The Internet in China

by Bryan Pfaffenberger

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, Amnesty International, CNN and, 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 ( 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.

Managing the Internet's Growth, One Step at a Time

Let's take as a given that the Internet really does enable people living within authoritarian regimes to engage in undetectable, anonymous communications that enable them to publish and read seditious material. According to Michael Froomkin (1996), this capability alone is bad news for totalitarian regimes: "they will be forced to choose between, on the one hand, limiting access [as Singapore does] and paying a substantial price in economic growth or, on the other hand, letting go of their control of information, a traditional tool of social control." Froomkin, like others who believe that the Internet inevitably favors democratization, believes that governments will eventually learn that they have to give up. They'll hold back their economies if they limit access, and they'll fail in their attempt to control Internet content.

China may well prove Froomkin wrong. In China, as you'll see, the regime has adopted a go-slow, managed growth policy that enables them to deal with Internet problems one step at a time. By carefully controlling the Internet's growth and weaving it deeply into the fabric of the Party's complex network of business and regulatory relationships, the regime is building an Internet user base that has little incentive to use the network for seditious purposes; on the contrary, most Internet users in China have everything to gain by supporting the government line.

That's the carrot. And as you'll see, there's a stick, too--a big one.

The Carrot

Terrified of the open information access that the Internet enables, authoritarian regimes worldwide seek to limit Internet access to selected and easily controlled populations, those who have a lot to lose by challenging authority (and much to gain by keeping connected). For example, Saudi Arabia allows universities, selected businesses and medical institutions to connect to the Internet; there's no concept of providing access to the entire population (Mendels 1996). In Singapore, the government achieves much the same effect by limiting ISP competition to three state-entitled firms. By eliminating competition from the ISP sector, the Singapore government  slows the pace of growth and simplifies content-monitoring tasks.

The Chinese strategy is a blend of these: the state wants to control and manage the Internet infrastructure in China so social penetration can be managed step-by-step; the result is that Internet access in China has been limited thus far to the population that, as will be seen, is least likely to challenge the status quo. In the meantime, the state plans to implement a massive and repressive security infrastructure (Chen 2000) that will enable precise content monitoring when the network grows too large for manual supervision.

The perils posed to the regime by rapid, uncontrolled growth are amply illustrated by the newest Chinese craze, chat rooms. Previously unsupervised, chat rooms enabled the now-outlawed Falun Gong movement to coordinate its April, 1999 protest, when 10,000 Falun Gong members appeared at the gates of the Zhongnanhai leaders' compound in Beijing to protest the government's actions in harassing the movement and its leaders (Lestz 1999). Having learned its lesson, the regime now requires all Internet chat rooms to be supervised by a government monitor who deletes comments that are critical of the Communist Party. The result is that discussion is skewed in ways that favor the official view. For example, in the wake of NATO's action of bombing the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade, government-censored chat rooms allowed all comments that accused the U.S. of undertaking the bombing deliberately; messages questioning this view were promptly deleted. Despite the prohibition on using the Internet to plan demonstrations, most observers believe that the government not only encouraged but actively aided students who used the Internet to plan days of violent protests outside the U.S. Embassy. Still, too-rapid growth could allow chat rooms to spiral out of control. As one Party censor commented, "That is a problem for us. Right now we don't know just what we will do." (quoted in Rosenthal 1999)

To hold back the pace of growth so that it does not  overwhelm the censors, Beijing regulators initially adopted policies that held back (and even prevented) foreign investment in China's telecommunications infrastructure, thus ensuring slow growth and high access fees (Sautede 1996). Catherine Mann, an economist who urged Chinese officials to open the telecom system to foreign investment, noted with dismay that the czars of Internet and telecommunications development in Beijing seem to want to "slow down the development of electronic commerce, or manage [its] development, or perhaps look more inward" (quoted in McMahon 1999). The regime's motive for the foot-dragging strategy? Foreign analysts emphasize the greed dimension; after all, the regime is a major owner of the Chinese Internet's infrastructure. "There is a lot of money to be made here," says a Hong Kong-based investment analyst (quoted in Anonymous 2000b); the regime "doesn't want to lose it". The value of Internet-based transactions in China is expected to reach US $11.7 billion by 2004 (McMahon 1999). But the foot-dragging reveals another motive.  Beijing may want to profit from the country's Internet, but they also want to control the pace of growth to make sure the network evolves slowly until the regime is convinced that the technology exists to enable effective broadband content monitoring.

