Beijing is Losing the People’s War in Cyberspace

While Beijing spends hundreds of millions of dollars installing surveillance equipment to restrict access to “harmful” information, an emerging civil society is gaining more and more freedom. To this increasingly demanding and sophisticated public, it's a choice between hearing rumors on the street and “going on the web,” and they increasingly choose the latter. Moreover, the growing abundance of domestic and international information sources makes government censorship almost impossible. During the SARS crisis, authorities tried to conceal the pandemic, but millions of Chinese simply turned to their computers and cell phones to access domestic and global sources of information. Despite its stepped-up effort to restrict the flow of information, Beijing seems to be fighting a losing battle against a populace hungry for news and free discussion. - YaleGlobal

Beijing is Losing the People's War in Cyberspace

Sheer volume of people taking to the Web to discuss taboo subjects is overwhelming the government
John Gittings
Monday, July 21, 2003
Old style surveillance of a new threat: Savvy Chinese beat the censors. (Photo:

LONDON: The SARS crisis in China has provided intriguing new evidence on how the use of modern communications - particularly internet and mobile technology - can be used to break down the walls of official secrecy. When Beijing sought this spring to conceal the spread of the virus, millions of Chinese turned to their keyboards and cell phones to access banned foreign reports and censored domestic information. Internet traffic rose by 40 per cent, and cell phone traffic by 30 per cent. The government was forced to issue regulations banning "rumors about SARS" being circulated by short text messages, but to no effect. As the Caijing (Finance) magazine commented later, the choice was between "listening to backstreet gossip or going on the web."


It was the latest round in an ongoing struggle between a long-entrenched regime and a newly-emerging civil society for freedom of electronic information which has intensified in the last two years. The state apparatus has won some heavy-handed victories. More than twenty journalists and civil rights campaigners have been detained on charges such as "using the internet to subvert state power." Several have been given jail sentences of up to ten years. Dozens of foreign websites are routinely blocked to anyone attempting to access them through a Chinese server. Discussion groups and news forums are filtered and cleansed of "inappropriate" material. Some experts calculate that Beijing spent US$200 million last year on new surveillance equipment.


Yet a relatively unfettered traffic in electronic news and comment continues to grow at a pace which no amount of technology can control. Most users observe some common-sense principles of self-censorship: no one is going to criticize a Party leader by name or defend the banned Falun Gong sect. There is however a mass of information and discussion on sensitive social issues such as the widening gap between rich and poor, official corruption, discrimination against migrant workers, and HIV-AIDS. (The volume of such material is now too abundant to be easily monitored). Many of the arguments openly made would in the past have been denounced as "counter-revolutionary" or "poisonous weeds." Some are copied from overseas websites run by dissident Chinese to which direct access is banned, but the majority reflect a growing freedom of indigenous debate.


Two notable examples in the past year are the Nongyou (Farmer's Friend) and the Aizhi (HIV-AIDS knowledge) sites. Nongyou was set up by Li Changping, a former local rural cadre in Hubei province who became known nationally for denouncing the high level of illegal taxes levied on most Chinese peasants. Mr. Li wrote an open letter on the subject to Premier Zhu Rongji, later expanded into book form, and resigned from government service. Current postings on Nongyou include an essay on the "high suicide rate of rural women" by a university researcher - still too sensitive a subject for most official media. Other contributions call for more resources to be invested in the countryside and defend the rights of migrant workers. The majority are written by mainland contributors but the site also carries a three-part polemic, which accuses Beijing of betraying China's farmers, from the US-based Asia Democracy Forum - itself blocked by the censors. In addition, Nongyou provides space for individuals claiming to have been victimized by local governments to post appeals for help and information. Typically, they complain of being beaten up or imprisoned after protesting at local corruption or high taxes.


The Aizhi site, founded by HIV-AIDS activist Wan Yanhai, operates in a politically higher-risk field but has so far survived harassment including the temporary arrest of Mr. Wan last year. It is best known abroad for championing the cause of the unfortunate peasants in Henan province who were infected with the HIV virus by commercial blood collectors. Aizhi has incurred official wrath by publishing evidence of the connivance of the provincial health authorities. Members of Aizhi's free list receive regular updates on the HIV-AIDS crisis which often challenge or rebut government claims that the crisis is under control. A recent message exposed a police action against local protestors in Henan's Xiongqiao village where 200 out of the 500 population have the virus and 30 have already died.


Material from Nongyou and other social action websites is often passed on by individual emails or posted on bulletin boards. There is also a crossover of material between these sites and a handful of adventurous print newspapers such as the Nanfang Zhoumo (Southern Weekend). In a recent example, protests at the death in custody of Sun Zhigang, a young man held by the police in Guangzhou, were picked up by newspapers after circulating widely on the web. Material also flows freely between the social action groups and a number of academic sites such as Xue er Si (Study and Thought), run by Yang Zhizhu, a Beijing law professor (Yang organized the online petition calling for justice in the Sun Zhigang case). These in turn have informal links with sites outside the mainland, such as the 21st Century online magazine run from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and some more radical sites in the US.


The result is a continuum of argument and dissent, from the most cautious to the most outspoken, which transcends China's national borders. Current issues now being widely debated include China's extensive use of the death penalty, the alienation of the Chinese intellectual, and the government's mishandling of the SARS crisis. In a recent contribution to the SARS debate, a contributor to the Si yu Wen (Thought and Culture) site of the East China Normal University has criticized the government for using "old tactics to fight a new enemy." At first it suppressed the news of the spread of SARS, then it allowed "positive" reporting on a limited scale, and finally sought to rally the nation with empty rhetoric on "the battle against SARS" - as if it were an old-style "struggle against the class enemy."


China's web censors devote most of their effort to blocking access to foreign-based human rights and dissident sites which can be labeled clearly as "anti-Chinese," such as the New York-based Human Rights in China or China Spring publications. Even these controls are often patchy: a leading Western pro-Tibet independence site operates under two URLs, only one of which is blocked by Beijing.


The controls on foreign media vary in intensity: some, including the Washington Post and Reuters, were "liberated" last year, but audio links to the BBC and VOA Chinese-language broadcasts are still rigorously blocked. Considerable effort goes into barring access to "proxy servers" that can be used to mask entry to forbidden sites. Use of the Google search engine "cache" facility for the same purpose has also been blocked. The censor's technology includes key word recognition which, for example, prevents anyone from searching for the phrase "Falun Gong" (except on official government websites). An article by this correspondent referring to the "butcher of Beijing" (former premier Li Peng) was blocked within two hours of appearing in the online edition of The Guardian (UK).


These blocking actions are no doubt reported to higher authorities as evidence of success in the struggle against "poisonous weeds" - and will help justify claims for a higher budget. The operation is run by the Ministry of State Security and is an embarrassment to the Chinese foreign ministry which refuses to admit that it exists. Although an intensely irritating form of censorship (especially for foreign correspondents based in China), it is an increasingly futile exercise as far as the Chinese people are concerned. The government is engaged in a losing battle against a news-hungry and increasingly sophisticated people who are finding creative ways to get past the high-tech word-based filters. Chairman Mao was right when he said that the course of battle was determined not by machines but people.

John Gittings is China specialist at The Guardian (UK) and was based till recently in Hong Kong and Shanghai. He first visited the mainland in 1971 and his latest book is “China Through the Sliding Door” (Simon and Schuster, 2000).

© 2003 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization