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.
The Stick

If the incentives to tow the official line aren't sufficient to suppress dissent within China, there's a collection of Draconian laws that would make any reasonable person think twice before using the Internet to challenge the state.

For years, China's Internet users have been required to register with local police, and the regime hasn't hesitated to arrest and detain anyone who is found to have accessed or distributed banned material. New laws come along quite quickly when the regime concludes they're needed. For example, many chat room participants log on using the Internet bars and cafes that are proliferating throughout China. A spate of regulations announced in January 1999 require the owners of Internet bars and cafes to register with local police, prevent customers from engaging in activities harmful to state security and monitor their users' on-line usage; they will be held personally responsible for infractions originating from their premises (Ribao 1999).

But nothing compares in scope to the sweeping new laws announced by the regime this fall (Anonymous 2000a). These laws criminalize all of the following:

  • Gaining unauthorized access to computer information systems containing information about state affairs, state defense and the "most advanced" science and technology of the state;

  • Stealing or leaking classified information or military secrets via the Internet;

  • Producing and spreading computer viruses or using programs that stop the operation of computer networks and communication services;

  • Spreading rumors, slander or "other information" on the Internet for the purpose of overthrowing the state government or the socialist system, breaking up the country or destroying its unity;

  • Igniting racial or ethnic hatred and discrimination or attempting to use the Internet to destroy racial and ethnic unity;

  • Organizing cults or contacting cult members via the Internet;

  • Using the Internet to engage in swindles or burglary, including selling defective products or making false claims for goods or services;

  • Concocting and spreading false information via the Internet to influence securities trading and futures trading;

  • Establishing or providing links to pornographic web sites or pages;

  • Insulting other people or businesses or fabricating stories to slander others or damage product reputations via the Internet;

  • Illegally intercepting, changing or deleting other people's e-mail or other data, thus infringing on people's freedom of information; or

  • Infringing on other people's rights to intellectual property on the Internet.

In addition to these sweeping regulations, the regime is developing a strategy to deal with encryption, the technical means by which Chinese Internet users can engage in anonymous communications. Foreign software firms are required to disclose the algorithms they use in any imported products with encryption. Domestic companies are prevented from using foreign products that lack the regime's approved "back-door" decryption capabilities.

Beijing does not hesitate to throw people in jail--even put them to death--for violating its Draconian laws. Faced with the incentives to support the government line, as well as the disincentives of harsh, unjust punishment, most Internet users in China are rightfully terrified of doing anything that could get them in trouble. Can you blame them?


Rather than paving the way for the blossoming of democracy in China, the Internet is arguably doing precisely the opposite:  It's providing the regime with yet another opportunity for weaving official corruption, guanxiand state supervision into the very fabric of the emerging information infrastructure in China. What's more, the regime is getting plenty of help from foreign investors and IT corporations  who leave their high-minded, free speech ideals at home. The prevailing attitude seems to be, "Who cares about democracy? Lots of people are getting rich, and millions of Chinese are being pulled up from the grip of poverty."

There's always the chance, to be sure, that the Internet's growth will overwhelm content control efforts, or some new technology will provide even greater anonymity to would-be dissenters. In a China with 200 million Internet users, such developments could pose genuine problems for the regime. But that's precisely the reason for the go-slow, one-step-at-a-time strategy. The Party is learning how to manage the Internet's growth so that the emerging infrastructure favors businesses that are deeply linked to state bureaucrats and ministries, while at the same time they're making equally sure that access is limited primarily to populations with compelling interests in the status quo. Outrageously harsh penalties serve to convince would-be dissenters that it's wiser to think about that nifty new stereo system.

In writing this essay, I don' t mean to belittle the efforts of people who have fought (and in some cases given their lives) for democratic change in China. But I do mean to insist that our myths about the liberalizing effects of the Internet are just that--myths. In China, the Internet is emerging as a capable tool by which the regime advances repression with the help of multinational corporations and the international financial community.

That's precisely why people living in liberal, Western democracies need to stand guard to make sure that the same, ugly process does not overwhelm them, too. China's new Internet laws sound repugnant, but almost all of them, mutatis mutandis, have been proposed by various repressive or conservative constituencies in U.S. state and federal legislatures, and many of them have been signed into law. Already, U.S. citizens journeying in cyberspace have lost (or are about to lose) many of the rights they have enjoyed since the Republic's founding, such as the right to the privacy of the letters in their home, the right to lease or sell creative works that they have lawfully purchased, the right to criticize corporations that make defective or dangerous products and much more. The penalties are in China's league, if not worse; for example, violations of the obscenity provisions of the 1996 Communications Decency Act (CDA)--provisions that are, despite the Supreme Court's reversal of the CDA's indecency regulations, very much still in the law--specify fines and prison terms that exceed those of second-degree murder. I suspect that many people who are quite willing to criticize Beijing aren't aware that some of the same repressive processes are occurring right under their noses.

Bryan Pfaffenberger is a professor in the University of Virginia's pioneering Division of Technology, Culture and Communications, where his research and teaching focuses on the legal, political and economic ramifications of the Internet and open-source software.