Recently, under pressure from World Trade Organization (WTO) negotiators and internal pressure from capital-starved Chinese web sites such as, the regime grudgingly granted permission for mainland sites to sell up to 49% of their stock to foreign investors; the figure will rise to 50% after a two-year "waiting period" (Anonymous 2000b). Still, the regime fully intends to manage the flow of foreign investment in such a way that it can continue to shape the Chinese Internet's political impact. For example, foreigners cannot invest in the woefully overtaxed telecommunications infrastructure that links China to the rest of the world (Anonymous 2000a), for one simple reason: the regime does not want the Chinese Internet to have more external bandwidth.

The combination of high access fees and slow infrastructural growth initially combined to restrict Internet access to a well-defined and political apathetic user community, one that, like Internet users in Saudi Arabia, had much to lose by challenging government regulations. According to recent studies, the typical Internet user in China is male, young, single, university educated, relatively affluent and works in the rapidly-expanding IT sector (China Internet Consumer Report, quoted in Anonymous 2000c). Such users have little to gain from undertaking actions that would lead the government to crack down on the Internet; in contrast, their futures depend on rapid Internet growth and keeping out of trouble with the government.

To be sure, the Chinese government insists that it wants the Internet to grow, but it also wants the growth to occur on its own terms. For example, the recently announced 169 network offers inexpensive access (approximately 22 U.S. cents per hour) prevents access to external Web sites; the network uses a non-standard addressing system which, the regime claims, creates more network addresses for Chinese users (U.S. Embassy, Beijing 1998). With low-cost access finally available, less educated Chinese are finally beginning to show up on the Chinese Internet (Greenberg 2000), but they're accessing an Internet that is technically designed to prevent access to external Web sites.

For Chinese Internet users, the incentives to avoid any criticism of the regime aren't abstract; they're personal and immediate in a way that foreigners may find hard to understand. The lubricant that smoothes the gears of China's booming economy is called guanxi, a Chinese world that is usually (and incorrectly) translated as "connections" (e.g., see Sheff 1999). As anthropologist Duran Bell points out (Bell 2000), the concept is much deeper than the word  "connections" implies; guanxi implies a web or nesting of mutual and personal relationships that amounts to extending the emotional depth of family relations to persons and organizations outside the family. If you've got guanxi with powerful Party members and bureaucrats, you go places. For example, Beijing-based, which specializes in electronics industry news, is run by a 39-year-old ex-government bureaucrat named Li Yang; the company's main shareholder is a subsidiary of the Ministry of Information Industry (MII). has a "big edge," says Li, because the "MII really trusts and believes in us" (Anonymous 2000).  As many foreign investors have learned to their profit, it's very wise to invest in Chinese enterprises that are loaded with guanxi.  For example, Hong Kong-based Chinadotcom Corp. is known to have the blessings of Beijing's official Xinhua news agency. Surprise! Chinadotcom was the big winner in the Chinese IPO sweepstakes; the company raised over $450 million and is now getting 16 million hits per day (Anonymous 2000b). From the tycoon level down to the CGI Joes in web production shops, there's every reason to stay on the government's good side: Your future depends on it.

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.

Resources for Further Study

Amnesty International, China 1999. Required reading for anyone wishing to understand the nature and extent of political repression in China.

University of Melbourne, Australia. Chinese Studies WWW Virtual Library.

China Internet Directory. Directory to web sites within China.

China Online. A U.S.-based news and analysis site focusing on business information about China.

Bick-har Yeung, Univ. of Melbourne, Internet and Chinese Studies Resources. An introduction to the Internet in China, including the history of Internet development in China, coding systems for Chinese documents, Chinese search engines, and links to additional resources.

Human Rights in China. New York-based site focusing on political repression in China.

Heidelberg University, Germany.  Internet Guide for China Studies.


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Anonymous. 2000b.  "Did China miss the boat? Business Week (April 17, 2000), p. 28ff. 

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United States Embassy (Beijing), "PRC Internet: cheaper, more popular, and more Chinese," available online at

Usdin, Steve. 1997.  "China Online: Behind the Great (Fire)Wall," Yahoo Internet Life. Available online at

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