When the internet arrived in China in 1995, journalists got all excited. A rash of stories came out about how the Chinese Communist Party was unlikely to survive this borderless new technology. I must confess, I was involved with a few such stories myself. Ten years later, the Party is having its usual problems (subject of whole books), but no viable political alternative to the Chinese Communist Party is any closer to emerging. People who study the internet in China have found that internet communications certainly are changing Chinese urban society, commerce, and people’s relationship with their government in ways that are familiar to all countries with a meaningful amount of internet access. But researchers have also found the Chinese government to be surprisingly adept not only at controlling its citizens’ internet experience, but also in using the internet to bolster its own legitimacy. At the Digital Silk Road Conference, held last week at the Michigan State University College of Law, I learned how.
As conference organizer Dr. Peter Yu put it, if we only study the ways that the internet is changing China we’re only seeing half of the picture. We also need to ask: How is China changing the internet?
The Context: Before going into a discussion of China’s impact on the internet, it’s important to understand the political context. As Prof. Chin-Chuan Lee of the City University of Hong Kong points out, economic growth and nationalism have replaced Communism as the Chinese government’s raison d’etre.” (I would even argue that while the ruling party still calls itself the Communist Party, it’s more useful to think of it as the “Chinese Nationalist Party.”) Prof. Lee explained how the “post-Tiananmen” era (i.e., since the bloody crackdown on student demonstrators in 1989), the Chinese government has been very skilfull at cultivating popular nationalism. Recent anti-Japanese protests are just the latest manifestation of this, but we’ve also seen rashes of anti-Americanism during the spyplane crisis of 2001 and the demonstrations against the U.S. accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999.
China is on the cutting edge of innovation when it comes to filtering and controlling what its citizens can access on the internet. These methods are not perfect and never will be: people with enough time and technical skills can always work-around. But while the Chinese government can’t possibly control new media as effectively and completely as it can control old media, it still finds trying to be worth the effort and expense. The system is good enough that the majority of Chinese internet users have a substantially different online information experience than they would if the Chinese government did not have these mechanisms in place. In other words, the Chinese government has been pretty successful at molding Chinese people’s view of the world and of their own government.
The recognition that new media can’t completely be controlled in the old ways is also leading to new thinking about how to use the internet as a tool: not only to manipulate public opinion, but also to redefine the relationship between citizens and government to the Communist Party’s greatest possible advantage.
For details read on…
Internet filtering and information blocking: My Berkman Center colleague Derek Bambauer presented the findings of his research on Chinese Internet Filtering (download PDF here). Not only has China developed the world’s most sophisticated system for blocking and filtering content the government doesn’t want its citizens to see; China is exporting this technology (built with the help of technology purchased from Cisco, Sun Microsystems and others) to countries like Vietnam. Derek pointed to a number of the report’s findings:
- China’s internet filtering happens at multiple, reinforcing levels (applications, access points, ISP’s, and backbone-level)
- This filtering affects multiple types of communication: websites, e-mail, bulletin-boards, discussion forums, and search engines.
- political content is most heavily targeted (despite Chinese media claims that pornography is a top concern).
- Chinese filtering has become more and more refined over time.
- This filtering is automated at the ISP and gateway levels through the use of software to block results of web searches based on certain forbidden key words, and to prevent access to IP addresses associated with websites that have been entered into a blacklist.
- Internet service providers, as well as hosting services for websites, blogs, and bulletin boards employ staff to actively filter and/or delete objectionable posts on electronic bulletin boards and blogs.
For more details on how the system works, read the ONI report. The Chinese government employs a stable of geeks who are constantly refining this system… which grows more flexible and sophisticated by the month. China is also on the cutting edge of filtering innovation. One example is the system it developed last year to filter cell phone SMS messages.
Sure, it’s possible to get around the blocks if you know how to use proxy servers, but China’s geek police are constantly blocking the proxies as well. So if you really want to access forbidden content it takes quite a bit of effort. (In my own experience, it can take up to 30 minutes to find a proxy that works, and then it may only function for a couple of hours before it too gets blocked and you have to start all over again.) As a result, the average Chinese internet user’s experience is one in which it’s very easy to find content that portrays the Chinese government (or at least the central government) in a relatively favorable light, while it’s very hard to find stuff that offers alternatives to the Chinese communist party.
