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Dian Yang Thursday, 5:00

John (Trip) Adler 1/11/06 Foreign Cultures 63

The Internet in China: Just How Big of a Threat Is It to Chinese Communist Party Rule?

The Internet is a new form of communication that some people believe might lead to the doom of the Chinese Communist Party. For more than half a century, the leaders of China have made a dedicated effort to both censor the information that reaches the minds of Chinese citizens and control any communication between citizens that can lead to an undermining of the Party. Suddenly, in a matter of a few years, a new form of communication has arrived that promotes the free flow of information and facilitates communication between large groups of people on a scale that has never been seen before. While this clearly is threatening to the Party, how dangerous is it for Chinese leaders? Is this new form of technology going to cause problems on a scale that the national government has never encountered before? Or instead, is the Internet not so much more dangerous for the CCP than the forms of communication that existed throughout the twentieth century? This paper analyzes two aspects of the Internet — its ability to disseminate information and its ability to help people communicate with each other — and the ways in which these features may or may not undermine the Party. After providing some background on the Internet in China and different perspectives on it, the paper explains that the Web is less of a threat than it may seem, due to both the technological nature of the Internet and market forces that control it. Lastly, the Internet is compared to past communication technologies that have been threatening to nondemocatic rule, and demonstrates that the Internet is not entirely different. While the


Web does pose new problems for the CCP and can never be controlled completely, effective Internet control by the national government is certainly not impossible. It is necessary to provide some background information on the Internet in China and its censorship by the Chinese Communist Party. As in most countries of the developed world, Internet use began in China in the early 1990s and has grown at a tremendous pace. By 2005, there were more than 100 million Internet users and hundreds of thousands of Chinese websites. While there are large Internet content providers (ICPs) that are based in China, such as Sina, Sohu, Netease, and Baidu, there is also a major presence of American Internet companies, such as Yahoo!, Google, and Microsoft. Foreign Internet companies are definitely major influences in Chinese cyberspace; the national government has promised to allow foreigners to own 50% of web companies that have a presence in China (Kalathil 75). Long before the arrival of the Internet, the ruling Party has made a large-scale effort to censor the media and control communications between citizens — and this did not at all stop with the Internet. To handle this new and potentially threatening form of communication, the Chinese national government created an entire set of regulations, that involve the censoring of media and the control of communication between individuals. At least part of this government project is known to many as Golden Shield. Gudrun Wacker divides the Internet regulations that were introduced in the year 2000 into seven main categories. The first is a list of forbidden contents, such as human rights, pornographic content, or information about Falun Gong. The regulations also call for restrictions on the distributions of news, and the requirement of gaining a license to be an Internet service provider (ISP). This is true for Internet cafés, which are forced to


monitor the use of the Internet by their customers. ISPs are also required to store user data, and both ISPs and ICPs must maintain surveillance of users, including screening of emails and chat rooms. Lastly, the regulations call for judicial liability and serious penalty for not following laws (Wacker 62–65). To name a few of the specific measures taken to censor Internet content and monitor communications, the most effective method of blocking Internet content involves censoring content providers within mainland China; occasionally the government will physically seize websites and their operators. They also block foreign websites, such as CNN and the New York Times, and disallow certain terms from being used in search engines. In the case of monitoring chat rooms and email, the government does not have the physical resources to monitor all chat rooms and forums, so the Party threatens to shut down Internet content providers who do not employ internal staff, often known as “big mammas,” to do this for the national government (Wikipedia). It probably seems at first glance that the effort to regulate the flow of information over the Internet is a lost cause; it simply changes and grows so quickly and could not be more decentralized. This is the conclusion of many individuals who have studied the efforts of the CCP, such as Geoffry Taubman and Jason Lacharite. Taubman comes to the conclusion: “Given the rapid pace of diffusion of the Internet and related tools, along with the growth in content providers and the decentralized and increasingly inexpensive nature of the technology, governments will have difficulty preventing Internet-driven information pluralism without incurring significant economic and political problems in the process” (Taubman 268). Meanwhile, Lacharite focuses more on the technical difficulties with regulating the Internet and concludes: “Digital censorship is


