Publication: China Brief Volume: 2 Issue: 15

For technology enthusiasts who believe, or wish to believe, that information technology can help bring about the fall of totalitarianism, China is a serious disenchantment.

Its economic boom began in 1992, just in time to be caught up in the crest of the Internet revolution wave. By the end of 2001, 33.7 million Internet users operated over 12 million personal computers to gain access, 2.3 million of which had dedicated connectivity. [1]

Nevertheless, the growth of the internet and the flow of information via the internet has apparently not brought more diversity to Chinese opinions on major issues. Some 86 percent of mainland Chinese believe the U.S. spy plane incident was “a deliberate provocation by the United States.” [2] Nearly 82 percent of mainlanders support the use of force for unification with Taiwan. [3] Some 96 percent of Beijing residents supported the city’s Olympic bid. [4] And, in 2000, as the country faced growing unemployment, 97 percent of the population supported Premier Zhu Rongji’s Government Working Report at the National People’s Congress. [5]

What happened to the free flow of information that internet access and use was expected to enable and encourage? The answer is simple: There is none.

IP-blocking and content-filtration firewalls are at work, dedicated to blocking Chinese internet users from reaching websites beyond the reach of PRC censorship that contain news or any other “pernicious information.” [6] Politics, human rights, Falun Gong (FLG) and minority issues are all considered “pernicious.” The techniques have proven to be both practical and efficient. Some have dubbed it “The Great Firewall of China.” [7]

Sophisticated net-traffic analysis is deployed to detect and block IP addresses of foreign proxy servers. Even the most updated privacy technologies–such as “triangular boys”–have become impractical in China. Not only do Chinese search engines return zero results to certain terms, FLG being just one example, they also contain proxy booby-traps, operated by network police.

By the end of 1999, China had already established network police in over twenty provinces. They now reportedly number some 300,000.

It is therefore increasingly questionable to what degree the internet is “the most democratic and free form of mass media ever invented.” True, in many cases across the globe the flow of information has indeed encouraged the growth of dissent and pluralism. Fax machines, for example, helped the Solidarity Movement in Poland more than a decade ago. There is little doubt that the internet greatly facilitates the dissemination of information. So why the current state of affairs in China?

The rest of the world cheers for the information revolution, as a powerful new means to enforce freedom and democracy. Beijing authorities acknowledge its significance and potential power. They have thus wasted little time in setting up a grand strategy to make the most of it: “actively develop, strengthen controls, differentiate damage from benefits, exploit and utilize.” A series of attempts at regulation have been made, from requiring all fax machines to be registered with the PSB to banning private ownership of satellite dishes. No fewer than sixty sets of regulations on internet content have been issued since 1995. [8] According to Human Rights Watch: “As of January 2001, sending ‘secret’ or ‘reactionary’ materials over the Internet became a capital crime. The elaborate regulatory framework serves as a statement of policy, a justification for monitoring and surveillance, a set of guidelines for what constitutes ‘illegal’ activity, and a deterrent to Internet users.” [9]

The most effective method yet adopted is the mobilization of self-censorship, making service providers, Internet cafe owners and forum administrators responsible for content they display. Sweeping inspections have been periodically carried out, most recently on June 4 in Beijing of the nine biggest Internet content providers.

Another method is “information offensives.” It is widely known that Chinese security agents regularly flood overseas Chinese language chat rooms and BBS with posts aimed at sabotaging the solidarity of the Chinese political exile community and making personal attacks on public exile figures.

New communication technologies always raise hopes with their democratizing and decentralizing tendencies. Back in the old days of free-to-air TV, millions of Chinese in areas neighboring Hong Kong could receive its broadcasting signals, so they largely ignored mainland state-run TV programs. Now cable television has become pervasive, but Hong Kong’s mainland neighbors have discovered that “unwelcome channels” are not carried by their providers, and even on the few “acceptable overseas channels,” advertisements are inserted when the news turns to sensitive issues.

A couple of years ago, many in China used overseas proxy servers, making the Great Firewall appear as though it were crumbling. New broadband trends, however, have enabled service providers to disable the use of proxies. The newest “selection service gateway” technology enables extensive tracking logs on user information and controls bandwidth for each user.