Yes, it’s true you can post and access content criticizing corrupt local officials like this anti-corruption website highlighted by the NYT’s Nick Kristof last week. And yes, this is a significant change. But reports about local corruption are allowed in the offline media too. And allowing discussion of local corruption won’t necessarily bring down the Communist Party in itself. In fact, the CP is in some ways using the fight against local corruption to bolster its own legitimacy, and the internet is a useful tool in that regard.. (More about that later.)
What a website, blog, or bulletin board discussion forum (or newspaper for that matter)cannot do is to expand the discussion of illegal, corrupt practices by individual government officials to a larger discussion of the Communist Party’s legitimacy. So if a website posts an article concluding that the only way to get rid of corruption would be to hold multiparty elections and vote the Communist Party out of office, I can assure you the site will be blocked and its authors will get in trouble. They may even go to jail.
Internet police: Doctoral candidate Chen Xiaoyan of Nanyang Technological University in Singapore has been researching China’s system of internet police. She points out that the Chinese government views the internet as a space – like any other physical public space in China – which must be regulated to prevent illegal, obscene, or anti-government behavior.
While a figure of 30,000 internet police has been widely cited in the media, it’s not clear exactly how many there really are. What we do know, however, is that according to a system set up in the 90’s, there are about 60 “internet police” at the central government level, each province has 40–60 people designated to police citizens’ activity on the internet. (Cities like Beijing and Shanghai are administratively the same as provinces.) At the prefectural level there can be 30–40 and at county level there can be 3–4. But while all provinces have internet police at the provincial level, only prefectures and counties with high levels of internet use have their own internet police divisions. These internet police are in charge of enforcing regulations on internet cafe use, internet surveillance, making sure the internet is not being used to undermine the Communist Party’s control, etc.
Chen points out another oft-overlooked function of the internet police: the “attempt to guide public grievance to official channels.” She observes that these police are more focused on maintaining “social and economic order than ideological control,” and that internet control is “looser than it seems.” It’s also interesting to note that the existence of the Chinese internet police – in some parts of China, anyway – is quite transparent. The internet cops in the Southern city of Suzhou even have their own website at Suzhou.cyberpolice.cn, where you can see their rules and regulations, Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ), and even write in to report instances of pornography or internet crime, etc. The message to the citizens is that China’s cybercops are on their side, working to give them a safer internet experience, protecting their internet-addicted kids from pornography, predators, and criminals.
Chen concludes that the Chinese government does not view the internet as a medium. It views the net as an important tool to advance China’s economy, leapfrog its technology, and make it a world leader in international trade. All aspects of the internet that help acheive those ends will be bolstered. Thus the public security bureau is deemed justified in cracking down on anything that might hinder those goals by undermining social harmony and government legitimacy.
As several conference participants pointed out, China’s system of internet controls is effective not just thanks to technology but also thanks to a rapidly evolving system of human controls. This is combined with the fact that most Chinese internet users go online primarily to educate themselves, entertain themselves, and make money. Most Chinese are no more inclined to use the internet as a political space than they would be to use Tiananmen square as a political space. They know better.
Boosting central control: This may sound counter-intuitive, but as Professor Randolph Kluver of Nanyang University in Singapore pointed out, the central Chinese government views the internet as a key weapon in its fight to assert control over provincial governments. Yes, in the era of economic reform the central government has been losing control over the provinces. And this loss of control is not always a good thing for ordinary citizens, especially because if a province happens to be governed by a bunch of bums, the local residents can’t vote the bums out of office. Provincial governments often cook the books and send the government false economic statistics. Many local county governments evade environmental regulations and cover up the evasions, etc. Many collect illegal taxes. They hide information from the center about what they’re doing. The central government views e-government as its best hope of re-asserting control over provincial governments, because the internet will make it much harder for local officials to hide information.