unworkable. Not only are China’s surveillance and bureaucratic arrangements inadequate, counter-filtering technologies have been implemented both in and out of China to ensure a relatively free flow of information” (Lacharite 333). Although both of these scholars come to similar conclusions, Gudrun Wacker points out that “a number of observers have begun to develop theories that cast doubt on the assertion that there is something inherent in the nature of the Internet that puts it beyond the control of the state.” Lawrence Lessig, James Boyle, Eric Harwit, and Duncan Clark are a few if such scholars whose arguments will be considered later in this paper (Wacker 59). Clearly, the political potential of the Internet in China is a highly disputed issue, but this paper tries to illustrate the perspective of those who believe that effective control of the Internet is still possible. The technological nature of the Internet is one of the main factors that explains why efforts to control the Web are not hopeless for the Chinese national government, and this is particularly true when it comes to censoring online content. At first glance it might seem that the Internet is an advanced form of technology, and this feature will make it more difficult to censor. This is exactly what Jason Lacharite tries to prove, giving detailed technological reasons why the Internet cannot be censored easily. In particular, he mentions anti-blocking software, mirror sites, remailers, secret Usenet groups, and anonymous e-mail services (Lacharite 333). But at the same time, more advanced technology also means there are more advanced ways to censor the information distributed by this technology. The difference between the Internet and some past forms of communication is that while it is more complicated to control, it can at least be controlled to some extent. This was not true for some other technologies, such as radio


broadcasts, which have always been a form of media that could never be blocked from the air in China. While it was a more primitive technology, it was also impossible to censor and the national government simply had no ability to stop broadcasts; all it could do was tell people not to listen. With the Internet, on the other hand, the government at least has the ability to block certain words from search engines, block particular websites, and alter the content of webpages. Lawrence Lessig is a writer who believes in the possibility of shaping behavior in cyberspace and thereby regulating it. One of his best arguments involves the idea that behavior on the Internet is shaped by the code writers. For example, code writers determine whether a user needs a password to gain access or whether the transactions that a user completes can be linked back to the user. Lessig explains that “code is a kind of regulation, in just the same way that the architectures of real-space codes are a kind of regulation.” Therefore, “governments are able to indirectly regulate the Internet by directly regulating intermediary actors,” such as Internet service providers and Internet content providers (Wacker 59–60). Therefore, the technological nature of the Internet makes it relatively easy for the CCP to control some of the flow of information. The other threatening aspect of the Internet is the way it can link people together as a convenient medium for communication. While this does provide new communication opportunities, due to the technological architecture of the Web, it is still easier to control than a network of telephones. For example, it is impossible to monitor every telephone call and edit the content of what is spoken, but it is possible to monitor many large chat rooms and mass emails at the same time, and to change any content if necessary. James Boyle, another scholar who believes that the Internet is not completely


opposed to nondemocratic rule, uses an argument that draws an analogy with a prison in which every cell has a window facing a central tower. An unseen warden in the tower might be watching what any individual prisoner does at any time. The prisoners act as if they are under constant surveillance all the time, even though such surveillance is not physically possible for a single warden. This same argument can be applied to the Internet to show how it can indeed be controlled; Internet users always know that they could be monitored, but they never know when. Therefore, they are cautious with what they do or write online (Wacker 60). Of course complete control of Internet communication will never be possible, but this does not rule out effective control. A final point is related not just to Internet architecture but also to the philosophy associated with that architecture. In the minds of most people, the Web is unlike other forms of media, because it represents the whole world in an electronic format. This is why it is often called “Cyberspace.” While the censorship might not cover every website, an Internet that has hundreds of thousands of websites praising Party leaders but only has a few websites about democracy will make democracy seem like it is not a very powerful force in the world. Even if an individual knows that the CCP censors what he is reading, an unbalanced cyberspace will create the impression that reality is somewhat similar. This is especially true considering that the CCP censors “not only by promoting ‘positive’ ideas and images through the media, but by censoring cultural products too” (Lull 133). The net effect of censorship is an online world that presents a seriously skewed view of the real world. The problem with this is described well by Bill Xia, the chief executive of Dynamic Internet Technology, who comments on the censored version of Google that is currently present in China: “Users expect Google to return anything on the Internet.


