The Project on the Information Revolution and World Politics and Carnegie's China Program convened a panel discussion entitled "China and the Internet: A New Revolution?" The panel's moderator, Minxin Pei, introduced the participants and characterized the development of the Internet in China as an important and timely issue.
Shanthi Kalathil kicked off the discussion by noting that the Chinese government is planning to launch a 24-hour news channel in the belief that, because all major nations have a similar service, so too should China. The government has taken a similar attitude towards information and communications technology (ICT), viewing such technology as necessary in the development of a modern, developed nation. While the idea of China engaging with the Internet might run counter to our assumptions about the Chinese government and its restrictive policies toward information flow, in several respects the government has used the Internet to its own benefit, spurring changes within the Chinese bureaucracy.
"Informatization" is the word commonly used to designate the incorporation of ICT into all aspects of Chinese society. The "Golden Projects" of the 1990s were meant to bring the customs network online and connect the provinces with the central government. China Telecom has failed to meet its 1999 goal to bring the entire government online, but it has nevertheless created rich websites that promote internal efficiency and external transparency. If properly supported, e-government may have the potential to lead to change.
E-government offers increased governmental efficiency, facilitates the government's communication with its citizens, and promotes more general public transparency. Some individuals and businesses can now pay their taxes online, and it is commonly believed that greater ICT use will reduce corruption. The top levels of government, which determine how informatization will happen and when, are most concerned with boosting efficiency by improving internal transparency. The consequence of their concern, however, has been to encourage transparency in ways that benefit both government and the public. For example, the government now runs reverse auctions for coal online. Once the source of substantial graft, coal procurement has become less corrupt, and also more transparent.
Informatization has changed the operation of the government at the local level as well. Municipal governments have built professionally designed interactive websites with links to white papers, local news, and government departments. Visitors to the Beijing site are encouraged to e-mail the mayor with questions or complaints (though they are required to give their name and contact information).
The Internet is also used for propaganda purposes. As part of a recent strategy to make its ideas more appealing to the public, the government has created slick websites to wage its information campaign. Run like newspapers, and often not marked as government organs, the websites of traditional media outlets often offer more information than their print or film versions. Portions of Secretary of State Colin Powell's 2001 speech on CCTV dealing with human rights were excised when the address was originally aired, but the full transcript of his remarks could be found subsequently on the People's Daily website. The Chinese government's approach to propagandistic 'thought-work' is to incorporate ICT through all levels of development. While the policy is in some ways reactive, Kalathil concluded, it represents an overarching strategy to contain and define ICT use in China.
James Mulvenon began his presentation by explaining that ICT has been a mixed blessing for China. While Chinese dissidents have proven adept at using the Internet to advance their cause, the government has equally gained an opportunity to enhance state surveillance. His presentation, as he described it, was neither optimistic nor pessimistic, but rather attempted to depict the clash between these two forces, each in itself a cause for both optimism and pessimism.
The arrival of ICT has changed the relationship between dissidents and the government. To analyze this change, RAND studies two-way dynamics (including email, bulletin boards, and chat rooms) and one-way dynamics (use of websites, email spams). RAND has observed tremendous activity on bulletin boards in particular, sometimes as high as 2 million participants at a given time. The Chinese Democratic Party emerged as a threat in the eyes of the government because of its two-way ICT use. In April 1999, the Falun Gong spiritual movement organized a demonstration attended by 10,000 people, which resulted in the sacking of officials who failed to keep track of the group's communications.
One-way dynamics are 'low hanging fruit' for the government censors in that websites in particular are easier to block, said Mulvenon. But the spam component allows small groups to punch above their weight. Because no one can be accused of desiring the spam, receipt of spam messages cannot be used to prove affiliation with a forbidden organization.
An examination of actual dissident use of information and communications technology, however, reveals that it has not been a universal good for opposition groups. Chatroom and bulletin board discussions, Mulvenon found, were more often than not filled with criticism of other dissidents, instead of the government. The most common slander was that one or the other dissident was in fact a government operative-an accusation all the more provocative because it could have been made by a true government operative masquerading as dissident.
Mulvenon explained that Beijing treated the emerging ICT market differently than did Washington. Whereas Washington saw the technology spring up and dealt with its repercussions later, Beijing created a strategy for integrating ICT into China and then started buying equipment. The Chinese government has since then carefully tread around ICT as the double-edged sword that it is-essential to economic growth but potentially harmful politically. Much of the regulation constraining the "high-tech" equipment has been distinctly "low-tech." The censors physically shut down servers at critical moments, and police, while claiming to trace dissidents through their Internet activity, in reality seize their hard drives after arrest to search for evidence.
