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China: Analysis From Washington -- A New Form Of Jamming

Washington, 14 April 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Beijing has launched a new form of jamming by hacking into the U.S. and Canada-based websites of the Falungong movement and causing them to crash and thus go off-line.

According to spokesmen for the Falungong, the Chinese police computer unit simultaneously overwhelmed three of the group's websites maintained in the United States and two based in Canada with what they said were carefully-prepared messages.

The group said that it had received an anonymous e-mail tip from a Chinese computer employee earlier this week warning that these attacks were about to take place. And one Falungong computer expert said that Beijing had used a method called "ICMT Packet flooding" to swamp these websites with "too much information."

Such a method of driving a website off-line, this expert added, "requires a lot of effort and preparation" and its use suggests that Beijing "must have been studying our sites for a long time." The expert Yuan Li added that the Chinese police had used this method once before, in August 1999, and that it took the group 24 hours to make the sites operational again.

The Chinese effort to jam Internet sites maintained by members of a group Beijing banned last year simultaneously highlights the growing importance of that communications medium, the meaninglessness of national borders on the web, and the lengths to which some governments will go to try to control it.

China would not have acted to shut down these Internet sites if it did not believe that they represent an important communications link among the members of the banned Falungong sect and between them and the wider community. Obviously, many Falungong adherents are now online, both in China and the West.

Moreover, the Chinese leaders are clearly worried about this channel, having taken an action which crosses international boundaries and affects sites maintained by U.S. and Canadian companies and thus potentially sets the stage for disputes between China and the West on this issue.

And it also suggests that the Beijing government is investing a great deal of effort to figure out how to respond to the challenge of the Internet, a challenge that is far more difficult to meet than even jamming international radio broadcasts.

But at the same time the Chinese action also calls attention to the difficulties governments have in shutting down websites and the ability of opposition groups to respond quickly and effectively to any such attacks.

As the Falungong expert noted, what the Chinese did required an enormous amount of study and effort -- and then was effective for only a single day when Beijing tried it before. The latest Chinese attack on these sites is unlikely to be any more successful or long-lasting.

Most of these sites are likely to be online within a day or two, and those that cannot be easily restored will simply be replaced. Setting up a new site is extremely easy, and those interested in finding it will do so more or less quickly.

Like all struggles, every effort by the offensive leads to new defensive maneuvers and vice versa. And efforts by other governments and groups to go after websites they find offensive so far have been no more successful than the Chinese action is likely to be.

During initial phase of its Chechen campaign, the Russian government attempted to shut down Chechen websites and even solicited the help of several Western governments. But even working together, they were unable to prevent the Chechen sites from continuing to operate.

And more recently, some groups in Armenia and Azerbaijan have been attempting to shut down the websites of their opposite numbers. Again, they have not succeeded in being more than an irritant, albeit it is an irritant that many people could do without.

A half century ago, the Soviet government jammed Western radio broadcasts. That effort failed to prevent people from listening at least some of the time. Now, the Chinese government is trying to do the same thing on the Internet, and it appears likely that it will have no more success.