That’s what a search engine does.” Meanwhile, people do not know that “there are alternative opinions from the Chinese government and there are many things being covered up by the government” (Wired News). Another example of how the government can create a skewed view of the world is how it generally blocks The New York Times, but it was unblocked when Jiang Zemin was privately interviewed; when specifically asked about the block, he replied that he would look into the matter (Wikipedia). Due to the philosophical nature of Internet technology, censorship of the Web by the Chinese government does not just create an incomplete store of information, but it actually distorts people’s understanding of the world. Therefore, incomplete censorship is enough for the CCP to accomplish its goal. In addition to the nature of Internet technology, there are significant market forces that contribute to the Party’s taming of the Internet. Eric Harwit and Duncan Clark emphasize that this is a major flaw in the arguments of Taubman (Clark, Harwit 380). While American software companies, such as Sun Microsystems and Cisco Systems, provide the software that the Chinese government uses to censor and monitor the Web, what is more important is that many companies have major business incentives for complying with Party regulations (Wacker 69). While this is true for Chinese Internet companies, such as Sina, Sohu, Netease, and Baidu, the effect can be understood most clearly by looking at American companies competing for market share in China. Google for example was providing search in China until 2002 when the Chinese government completely shut down the site. Because Google is competing fiercely with other major Internet content providers, it agreed to comply with Chinese regulations in order to keep the site running. Not only does it allow censors in China to block particular sites that


Google finds, but Google itself censors out various sites from its news service in China (Wired News). Microsoft also has agreed to block certain words, and Yahoo! signed a pledge of “self-discipline” in 2002, vowing to refrain from posting “pernicious information that may jeopardize state security” (USA Today). While these companies generally support the free flow of information, they are making exceptions in China to increase profits. Wacker explains: “China’s Internet industry has become characterized by the rapid formation of an authoritarian-capitalist coalition that has seized the central spot that used to belong to small to medium-sized enterprises” (Wacker 68). This is in agreement with the way that American Internet companies have bowed to Chinese national laws. The fact that business incentives are supporting censorship by American companies is actually unique to the Internet. For instance, many American magazines and newspapers, such as Time, USA Today, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal, have refused to bow to censorship. Time Asia was banned for three years in China after running some inappropriate material, and the magazine company placed freedom of speech above increasing profits (USA Today). The contrast between Google and other forms of media is interesting in light of Google’s pledge to “do no evil.” While Google could easily post a disclaimer on the Chinese news site informing visitors that the results might be censored, it chooses not to do this, thereby creating the impression that what it finds is the truth. As a final example of how Internet companies collaborate with the CCP to further their business ambitions, Yahoo! in 2005 helped Chinese officials link journalist’s Shi Tao’s email account and computer to a message that “divulged state secrets.” This ultimately led to a ten-year prison sentence for Shi Tao (BBC News). In


this case, Yahoo! went beyond monitoring its email, and actually got involved with the law in China. This illustrates the kinds of measures that American Internet companies will make to stay on good terms with the Chinese government. Perhaps it is useful to evaluate the ability of the Party to censor the Internet by a comparison with past efforts to censor various forms of media. James Lull explains that “especially since 1978, China has found it difficult to censor foreign materials effectively.” A good example of this is the steamy romantic novel Lovers and Gamblers that was considered pornographic. Although it was banned, confusion in the censors’ office prevented it from being taken off the shelves until more than 300,000 copies had been sold. In addition, a black market for pornographic magazines and videos has developed in China, despite laws that can punish the sellers of porn with death or life in prison. Another example is foreign radio broadcasting, such as the Voice of America and the British Broadcasting Corporation, which are easily received in most of China. While listening was subject to reprimand, it was physically impossible to block such signals from the air. In finding programs to put on China’s national television, the censors have more problems, because the standard of what is acceptable cultural and political information is never completely clear and changes frequently. An example of this was when television was just starting to show programs that depict romantic entanglements around 1985, the government suddenly insisted on a new standard for love relations. Clearly the Chinese Communist Party has had difficulties with censorship for decades (Lull 134–135). Just because the Internet is a new form of communication that has not been dealt with before does not necessarily mean that the CCP is going to have a more difficult time dealing with it. Even if the Internet is very difficult to censor, this is not