The government delegates censorship tasks to commercial providers, who kick loudmouths out of their chatrooms so the government doesn't have to. Finally, many users engage in self-censorship. Most people avoid the use of encryption technology because encryption raises a dangerous question in official eyes-what do you have to hide? Recently, however, Mulvenon said he had observed more high-tech methods of enforcement, including the blocking of websites at the ISP level.
In conclusion, Mulvenon suggested that it is not pure information itself that alarms the government, but rather the organization of that information into something politically meaningful. The Internet can be a steam valve for the population, where citizens are free to vent from time to time. It is when venting turns into organized action that the government will step in. The government's strategy is aided by profitseekers hoping to benefit from China's economic development, who are willing to censor their sites in return for their operating licenses.
Benjamin Edelman focused on the technical aspects of web site blocking, which carries important practical implications for the nature of Internet filtering in China. Edelman noted that it is often quite difficult to predict which sites the Chinese firewall will block. His Berkman Center study explored the scope of the government's blocking, also known as its granularity. Previously, the government filter operated on the level of IP addresses, thus preventing access to all content hosted on a particular server, even if it objected to only one or two sentences. This practice is known as 'overblocking'. Today, the government is decreasing overblocking by denying access only to certain search terms, meaning that instead of blocking the entire New York Times on the web when one article or even one paragraph in an article is objectionable, the filter increasingly will block only that article.
For users, the increased specificity might seem an improvement, as it allows them access to content previously forbidden. The flipside, however, is that when users go to news sites, for example, they miss subtle pieces of information. More granular filters are an important step in reducing the controversy over filtering, and make it more difficult for human rights organizations to build cases against state censorship.
Edelmen also described the practical implications of the technical decision to use routers instead of proxy servers when building China's Internet infrastructure. Proxy servers were deemed ill suited to the size of the Chinese Internet, and thus the network was built with routers instead. This decision conveniently avoided another major drawback of proxy servers in terms of filtering. Proxy servers automatically provide an error page telling users that they have been denied access to a certain page when the filter kicks in. Routers, however, provide a standard error message that prevent users from knowing whether they are being blocked, or whether there is simply a technical error in the server or requested page. If the government had chosen proxy servers, people would know their requests were being blocked. The Chinese government doesn't solicit feedback as to which sites it should or should not block, as the Saudi government does, for example, perhaps because China is able to deny the existence of its filter.
Minxin Pei noted that on the one hand, the Internet had dramatically improved access to local newspapers and archives of corruption cases, both invaluable to scholars working abroad. On the other hand, because the regime wants to restrict public knowledge of incidents of worker unrest, news of demonstrations is not available online.
Several participants commented on the recent redesign of the People's Daily website. One participant claimed that the new format of the People's Daily online, more slick and polished than the old one, made access to raw information more difficult.
Another participant wondered whether the new Chinese domain registration, .cn, would be available to sites based outside of China. Mulvenon and Edelmen responded that the standards for the domain registration were still undecided.
One participant suggested that the Chinese government likely chose routers intentionally, aware of the filtering benefits they offered, and also wondered whether new filtering technology had developed a means by which to block third party access to restricted sites. Edelmen replied that while some circumvention methods are more robust than others, the filtering system remains difficult to circumvent. Edelmen also explained that it is hard to know whether regional differences exist in filtering. While rumor has it that certain cities have more strict filtering systems than others, he has yet to see "crisp" results proving that various sites are regularly accessible in some regions but not in others.
In response to questions concerning what percentage of the population might be able to access unfiltered content, Mulvenon estimated that roughly 30,000 people have unrestricted access. Some of these people telnet to Hong Kong, most work on the filter itself, and as Kalathil explained, others work at multinational corporations that can easily get around the firewall or have unrestricted access. Giving the business sector the access it needs to be successful is in line with the government's overarching ICT strategy.
Another participant asked whether the emergence of wireless Internet technology would affect the filtering situation. Edelmen replied that the information conveyed through wireless technology would likely be filterable, as its transmission would involve a wireless device connecting to a base station. This base station would serve as the central point of control in that it would have to receive a license and would thus be subject to filtering. The information would not be travelling in a "peer to peer" format, but would travel through some grounded device where filtering could occur.