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China: Controlling The Internet

China seems to be the most successful pioneer in controlling its citizens' access to the Internet. A recent case shows that it has the help of some Western companies in doing so.

According to one recent estimate, China has more than 87 million Internet users, or the second-largest online population on the planet. It is also a one-party dictatorship with a well-established reputation for regulating its citizens' access to information (see "China: Acting To Keep Out 'Harmful Information'").

Given this combination of factors, it is not surprising that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) control bodies have singled out the Internet for particular attention. London's "The Times" wrote on 30 August that "China's police have developed what are probably the most sophisticated Internet filtering methods in the world. They had the advantage of starting early and knew exactly what they did not want: political dissent and porn."
"We already knew that Yahoo! collaborates enthusiastically with the Chinese regime in questions of censorship, and now we know it is a Chinese police informant as well."

All major commercial websites must register with the authorities and be accountable for content. Furthermore, as Radio Free Asia's (RFA) Mandarin Service reported on 17 August, in at least the Shenzhen area near Hong Kong, those wanting to use instant messaging software to take part in group discussions must register their real identities, which are then verified by a government-approved company. The apparent aim is to intimidate people into self-censorship.

On 16 June, state media reported that the Beijing Security Service Corporation -- which is run by the police -- is setting up a new Beijing Internet Security Service and is looking for 4,000 recruits to staff it. About 800 of them will go to Internet cafes throughout the city and most of the rest to various other Internet-related businesses. Among their duties will be to "delete all kinds of harmful information" as part of a drive that is reportedly being extended to other cities as well.

But even the CCP and the security forces are not able to do everything by themselves. According to "The Times": "search providers, such as Microsoft, set up their own filters as required by the authorities to block the use of certain keywords, such as 'democracy,' human rights,' and 'Tibet independence.' Most sensitive of all is 'Falungong'.... An attempt to search for that sect via Google results in the entire search engine shutting down for 20 minutes. Other sites that are inaccessible by normal means include Amnesty International." RFA noted on 15 September that Cisco's routers designed to block viruses can "be re-tuned to exclude content that Beijing doesn't want its citizens to see" (

Sometimes foreign businesses cooperate with the authorities in other ways. RFA noted that dissident journalist Shi Tao was sentenced earlier this year to 10 years in prison for "illegally providing state secrets abroad" in an e-mail to an overseas human rights group. In his message, he detailed the work of the CCP's Central Propaganda Department, which oversees the media. The broadcast reported that Chinese government investigators were able to prove that Shi "sent the e-mail thanks to private information supplied by internet giant Yahoo!'s Hong Kong subsidiary."

A open letter circulated by the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and New York-based Human Rights in China (HRIC) argued that "Yahoo! provided evidence that contributed to Shi's arrest and conviction for activities that did not threaten China's national security, but merely represented the exercise of his right to free expression and to criticize the government, as protected by China's own constitution." RSF also stated that "we already knew that Yahoo! collaborates enthusiastically with the Chinese regime in questions of censorship, and now we know it is a Chinese police informant as well."

A spokeswoman for Yahoo! in Hong Kong told Reuters on 8 September, however, that "just like any other global company, Yahoo! must ensure that its local country sites must operate within the laws, regulations, and customs of the country in which they are based."

Li Hongkuan, who is editor of the U.S.-based Chinese-language online publication "Da Cankao," told RFA that "anyone who wants to make money in China has to surrender to the political power of the [CCP]. Under such circumstances, the fate of a single individual like Shi Tao would simply not figure into their calculations." Li stressed that "China has no protection for human rights. This is a basic moral choice that anyone wanting to do business there must face. There is always a tension between the need to maximize profit and the rights of the individual."