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China: Government Makes Vain Attempts To Control Internet

  • Julie Moffett

Washington, 6 January 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Experts say a series a new restrictions on Internet use in China are likely to fail if the Beijing government intends to be a major economic and political player in the twenty-first century.

The new, sweeping legal regulations were announced in Bejing last week (Dec. 30) by Zhu Entao, China's Assistant Minister for Public Security. Zhu said the new Internet rules were adopted to ensure "the smooth implementation of the country's modernization drive."

But critics say the laws are an attempt by China to tighten control over a technology that is rapidly eroding the government's monopoly on information.

For example, one of the regulations adopted by the Chinese government make it illegal to disseminate "harmful information" over the Internet.

The law forbids the "defamation of government agencies" -- a phrase observers say is often used when prosecuting and imprisoning dissidents -- or the "splitting of the nation" -- referring loosely to views that support regional separatism or an independent Taiwan.

The regulations also provide a detailed definition of what constitutes a computer crime in China, such as the viewing or promoting of pornographic material, creating a computer virus, and computer hacking.

Fines of up to $1,800 and a range of unspecified prison terms were cited by Zhu as punishment for anyone disobeying the new laws. Individuals who use the Internet, as well as companies who provide Internet service, are liable.

These strict new laws are not the first attempt by the Chinese government to gain control of the world's largest computer network.

Internet users in China are required by law to register with the police and Chinese security officials say they actively monitor electronic mail.

Now, under the new laws, Internet providers must agree to supervision by the government and are legally required to help track down offenders.

For years, the Chinese government has also been blocking access to hundreds of Internet sites they find unacceptable -- especially those run by exiled Chinese dissidents.

Also high on the censors' list -- the home pages of a variety of Western news agencies and human rights organizations, and pornographic web sites like the Playboy and Hustler magazines.

But western reporters based in Beijing say it has become increasingly easy for knowledgeable Chinese web users to slip past the blockades by connecting to computers outside the country and visiting whatever Internet sites they want without being monitored.

These reporters also say Chinese dissidents have found ways to use electronic mail and the Internet to effectively air their political grievances.

In some cases, dissidents find ways to smuggle their documents to the West and then have someone outside the country re-send them back into China in the form of a mass electronic mailing. The address from which the mailing is sent is usually outside the legal boundaries of the Chinese government or simply impossible to trace. And since these mass mailings go to nearly everyone with an electronic mail address inside China, the government cannot single out or determine for whom exactly the mailing is intended.

Yet despite the rigid new regulations, China does not appear willing to sever all connections to the Internet, even if it were possible. While citing the new regulations on Internet use, Zhu praised the international network for promoting important scientific and cultural exchanges.

Chinese officials acknowledge that most of its Internet users are students, teachers, intellectuals, young government officials and an increasing number of China's well-educated, professional and growing middle-class.

Gerald Kovacich, President of Information Security Management Associates and a specialist in information security, told RFE/RL that the Internet has put the Chinese government in a real dilemma.

Kovacich says the Chinese government faces the same problem that all communist and dictatorial governments of the world are now facing -- how to best compete in an increasingly global and computer-networked world and still control the flow of information.

Says Kovacich: "The people who need access to the Internet the most are university students and the future business, society and government leaders of the country, if China is to be a world power in the next century. Yet these students are also the ones fighting most for freedom and democracy within their nation. Ironic, isn't it? The ones who need global information access the most to help their country in the future are the ones who can cause the most damage to the communist form of government."

Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, recently published data from the Internet Information Center of China indicating there are an estimated 620,000 subscribers to Internet services in China as of the end of October. It is a relatively small percentage of the population considering China has about 1,200 million people.

Still, Kovacich says that China's attempts to control the Internet are destined to fail if the country wants to be a viable political and economic competitor in the twenty-first century.

According to Kovacich, the key to success in today's Information Age is the ability to freely obtain and integrate information throughout all levels of government, business and society, thus stimulating creativity and productivity.

Adds Kovacich: "So, how does one control access to information and still provide the information necessary for them to compete? The answer is simple: they can't."