China’s insane Internet policies cause for concern

By Nicholas Kristof  /  NY Times News Service, BEIJING

Sun, Jan 06, 2013 - Page 9

Want to buy illegal drugs in China? No problem — just go to the wild and woolly Internet here and order a US$50 or US$100 package of methamphetamines, ecstasy or cocaine. It will be delivered to your door within hours!

“Our company has delivery stations in every part of China,” boasts one Chinese-language Web site, with photos of illegal narcotics it sells. “We offer 24-hour delivery service to your door, and we have long-term and consistent supplies. If you just make one phone call, we’ll deliver to your hands in one to five hours.”

Another Chinese Web site offers meth wholesale for US$19,700 a kilo, or deliveries to your door of smaller quantities in hundreds of cities around China. Even in remote Anhui Province, it delivers drugs in 21 different cities.

All this is completely illegal in China, where narcotics traffickers are routinely executed. However, it does not seem to be a top government priority, because these Web sites are not even closed down or blocked. Tens of thousands of censors delete references to human rights, but they ignore countless Chinese Web sites peddling drugs, guns or prostitutes.

Does it not seem odd that China blocks Facebook, YouTube and the New York Times, but shrugs at, say, guns?

Chinese law tightly restricts gun ownership, but it takes just a few minutes of Chinese-language searching on the Internet to find commercial sites selling, say, an illegal Springfield XD-9 9mm handgun for US$1,120. Or a Type 54 semi-automatic Chinese military handgun for US$640, or rifles or many more. And that is not all.

“For prices of silencers, contact our customer service department,” the Web site advises.

(US gun enthusiasts often argue that we need firearms to protect ourselves from government. However, the situation in China suggests that what autocrats actually fear is not so much people with guns as citizens armed with information and social media accounts.)

In fairness, China is far more sane than the US about firearms. At least the Chinese authorities do not tolerate gun stores openly selling assault rifles and high-capacity magazines. I invite Chinese journalists to write about the fecklessness of US politicians who make no serious effort to reduce the toll of guns in the US.

If your interests run in more prurient directions, the Internet in China is also chockablock with sex and prostitution. GHB, better known as a date-rape drug, is widely sold with chilling descriptions.

“If she drinks this, she’ll be yours,” promises one Internet seller, describing it as “obedience liquid.”

“Only two pills will send her into a deep sleep, so that however you move her she won’t wake up. Afterward, she’ll have no memory,” another says.

The upshot is that most Chinese will not be able to access this column, but can easily go to the Web to purchase firearms or narcotics.

From afar, Westerners sometimes perceive China as rigidly controlled, but up close it sometimes seems the opposite. There are rules, but often they are loosely enforced, or negotiable.

Yet the authorities choose priority areas where they do keep the pressure on, and one is curbing information that might cause political instability. So the authorities block mainstream social media websites and, lately, the New York Times and Bloomberg, after reports about family members of Chinese leaders becoming fabulously wealthy.

It is a tribute to China’s stunning economic development that the country now has some 540 million Internet users, more than any other country. It is sad to see current leaders reverting to a tighter vision of the Internet.

“How can we develop our skills,” one Chinese friend asked me rhetorically, “if we can’t even visit some of the most popular Web sites around the world?”

Many Chinese vault over the “Great Firewall of China” to get to banned sites with a virtual private network or VPN. However, in the last month China, has rolled out new software that interferes with VPNs, even ones used by US corporations to access their internal networks.

The government is also trying to crack down on Sina Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, by making users register with their real names.

These Internet crackdowns annoy many young Chinese, who may not think much about multiparty democracy, but do want to be able to see YouTube videos.

My hope is that the new Chinese Communist Party leader, Vice President Xi Jinping (習近平), will recognize that China’s economic competitiveness and ability to fight corruption depend upon openness. Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) used to compare reform to opening a window, admitting a few flies along with fresh air. During Deng’s watch, China embraced potentially troublesome communications technologies — photocopiers, cellphones, fax machines — because they are also indispensable to modernization. So is a free Web.

So, to the new Chinese politburo, a suggestion: How about cracking down on Web sites that sell guns and drugs, while leaving alone those that traffic in ideas and information?