Sat, Nov 20, 2004 - Page 9 News List

The Great Firewall of China

Rumor has it that 30,000 police officers are forever vigilant against Chinese Web surfers trying to access forbidden sites, such as the BBC's. Or is this just elaborate disinformation to trick people into self-censorship?

By Tania Branigan  /  THE GUARDIAN , Shanghai

ILLUSTRATION MOUNTAIN PEOPLE

You fight your way through a hectic discount store, slip through a back door and climb three flights of stairs to a dingy hallway. Down a tangle of corridors is a grim little room, illuminated by a small window and a single fluorescent tube. It's 10am but already about 20 men and boys are hunched over the smeared screens and tacky keyboards.

More than 20 million people in China depend on cafes like this one in central Shanghai to use the Internet. But access comes at a price far higher than the two or three yuan (less than US$0.40) charged for an hour's session.

The seedy, illicit air of this cafe belies the fact that these venues are under official scrutiny. All customers must register with identity documents, ensuring that the country's Internet police force -- alleged to be 30,000-strong -- can track them down easily. The government has also ensured that cafes install local filters to reinforce the nationwide censorship system dubbed "the Great Firewall of China."

Shanghai, which has the highest level of Internet usage in the country, is subject to additional controls, which might be extended.

Since June, it has been compulsory for cafes to install a video camera and software that detects any attempt to browse a banned site, then automatically informs government supervisors.

If you try to access the BBC, for instance, you're told that the server is not available. Type in the name of Louisa Lim, its Beijing correspondent, and the search engine will return results for her stories -- but will refuse to let you have access.

Only last week, the government's China Internet Network Information Center reported that inspectors had visited 1.8 million cafes in a six-month crackdown, closing down 18,000 temporarily and 1,600 for good. Beijing says it is concerned about young people accessing pornographic or violent sites. Human rights groups say that it is trying to silence critics.

Logging on at home is not necessarily safer. Individuals are being arrested and detained for lengthy periods, often without trial, for disseminating information judged to be seditious via the Internet. A report issued earlier this year by Reporters Without Borders noted that at least 61 "cyberdissidents" were in prison.

Others have been detained for "spreading rumors" -- eg, comments on the government's handling of the SARS crisis -- via text messages.

This is a tiny number, when you consider that by the end of the year China will have 111 million Internet users (making it the largest online community in the world after the US), but such repression does serve to crystallize arguments about how economic development will affect social and political life in China.

The rosy-eyed view of many western theorists in the 1980s and 1990s was that introducing market forces would automatically lead to radical political change. Businesses would be unable to prosper without an unhindered flow of information and the rule of law (that is, an independent legal framework in place of an elaborate legal code that could nonetheless be amended at the whim of officeholders.) This would in turn lead to representative government.

The development of the Internet could be seen as a microcosm of this; former US president Bill Clinton described it as a harbinger of democracy. Optimists believed that Beijing could not control it and that Chinese citizens, discovering free information sources, would acquire an irresistible taste for openness and political assertion.

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