For this reason, the Chinese government has invested billions of dollars in e-government, and spending is growing at 40% per year. In the West, Kluver points out, e-government is viewed as a way to empower the citizens in their relationship with their government. The Chinese government views e-government as a way to empower itself.
Corruption is a huge problem in China and is the biggest threat to the Communist Party’s legitimacy in the eyes of China’s citizens. At the same time, there’s no viable alternative to the CP in part because the police state has done its job well enough to prevent one from emerging. E-government provides new ways for citizens to bring local corruption to the attention of central authorities, and thus provides hope that the Communist Party might be able to regain trust of the citizenry. That’s the strategy, anyway.
Whether or not the citizenry is actually more empowered, people are given the impression that they are more empowered: that they have more access to information about their government thanks to a proliferation of government websites, that there is a channel for complaining, and that somebody is listening. This strategy is unlikely to be adequate on its own in the very long run (in my view), but it is buying time for China’s communist leaders in the short and medium term.
Government using internet to engage with citizenry: Jiang Min, a Ph.D. candidate at Purdue University, and Wu Yuehua, a Ph.D. candidate at Michigan State, gave interesting presentations on how the Chinese government is using e-government to build a more interactive relationship with the citizenry. According to Wu, China now has more than 24,000 government websites of various kinds, at various levels of government from city and county-level to the national level. People in the West might not realize this, but the Chinese Communist Party leadership actually does recognize at some levels that if it wants to stay in power, the government has to increase transparency and provide better services to the people. The internet is a great way to do this without actually having to open your physical doors to the public. Thanks to the internet and economic liberalization, Chinese people expect to be able to complain about much wider range of problems than ever before. Government websites provide a low-risk venue through which to receive such complaints. Do they actually result in more “democratic” governance, however? Hard to say. Depends on how you define “democracy” and what level of public participation you think it requires.
Legal structure: Prof Tuen-yu Lao points out that the Chinese government has granted “independent reporting rights” to only 103 online media outlets. In other words, other web portals and sites beyond those 103 are technically not supposed to be doing original journalism or to officially promote themselves as news sites. This helps drive traffic to the officially sanctioned sites, and helps contribute to the fact that the five highest-trafficked news and information websites include the People’s Daily website and Xinhuanet (of the official Chinese news agency, etc.). Sure, there are plenty of websites and blogs without official permission which are generating original content, but they’re operating in a shaky grey area which means they can’t generate the same kind of traffic.
On the other hand…
Freedom of expression is growing online: Prof. Peter Yu emphasizes this fact. The way that SARS information spread on the internet is one strong example. As is the fact that you can find a much wider range of information, opinion and discussion online in the chatrooms and blogs than you ever could in the offline media. But the effort that it takes to get around censors results in a conversation that is often very indirect and elliptical, and difficult for outsiders to understand.
Blogs: Andrea Leung of the Social Brain Foundation gave a presentation about the status of blogs in China. Different people have different numbers, but she estimates that China now has roughly 690,000 active bloggers. Their potential impact, she believes, is “transforming centralized culture to a distributed knowledge-sharing culture.” Chinese bloggers have in fact broken news, but they are also blocked and filtered. They are now facing the added aggravation of new regulations requiring all websites to register.
Some other topics covered at the conference:
- How Chinese courts and judges are using the internet and how the ability to do websearches on verdicts elsewhere in China and abroad is affecting verdicts.
- The development of e-commerce in China and its impact on the Chinese economy
- Intellectual Property issues – it’s a big problem for China to inforce intellectual property offline, and online is of course even harder. Some Chinese officials are starting to think about how Creative Commons might work to China’s advantage.
Unfortunately I don’t have the time now to write a thorough summary of everybody’s presentation, so this is a very incomplete roundup of what I personally found most useful and new. Hopefully more complete summaries and materials from people’s presentations will be made available eventually. I definitely look forward to reading the published work of all participants in the future.
A good article on the internet in China that has just been published is The Net Effect. Also see the chineseinternetresearch del.icio.us tag where I and others will be collecting online articles related to the internet in China. Chinadigitaltimes.net often has good stuff as well.