The current techno-“new hope” has been the proliferation of uncensored peer-to-peer file-sharing technology. However, one can easily imagine the authorities someday forcing peer-to-peer software providers to issue upgrade versions bundled with “spyware” or enforcing user registration with ID numbers.

For every techno-“loophole” there is a newer technology to provide a solution. The fast pace of new technology only makes “new hopes” transitory.

It is commonly believed that technology boosts the power of the small players and leads to a kind of “pure democracy.” [10] But what the small players have gained is greatly overshadowed and outstripped by what the big players in China have gained.

As early as 1976, when the majority of Chinese had yet to see a television set, closed-circuit television (CCTV) monitoring systems were used to identify protestors of the April 5 movement in Tiananmen Square. With modernization, CCTV systems have proliferated nationwide, from the streets of Lhasa to the casinos in Macau. In Beijing’s Tiananmen Square–the traditional venue for political rallies since the Qin Dynasty–CCTV facilitates police response to protestors within seconds.

Today, Compaq iPAQ’s–with the most advanced GSM/GPRS modules–are enabling the Beijing police on patrol to remotely retrieve suspects’ records and imagery from a central computer.

A greatly improved border-control system, based on networked computers, is at work to use a Beijing blacklist to consistently deny visa applications to those on the list. Chinese border guards now get real-time specific instructions on each individual at entry turnstiles.

Even foreign passport numbers are immediately wired to the PSB on hotel check-ins in major Chinese cities.

The “small and decentralized players” among Chinese internet users do occasionally slip through the Great Firewall to exercise their freedom in cyberspace with low bandwidth connections. Meanwhile, the centralized powers, having far more resources, are busy building security infrastructures and information superhighways that bring concrete realization of their power in the real world, and in a timely and efficient manner. Moreover, without the legal framework to protect the rights of individuals, high-tech applications are imposed on the Chinese people without any debate.

In April 2001, the Ministry of Public Security formally proposed an ambitious national project, known as the “Gold Shield” project. Greg Walton reports that the plan is “to build a nationwide digital surveillance network, linking national, regional and local security agencies with a panoptic web of surveillance. Beijing envisions the Golden Shield as a database-driven remote surveillance system–offering immediate access to records on every citizen in China, while linking to vast networks of cameras designed to increase police efficiency.” [11]

The State Planning Commission approved the proposal last November. The project is well on its way to implementation. Immediate applications include central databases with retrievable photo images and travel records for all migrant workers. [12]

In short, circumstantial evidence in China reminds us of a pronouncement made by Jerry Mander in 1996 that the “decentralized, local, community-based interests… suffer a net loss” due to the acceleration of centralized power brought about by the advancement of modern technology. [13]

1. January 2002 Semiannual Survey Report on the Development of China’s Internet (China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC), January 2002).

2. Fred Goldstein, “U.S.-China Relations: What the Spy-Plane Incident Showed” (The International Action Center).

3. An undated survey by SSIC (Social Survey in China), right after Taiwan’s 1999 earthquake.

4. Xinhua News Agency, May 15, 2001.

5. Unemployment was estimated to be over 8 percent at the time of the NPC vote.

6. “Jiang Renews Warning Against ‘Pernicious’ Internet,” Agence France Presse, July 11, 2001.

7. Geremie R. Barme and Sang Ye, “The Great Firewall of China,” Wired, June 1997.

8. “Freedom of Expression and the Internet in China,” Human Rights Watch, undated.

9. Ibid.

10. Kevin Kelly, Out of Control: The Rise of Neo-Biological Civilization (Addison-Wesley, 1994).

11. Greg Walton, “China’s Golden Shield: Corporations and the Development of Surveillance Technology in the People’s Republic of China,” Open Source Intelligence. <>

12. Li Yunfu, “Population Management Must be Modernized Quickly,” China Police Daily, April 9, 2002.

13. Jerry Mander and Edward Goldsmith, “Technology and Globalization,” The Case Against The Global Economy (Sierra Club Books, 1996).

Baopu Liu–a specialist in Chinese politics and foreign affairs, and a Beijing native–writes political commentary for major publications in Hong Kong and the United States.