Reprinted with permission from Dangerous Assignments, Summer 2000. A publication of The Committee To Protect Journalists.

Several c-words were tossed around during the "content" panel of a recent conference on the Internet in China. "Consumers" was one. "Click-throughs" was another. "Censorship," however, was not.

Oh, it was paid fleeting lip-service by the corporate executives and mainland dot-com hopefuls who had descended on Boston for a marathon weekend of frenzied networking. But each time it was muttered, a strange chill seemed to cut through the pleasantly hot air and put people off their card-swapping. Amid the weak grins and general demurrals, one sentiment permeated the hall: censorship hadn?t been a big problem so far, and frankly, why worry about it when regulations were still murky as ever?

Censorship aside, vapid content may be the most serious threat to independent journalism in Jiang Zemin?s China.

If this represents, as the conference title boldly announced, the future of the Internet in China, Jiang Zemin?s government faces less of a headache than it may have originally feared. High-level cadres no doubt worried that the Internet might lend new powers of communication and organization to the swelling ranks of China?s disenfranchised, from ostracized academics to unemployed laborers. It might provide access to unregulated information, both from inside and outside China. It might even, heaven forbid, help create a public sphere of dangerously democratic ideas in which the directives of the central government might be overlooked, and perhaps even overturned.

The China trade

Or it might not. Although both foreign and local e-commerce pioneers are falling all over themselves to establish footholds in China?s Internet-content industry, the actual content of said content seems almost secondary, a pleasant layer of padding between business model and consumers. Even the most reactionary cadre could hardly be threatened by a ragout of entertainment, sports and other "lifestyle" news, blended skillfully with glossy advertising and a dash of consumer research. So while global attention increasingly focuses on the strong-arm tactics that authoritarian governments are using to restrict information on the Internet, one must wonder if punitive measures will prove all that necessary in China.

This is not to say that all or even a majority of portals in China are practicing that insidious form of self-censorship known as "cracking the China market." But there are certainly precedents for this type of behavior. Witness how large media corporations such as Rupert Murdoch?s STAR TV have gone about wooing China?s 2.6 billion eyeballs. In 1993, Murdoch claimed that satellite broadcasting would make it possible for citizens of closed societies to bypass state-controlled information channels. Just three years later, STAR dropped BBC programming from its China broadcasts, reportedly in deference to Communist Party anxieties about the risks of exposing Chinese citizens to critical coverage of their own society.

Chinese-language commercial sites are now proliferating on the Internet; some industry observers put the total number of domestic sites at 10,000 and growing daily. A Chinese Web surfer can find plenty of information on his favorite soccer team at, participate in on-line gaming at, or track current events on any number of portals?although news on domestic commercial sites tends to come from official sources. Lonely netizens can even visit lifestyle site, which features a singles chat room offering a menu of online identities with which to attract romantic partners. Naturally, the site?s owner analyzes these choices and packages them into consumer data for sale to corporate clients.

Hold the anarchy, please

Significantly, the rush toward e-commerce is happening as the government expands and fine-tunes its system of filtering information flow over the Internet. Web page content is not the only aspect of the Internet that China seeks to control: measures to regulate email, chat room participation and the publishing sector in general all show that the government is hardly complacent about the information revolution taking place both inside and outside the country. In fact, even as the Communist Party encourages new technologies as a stepping stone to economic development, it continues to maintain a firm grip on their "healthy and orderly development," to borrow a favorite expression.

In late April, for instance, China?s State Council Information Office established the Internet Propaganda Administrative Bureau, an organ responsible for "guiding and coordinating" the news content of Chinese Web sites, according to the China Information News. Among other responsibilities, the bureau will reportedly be ensuring a "healthy direction" for the dissemination of China?s online news.

Earlier in the year, the State Council announced that commercial Internet Content Providers (ICPs) would need to obtain operating licenses from the Ministry of Information Industry, as well as approval from their local branch of the State Council. Such measures were necessary to guarantee "reliability" of news and provide "correct guidance" for readers, the State Council explained helpfully. Meanwhile, foreign investment in ICPs remains prohibited, if under somewhat amorphous rules.

Chat rooms and the use of e-mail are also subject to haphazard codes and crackdowns. Democracy activist Wu Yilong received an 11-year sentence for using the Internet to publish articles on the China Democracy Party, as well as using e-mail to contact pro-democracy organizations outside the country. Lin Hai, a Shanghai software engineer who sent thousands of Chinese e-mail addresses to a pro-democracy Internet journal in the U.S., was imprisoned last year and subsequently released. Chat rooms on Chinese sites are regularly monitored to ensure that incendiary observations and/or vaguely-defined "state secrets" either don?t make it online or have very limited shelf life.

Hard choices

Such overtly political Internet use has attracted the lion?s share of overseas attention so far. At the same time, it may not represent how most ordinary Chinese would choose to use the Internet. And it would be facile to assume that access to harder news and more objective information on the Internet will automatically deliver democracy and human rights. Nonetheless, because the Internet in China is still in its infancy, any self-policing approach taken by those at the forefront of the medium?s evolution?i.e., the developers of commercial mass-targeted websites?should be taken seriously.

In the U.S., with its established, independent press, concern is mounting over the blurring of editorial and advertising content on the Internet. In China, which has a fettered local press and few alternative media, similar trends deserve close attention. That?s not to say that soft news has no place on the Internet. China?s burgeoning consumer class will eventually demand all the beauty tips, restaurant reviews, and celebrity gossip their browsers can handle. But a dearth of alternatives will certainly not be in the best interests of China?s netizens in the long run, nor of those who seek to sell to them.

Shanthi Kalathil is an associate with the Project on the Information Revolution and World Politics at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The views expressed in this article are her own.

Back to Shanthi Kalathil's homepage.