The Internet in China

If you listen to academic theorists (e.g., Fukuyama 1989), China should be the world's newest and greatest democracy by now; free market economies are, after all, supposed to be incompatible with authoritarian regimes. But China's booming economy has, if anything, solidified the Communist Party's control.

A new, politically cynical generation is coming to age for whom the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre is but a childhood memory. To be sure, no one doubts that there is widespread discontent with the regime, but dissent of any form is systematically and ruthlessly suppressed. In China, the rights people in Western societies take for granted--holding up anti-government placards, assembling to discuss government policies, or criticizing government policies--are punished with unbelievably harsh penalties, including death. To be sure, millions of Chinese may dislike their government, but why rock the boat, especially when the regime seems capable of delivering a bigger apartment, a better job, more electronic goodies, and maybe, just maybe, a car of your very own. It's the ultimate irony in Marxism's inglorious history: The most successful of the surviving regimes clings to power by besotting the People with consumerism, which, in Marxist theory at least, is one of the greatest evils of capitalism.

The latest, greatest hope for Chinese democracy is the Internet which, like everything else in China, is booming. In 1999, the number of Internet users in China quadrupled to 9 million (Solomon 2000, Lu 2000); the number is expected to grow to more than 20 million by the end of this year (Liu and Platt 2000), and to more than 120 million by 2004, a figure that would establish the Chinese Internet as one of the largest in the world. The regime knows perfectly well that the Internet is needed for continued economic development, and it's investing heavily in the Internet infrastructure.

However, some say that by backing the Internet, the regime is digging its own grave. With the Internet's capacity for promoting free speech and political dissent, the Internet may undermine and eventually destroy the regime, just as open communications (fax and e-mail) are widely thought to have helped to bring down the Soviet military coup in 1991.  Proponents of this view argue that it's impossible to repress dissent on the Internet; as Electronic Frontier Foundation co-founder John Gilmore says, the Net "interprets censorship as damage and routes around it". In a world where advanced encryption technology enables anyone to become a secret publisher and a secret reader, the truth will inevitably come out. In an international context, the Internet provides what legal scholars call regulatory arbitrage, the ability to evade disliked domestic regulations by routing communications and transactions through less restrictive regulatory regimes (Froomkin 1996).

Will the Internet aid democratization processes in China? It's easy for foreigners to believe that it will: "The clampdown [on the uses of the Internet to promote dissent] is futile," says Newsweek (Liu and Platt 2000)" As fast as Beijing can erect barriers, the country's Net users keep finding ways around them." No less a figure than the U.S. President has weighed in with this thesis. At a recent conference at Johns Hopkins University, Clinton asked the audience to ponder how the Internet could help China's transition to the principles of an open, democratic society. When a member of the audience pointed out that the regime was trying to suppress dissent on the Internet, Clinton smiled and said, "Good luck. That's like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall." (quoted in Liu and Platt 2000)

I'm not so sure. In this essay, I'll examine the ways Chinese dissidents have succeeded in circumventing government access and content controls. As you'll see, it's quite possible for Chinese activists to obtain information from the outside world, yet very few attempt to do so. Fear of harsh penalties is one reason, and perhaps the most important one. But the regime has also managed the growth of the Internet so that almost all Internet users have powerful incentives to support the government and to refrain from voicing any criticism, however mild.  As this essay explains, it's far from clear whether the Internet is aiding the cause of democracy in China. In fact, a good argument could be made that it's doing a great deal to solidify and enhance the Communist Party's grip on the world's most populous nation.

Routing Around Censorship

To date, the Chinese government's efforts to monitor and control Internet content have met with only moderate success, and the reason, Chinese hackers affirm, is an almost laughable lack of security. A Beijing hacker affirms that Chinese networks and servers are almost ridiculously easy to break into: "I'd say 90 percent of them are insecure." (quoted in Fang 1998) Government efforts to block access to undesirable foreign sites--an effort that Chinese activists derisively call the "Great Firewall of China"--do not prevent a moderately knowledgeable hacker from accessing blocked sites such as Penthouse.com, Amnesty International, CNN and freechina.org, a U.S. site created by Shanghai hacktivist Lin Hai.  By means of proxy servers, which require very little technical knowledge to use, still more Chinese Internet users can gain access to blocked sites, but knowledge of English, still a rarity in China, is a plus (Usdin 1997). Despite the technical possibility of accessing banned sites, the flow of external accesses is best described as a mere trickle. Blocked sites such as Human Rights in China and China News Digest report receiving only a few dozen hits per week from within China (Dobson 1998).

The security shortfalls are doubtless attributable, in the main, to a lack of technical expertise in China's rapidly growing Internet sector. But state agencies and other organizations running e-mail and web servers may have an incentive to keep security lax. In the West, Internet service providers (ISPs) report that China is increasingly a major source of unwanted e-mail (spam); the percentage of Chinese sites on the Realtime Blackhole List (RBL), a list of IP addresses that are known to relay spam,  has increased from one to five percent in just one year. Much of the traffic doesn't originate in China--the mail comes from U.S. spammers--but it takes advantage of poorly secured - or deliberately under-secured--servers used to relay outgoing mail. According to the Mail Abuse Prevention System (MAPS), a California-based non-profit group that helps ISPs deal with spam, U.S. and other spammers may be compensating Chinese server administrators for providing relay services.

It isn't lax security but the anonymity possible with public-key encryption technologies that enables Chinese dissidents to send material out of China for publication on U.S. web sites such as Tunnel (http://www.geocities.com/dchao.geo/index.html). Managed and edited in China, Tunnel seeks to "break through the present lock on information and controls on expression" (cited in Dobson 1998; see also Anonymous 1998). Articles are encrypted and uploaded to the U.S., and then mailed back to Chinese dissidents from an anonymous remailer.

In sum, Internet technology enables anyone with the requisite knowledge to access banned information. That's not surprising. What is surprising is how few people do so and how little impact the banned information has in shaping China's political system. To understand why, you need to examine the way the Chinese government manages the growth of the Internet so that Internet users are drawn into mutually supportive relationships with bureaucrats and government organizations. You also need to understand the risks people take when they engage in dissent.

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