CHINA AND THE INTERNET CHALLENGE


In the months since last year’s Clinton-Jiang summit, the Chinese government has begun a crackdown on dissidents, arresting several key members of the first opposition party, the China Democratic Party (CDP). Recently, these and other activists have made extensive use of a new tool for disseminating their information—the Internet.

Authorities once had firm control over access to information, but the proliferation of fax machines, cell phones, and now the Internet has made this increasingly difficult. Yet such avenues of communication cannot simply be closed. Vital information can easily be obtained from such sources and is recognized as being essential in the drive to modernize the Chinese economy.

However, the Chinese government is aware that activists are using the Internet for their own purposes. A factor in CDP’s growth was its use of E-mail to publicize its platform. Members also made extensive use of a pro-democracy electronic newsletter based in Washington D.C., VIP Reference. The publication, which features articles about democracy and economic reform in China as well as updates on the activities of dissidents, is sent out to tens of thousands of E-mail addresses in China on a regular basis.

Beijing, concerned with growing use of the Internet by dissidents, is attempting to limit its scope. The government has set up a series of Internet blocks and filters to censor news contrary to official government policy. Specific websites belonging to organizations such as Amnesty International are routinely blocked. In addition, special task forces have been set up to monitor the Internet. However, the barriers are constantly being circumvented and the sheer size of available information makes it impossible for the government to check all websites. Recently computer hackers infiltrated the government’s network and defaced government-sponsored websites. As the popularity of the medium grows, the government finds it increasingly difficult to stop the spread of undesirable information.

Two recent cases illustrate the seriousness with which the Chinese government views the Internet revolution. In December, Lin Hai, a thirty-year-old computer entrepreneur, was arrested and charged with providing VIP Reference with 30,000 e-mail addresses. Although Lin maintained that he wanted merely to obtain addresses for a database for his computer business, a Shanghai court determined that his actions were politically subversive and sentenced him to two years in jail. Furthermore, the same month, CDP founder Wang Youcai got an eleven-year prison sentence for subversion. His crimes included sending E-mail to Chinese dissidents in the United States and accepting a donation of $1,000 from democracy advocate Wang Ce to buy a computer.

Beijing has also not ignored the value of the web for disseminating its own information. In addition to government-sponsored websites explaining official positions on human rights and Tibet, a site soliciting public opinion on the draft of the government’s next five-year plan was set up at the end of 1998. This is the first site of its type in China.

The Internet became publicly available in China in 1995. By the end of 1998, the government estimated that 2.1 million people were on the Net. As accounts frequently have multiple users, the number may be much higher. The government estimates that there will be five million users in 2000, and the number is likely to continue to grow as more people gain access to computers.

At the present time, however, the impact of the Internet in China is limited. Only one out of every 240 mainlanders owns a computer, and going online is prohibitively expensive for the vast majority of Chinese. Many activists, therefore, do not yet even have access to the Internet. In the future, however, the free flow of information available on the Internet may mount a major challenge to the government.


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