an unexpected amplification of public response. When China encouraged protests against Japan's refusal to fully acknowledge its role in atrocities committed during World War II, the regime in Beijing envisioned a Few orchestrated demonstrations to send a signal to the Japanese. Instead. the initial demonstrations were picked up by national media and were communicated across all of China, unleashing a firestorm of protests that threatened not only to spin out of control. but also to create unexpected diplomatic consequences. A similar phenomenon occurred during the early stages of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic. Because of censorship, the first news reports of the outbreak in Guandong Province were presented with, a mandatory positive spin. The epidemic was first dismissed as nothing more than a rumor, and later, as having already been brought under control. Chinese officials hoped to cover up the seriousness of the outbreak in order to protect their careers. In contrast to the oblique, upbeat reports in officially sanctioned newspapers. a direct warning that the lethal epidemic had struck was spread by a Short Message S ervice( SMS) cell phone message. The Wahington Post  reported that an SMS message reading "There is a fatal flu in Guangzhou, " was sent out 4o million times on 8 February 2002, 4I miilion times the following day, and 45 million times the day after that.'" Largely as a result of the cell phone blitz. the media—and subsequently the Chinese government--wereforced to admit the existence of the virus. SARS turned out to be a watershed in China's approach to the media. The standard approach of denying that there is actually a problem backfired, and with enormous international consequences. According to a report by the Congressional Executive Commission on China, the first rnention of SARS came frorn health workers in mid-November 2002. ByJanuary 2003, there was panicked buying of drugs in pharmacies throughout Guandong, but local newspapers restricted themselves to reports that the outbreak was only a rumor and to claims by officials that the situation was under control. ]n February 2003 a Chinese newspaper published the first timid admission that the disease actually existed. This information was cloaked in an announcernent insisting that the danger had now been eradicated. In fact, the casualties were to increase by more than 1,000 percent. As a result of Chinese government misinformation, the international community did not begin to mobilize an effective campaign to stop the spread of the virus until March 2oo3. The first three months of government obfuscation gave the disease time to evolve from an easily controllable problem that could have been solved by quarantine into a barely stoppable pandemic. There was some speculation that, when the government did finally react to the epidemic, it was largely because foreign investors and businessmen had begun to cross China off their agenda out of fear for their own survival. Action was finally seen as critical to China's economy. Not only did the brief loosening of control over the news during the SARS epidemic gradually reverse course, but new regulations announced in Septernber 2005 have tightened the noose even more. Under the latest set of rules, anyone who sends information out over an e-mail list-or anyone who even sends an SMS message to a group of mobile phones-must first declare him or herself to be a news service and must get official authorization. Americans tend to see Beijing's obsession with information control as another manifestation of anachronistic communism, but in fact, the Chinese were concerned with centralizing authority and maintaining the prestige of governing officials long before cornmunism emerged as a political ideology. And Beijing is not alone. Singapore's Lee Kwan Yew, who promoted Confucianisrn as an organizing system for modern Asian values, was just as concerned about state prestige, and at times, equally  stern-although perhaps considerably more subtle-at intimidating the press. Lee used to boast that he read the Economist magazine before it hit the streets in London, yet he did not hesitate to shut down distribution of the publication when it criticized his administration. The most absurd case of censorship in Singapore involved an American university professor, Christopher Lingle, who had been teaching as a senior fellow at the National University of Singapore. Lingle had the temerity to write an opinion piece in the International Herald Tribune in which he remarked dryly that some regimes in Asia silence their opposition by engaging in lawsuits intended to bankrupt the opposition financially. When Lingle was prosecuted by the Singapore government, his defense pointed out quite cogently that he had never actually named Singapore in his article. Singapore's attorney general responded that everyone knew that Singapore was the only country in the region that engaged in the practice. The International Herald Tribune finally agreed to pay a hefty settlement, and, like other American news media operating in Southeast Asia, it warned its reporters and contributors to be more careful the next  time.

Although Hong Kong in the last days of British rule had a freer: press, the Chinese Mandarins also exhibited distaste for the kind of public disclosure that is an integral part of Western democratic discourse. In the final days before the turnover of sovereignty in 1997, Britain's outgoing governor, Chris Patten, tried to instill a British parliarnentary concept of open debate aimed at achieving a working compromise on controversial pieces of legislation. The power brokers in Hong Kong's Legislative Council resisted the notion. They were, of course, angry at Patten for annoying Beijing, with whom they realized they would eventually have to create a working relationship. But another factor was a deep, underlying conviction that political differences were best worked out behind closed doors and then presented to the public largely as an agreement by consensus. To do otherwise seemed not only messy, but also to detract from the dignity of the government. What makes China different from other authoritarian Asian regimes is the degree and crudeness with which it imposes censorship, as well as the total lack of regard that Chinese leaders seem  to have for world opinion. Whereas Western leaders try to spin the news, Chinese politicians apparently  feel that they do not have to bother.  In the mean tirne. the West appears divided in its assessrnent of the degree to which Beijing will be able to keep the inforrnation genie bottled up.

 Censorship and the Implications  for China's Future.

While a SARS-like crisis makes everyone pay attention, many predict that the Chinese government is going to suffer economic retardation as a penalty for stifling free discussion. At the moment, China's booming economy is largely based on manufacturing products that the West--namely, the United States--has designed. As long as that trend continues, China is likely always to be in a back seat position. That could be a hard pill for the Chinese, who are desperately concerned about their prestige, to swallow. On the other hand, the fact that this imbalance may slow China's growth could have advantages for both China and the West. For the Chinese, it would provide more time to adjust to the social and economic changes required to become a modern power. For the rest of the world, it could provide added time to adjust to competition from what is likely to become the world's leading powerhouse. That is a best-case scenario. For the moment, the readiness of U.S. companies to surrender to pressure from Beijing has raised serious ethical questions. In February Representative Tom Lantos (DCA) und Representative Chris Srnith (RNJ) held hearings in which all four companies underwent intense scrutiny about their motives. Congressmen Lantos and Smith then proposed the "Global Online Freedom Act, " which, if passed, would bar U.S. Internet companies from situations in which they could be compelled to surrender  information about users to China. Two earlier attempts by Representative Lantos to pass similar legislation had already failed. While the efforts of Congressmen Lantos and Smith are undoubtedly well intentioned, history may show that engaging China in on-going business ventures can prove more effective at bringing about lasting change. The experience of the past few decades in Asia suggests that political liberalization often follows economic development. rather than the other way around. The first priority for most people is economic survival. Once their survival is secure, political freedom becomes the next objective. In fact, it is impossible to run an effective, decentralized, modern economy without some degree of political freedom. It is too easy for the disaffected to sabotage a technology-based society. In the end, it is more cost effective to make everyone feel that they have a slice of the pie, and democratic systems are designed to do just that. It may take China some time to come to this realization, but the logic of the situation makes it extremely likely that the world will move toward a consistent set of values that are more or less recognized everywhere.

The Chinese will be under increasing pressure to adapt to a universal consensus or to risk being ostracized and left behind. How long the process will take is open to question. What does seem clear is that, while the Chinese struggle to adapt to the realities of their situation, the West needs to prepare itself for a world in which the Chinese will play an increasingly influential role. The debates over Chinese accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) have already brought that point horne. Although Westerners--especially Americans-- are less than pleased at some Chinese practices, there is a general consensus that the Chinese have to be participants in the WTO in order for the organization to have any real meaning. The trick will be to integrate China without compromising our own concepts of democracy, justice, and free speech. Before China's ruling elite feels confident enough to give China’s people more freedom of expression, forward thinking individuals like Shi Thao are likely to pay a heavy price. If the West is not careful to preserve its own values while doing business with China, it may find that it is paying a heavy price as well.