very different from what has happened with other forms of media in the past. At the same time, the general trend has been an increased relaxation and liberalization of the media throughout the 1980s and 1990s (Clark, Harwit 379). The Internet is coming at a time when compulsive censorship has already failed many times and less regulated media is becoming more acceptable. There are various reasons why censorship has failed in the past, and it can be shown that many of these are less likely to be true for the Internet. Four significant reasons, which are all mentioned above, are the incompetence of the censors, the ineffectiveness of laws, the lack of technology to censor various forms of media, and the inconsistency of policy. It has already been demonstrated that the Internet is in some ways easier to censor than other forms of media for technological reasons. Also, laws that regulate the Internet are likely to be more effective because of the numerous business incentives associated with following laws. The incompetence of the censors and the inconsistency of policy are two reasons that are unlikely to be any different with the censoring of the Internet, although it probably can be argued that these might be diminished due to the huge amount of effort and resources being devoted to censoring the Internet. For example, just to enforce censorship laws, the national government uses the Ministry of Information Industry, along with licensed Internet Service Providers, local police forces, the Data Communications Bureau, and the Ministry of State Security (Lacharite 334). With all these resources devoted to censorship, it is likely that less incompetence and more careful policy-making will result. The Internet as e a new form of communication between Chinese citizens can be compared to the telephone, which was the most recent breakthrough in


telecommunications prior to the Web. It is probably easiest to study the effect of the telephone in the Soviet Union, because the entry of this form of communication into society was around the time that Stalin was dictator, prior to China’s social revolution in 1949. Although this is a different country, it was a nondemocratic and communist country, just like China, so it can be assumed that a new form of communication would affect the two societies in similar ways. A famous quote by Stalin was when he said, “I can imagine no greater instrument of counter-revolution than the telephone” (Taubman 255). This shows that the phone was a threat to nondemocratic society in the first half of the twentieth century, just as the Internet is today. The danger has always been the possibility of informal social networks, or in other words, a technology-constructed “public space,” forming outside of the control of the rulers. However, communism survived in both the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, despite the rise of the telephone. It is certainly likely that computer networks will be another obstacle to Chinese leaders just as telephones once were. As in the case of media, telephones became less regulated over time as worries subsided. This paper does not try to say that the Party will be able to maintain complete control of the Internet; it merely suggests that there are many reasons why the situation is not hopeless for the Chinese Communist Party and the possibility of maintaining an influential position in Cyberspace is perfectly feasible. There are both technological and business reasons for why the Internet is less threatening than other forms of media and communication. At the same time, nondemocratic countries have been accepting new technologies that undermine authoritarian rule for the last century, and there are few reasons why the Internet will be completely different. In fact, the Internet may even be


less worrisome for several reasons. But the Web is clearly a new challenge for the Chinese Communist Party, and only time will tell how it influences politics in China over the next few decades.


Works Cited

Clark, Duncan. Harwit, Eric. “Shaping the Internet in China: Evolution of Political Control over Network Infrastructure and Content.” Asian Survey, Vol. 41, No. 3. 377–408. “Google Bows to Chinese Censorship.” Wired News. Online:,1283,65089,00.html?tw=newsletter_topsto ries.html “Internet Censorship in Mainland China.” Wikipedia. Online: Kalathil, Shanthi. “Between the Lines: China’s Dot-Communism.” Foreign Policy, No. 122, 74–75. Lacharite, Jason. “Electronic Decentralisation in China: A Critical Analysis of Internet Filtering Policies in the People’s Republic of China.” Australian Journal of Political Science, Vol. 37, No. 2. 333–346. Lull, James. “The Freedom to Have Fun: Popular Culture and Censorship in China.” China Turned On: Television, Reform, and Resistance. 127–153. Taubman, Geoffry. “A Not-So World Wide Web: The Internet, China, and the Challenges to Nondemocratic Rule.” Political Communication. 255–272. “U.S. Firms Help China Censor Fr**dom, D*mocr*cy.” USA Today. Online: Wacker, Gudrun. “The Internet and Censorship in China.” China and the Internet: Politics of the Digital Leap Forward. 58–82.


“Yahoo ‘Helped Jail China Writer’.” BBC News. Online: