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Mixed Messages

July 27, 2001

Internet fever, state control and the hunger for free information


Since the Internet arrived in China in 1987, the authorities in Beijing have issued at least 60 sets of regulations aimed at controlling how today’s 22 million users use the medium and what they read on it. But how do controls work in practice? Is China protected by a “great firewall,” or is the attempt by the Chinese leadership to regulate the Internet, in the words of former US President Bill Clinton, like trying to “nail Jello to the wall”? Monitors of China’s Internet have mixed views, writes JAN VAN DER MADE.


The Feiyu Internet cafe is just to the right of the south entrance of Beijing University in Haidian District, the bustling area renowned for its computer shops. Feiyu is among the largest of China’s cyber cafe with some 800 computer units lined up in interconnecting rooms. Newcomers have to wait a while before they can surf the Web: all of the work stations seem to be permanently occupied by their mostly young users.

When one unit becomes available, an attendant shows the customer how to operate it, and places a small sign on top of the computer. This indicates the starting time, and customers take it to the cashier after they have finished their Web surfing. “Dear guest,” the small print on the sign reads, “Please refrain from downloading Web sites with violent, pornographic or reactionary (fandong) content.”

Reactionary? The Feiyu homepage ( gives some guidance on what this means. There are links to the major Internet regulations Chinese authorities have issued over the years. “It basically means, don’t talk about promoting the independence of Taiwan or Tibet. Don’t say that you support Falungong. Don’t attack the government or the Communist Party,” explains one older user, who comes down to the cafe almost daily to check his e-mail. And if you do? “We have the capability and authority to check anything people download and read,” explains one of Feiyu’s managers.

Personnel of the cafe routinely check screens by walking by the 800-plus computer units and reading over the shoulders of the clients. “We have the authority to detain a perpetrator and take him to the local police station,” explains a manager of Feiyu. But, he adds, “That’s bad for business.” Internet cafe are regulated by the stipulations of the police and those of local Bureaux of Industry and Commerce. But the obligation to report Web “criminals” is generally ignored. “In practice we just tell the frivolous user to switch to another Web site, and don’t take any action,” the manager admitted.

At the end of last year, police authorities, evidently dissatisfied with such lax attitudes, raided the Feiyu. “A random inspection by the local Haidian Public Security Bureau found that 56 screens of a total 860 computers hooked to the Internet were displaying pages which are ‘obscene and filthy’,” reported the China Daily. The cafe was fined 10,000 yuan and ordered to straighten out its “irregularities” the same day. Business went on as usual, but police controls of Internet cafe were far from over.

On April 10, the State Council announced a three-month investigation into Internet cafes, or “wang ba” (Web bars) as they are called in Chinese, and other public Internet service providers. A conference, jointly held by the Ministry of Information Industry, the Ministry of Public Security, the Ministry of Culture and the State Administration of Industry and Commerce, then issued an order saying that within this period, they would not approve the establishment of any new Internet cafe. The ban was accompanied by an extensive check on existing cafe nationwide during which they were obliged to re-register.

According to “incomplete statistics” on the campaign, reported by the Legal Daily on June 14, 2001, more than 40,000 police investigated more than 56,800 Web bars. As a result, 6,071 were ordered to disconnect their links to the Internet, and 1,943 cafe were closed down. Special measures were taken in some provinces. Police in Liaoning installed software in 13,500 computers in the province’s 5,000 Web bars to “carry out real-time development management in ‘net bars’ and automatically filter pornographic, illicit and other harmful information.” The raids were carried out “in order to rectify and standardize the order of the market economy,” according to the paper.


This crackdown on the cyber cafe reflects a pattern familiar from the development of other aspects of China’s society. A new technology is introduced, people are enthusiastic and start to experiment, the government steps in and tries to regulate what it sees as the excesses. “It fits in with the general process of the politics of education and propaganda,” notes one Beijing-based researcher. “First they teach people how to read and write, then they tell them what not to read, what are the forbidden zones. And punish the ones who venture there despite the warnings.”

According to Chinese cyber lore, the Internet came to China on September 20, 1987, when researchers in charge of the Beijing-based China Academic Network (CANet) sent the first ever e-mail from China to a university in Germany. It read “Surmounting the Great Wall, walking towards the world” (yueguo changcheng, zouxiang shijie). National university networks then started to link up with government computer networks, and slowly, a Chinese intranet came into being. In 1994, more than 30 research institutes in China established Internet links with two universities in the United States In May 1995, the Chinese Internet became commercially available to the wider public.

“Internet users in China are predominantly male, young and with college or higher level of education,” says researcher Jack Linchuan Qiu of today’s users, in a study called “Virtual Censorship in China: Keeping the Gate Between the Cyberspaces.”
[] “Their average income is nearly twice as much as that of the non-users. And geographically, they are highly concentrated in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangdong Province, the relatively more developed regions of the nation. Such a distribution of user demographics is not surprising because, in China as in other developing countries, educated young males in large cities are more likely than others to acquire computer facilities and technological know-how, both essential for Internet access.”

Vincent Brossel of the Asia-Pacific desk of the Paris-based Reporters Sans Fronti□es, one of the NGOs monitoring the Internet in China, argues that although the Internet has increased the information available to the public, this does not mean censorship has disappeared. “It is true that it is a freer medium. Television and radio are more controlled,” he said. “Now it is easier for Chinese people to get connected. But you can control the Internet from the inside—this is the world of the ‘big nannies,’ people who check and censor chatrooms and bulletin boards inside the companies who provide them. And it is possible to control it from the outside, too. That’s the role of special departments within the police. They check frequently. They check the providers and look who the users are. They understand how to control it.”


In 1994, even before the Internet went commercial, the State Council issued the PRC Regulations for the Safety Protection of Computer Information Systems which gave the Ministry of Public Security (MPS) overall powers of supervision over the Internet. According to Article 17 of the Regulations, the MPS is entitled to “supervise, inspect and guide the security protection work,” “investigate and prosecute illegal criminal cases” and “perform other supervisory duties.”

These rules were the foundation stone of what was to become a rapid constructed edifice of Internet regulations. In February 1996, State Council Order No. 195 on “safety and security control” of the Internet was promulgated. In the same month, the MPS issued a decree requiring that all Internet users register with a police bureau in their neighborhood 30 days after signing up with an Internet service provider (ISP). Police stations in provinces and cities followed up on this almost immediately. The regulations warn users not to “violate the constitution; instigate the overthrow of Communist Party rule,” or reveal “state secrets.”

But hardly any users obeyed police rules. A mainland-based researcher who studies the development of the Internet in China, and prefers to remain anonymous, said, “In fact, nobody really registered. Because the development was really quick. At the time, the police departments had no clue what the Internet was all about. So there was this regulation, but in fact it was never really implemented.”

Sensing the limited utility of this method, the authorities tried other techniques of control. Over the next few years, a structure was developed which aimed at making providers responsible for content. The Measures for Managing Internet Information Services, issued in September 2000, make service providers responsible for the content they display.

Key articles which may be used to curb freedom of expression are Articles 14 through 16. Article 14 says that service providers must record their subscribers’ access to the Internet, their account numbers, Web sites they visit and telephone numbers they use, and store this information for 60 days. Article 15 repeats the categories of information that are not to be made available on the Internet, repeating the prohibitions mentioned above. Article 16 then states that if material under these categories is discovered, “[The service provider] shall immediately stop the transmission, keep the relevant records and report the situation to the relevant state authorities.”

Other regulations imposing onerous responsibilities on content providers include the State Secrecy Protection Regulations for Computer Information Systems on the Internet issued by the Bureau for the Protection of State Secrets on January 25, 2000. Article 8 says that “whoever places materials on the Internet shall be held responsible for it.” Information provided to, or released on, Web sites must undergo a security inspection and approval. The regulations are meant to prevent the leaking of state secrets, but they never provide a definition of what a “state secret” is.

Violation of any of the draconian Internet regulations passed over the years can result in severe punishment. Content and service providers may face fines or closure, but users found in violation could even face the death penalty for posting certain material. Issued on December 2000, the Decision of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee on Safeguarding Internet Safety stipulates that acts of “fabricating rumors or slander,” “stealing or disclosing state secrets” and “instigating... discrimination” ... “will be prosecuted for criminal liability in accordance with relevant regulations of the criminal law.”

Article 111 of the Criminal Code, as revised in 1997, covers the offense of “stealing, prying into, purchasing or illegally providing state secrets or intelligence for institutions, organizations and individuals outside the country,” and allows for the full range of penalties, including execution. In January 2001, the Supreme People’s Court stated that those who commit this crime through the Internet may be sentenced to death, “In cases of a gross violation of law and where especially serious harm is caused to the state and people.”


As the use of the Internet continued to grow and the regulations to control it proliferated, police set up special units to check and censor Internet providers and users, and, if necessary, to arrest people. Police surveillance of the Internet showed significant increase after it became clear that members of the Falungong spiritual movement, outlawed by Beijing as “an evil cult” in late 1999, had used the Internet to organize its members.

Apart from Falungong followers, human rights organizations started to document cases of “cyber dissidents” or “Web dissidents,” people who have been sent to prison as a direct result of content they placed on the Internet.

Reporters Sans Fronti□es is among the groups monitoring this new category of political prisoners. On their Web site (, the organization has published a list of some 19 cyber dissidents. Three of them are journalists, five are regarded as “traditional dissidents,” known dissidents who use the Internet for their purposes, and the remainder were people who just wrote offending messages, and got caught.

Vincent Brossel said: “These are citizens who wanted to present a critical message and thought it was a good way to criticize the government without being found out. They were wrong.” Regulations issued late last year “made it easier for the police to arrest people,” according to Brossel. “In March and April, before the decision on [the hosting of the 2008] Olympic Games was taken, there was a wave of arrests. Some 8,000 cyber cafes were closed down.” Arrests also increase around sensitive times, such as the anniversary of the June 4, 1989, crackdown in Beijing.


The rapid rise of the Internet in China was greatly aided by the involvement of foreign companies in almost every field. IBM, Cisco Systems, Sun Microsystems and other multinationals delivered the hardware for the Internet. Chinese software companies modelling themselves on Microsoft and large international conglomerates such as Dow Jones are involved in major Chinese Internet portals—and accept the rules set by the authorities governing the medium in return for a share of the market., China’s largest Web portal, is partly supported by Dow Jones. Some of its key directors are former Western journalists, now in charge of censoring surfers and making sure they do not violate China’s draconian Internet laws.

People who want to chat in Sohu’s rooms for electronic socializing first have to pass a screen displaying the following welcome message: “The following issues are prohibited according to Chinese law: criticism of the PRC Constitution, revealing state secrets, and discussion about overthrowing the Communist government, topics which damage the reputation of the State.... spreading rumors, perpetrating and disseminating false news that promotes disorder and social instability” and “any discussion and promotion of content which PRC laws prohibit.” The warning then continues: “If you are a Chinese national and willingly choose to break these laws, is legally obliged to report you to the Public Security Bureau. Thank you for your cooperation.”

In June, AOL, the world’s biggest service provider, announced plans for a joint venture with Chinese computer maker Legend. The American company found a partner interested in the wrongs of the world: Legend maintains a Web site, called www.fm365, which has a human rights Web page. It looks like a typical Chinese portal. It has pink and purple colors, flashing advertisements and moving objects which follow the mouse arrow. There is a news section in the middle (item 2 for today was remarks by the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson on why China should not abolish the death penalty), a section on the 80th anniversary, last July, of the Chinese Communist Party, and a section on the Olympics.

There are chatrooms as well on Legend’s site. When visitors enter, they are told to “be respectful” towards each other. It then cites the December 28, 2000, Decision of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee on Safeguarding Internet Safety and they reproduces the full text, which states:

In order to maintain national security and social stability, a person who commits any of the following acts, which constitute a crime, will be prosecuted for criminal liability in accordance with relevant regulations of the criminal law.

(1) Fabricating rumors or slander, or publishing or disseminating other harmful information through the Internet to instigate subversion of state power, overthrow the socialist system, or incite the splitting of the country to damage national reunification; (2) Stealing or disclosing state secrets, information or military secrets through the Internet; (3) Instigating national hostility and discrimination through the Internet to damage national unity; (4) Organizing evil cults and contacting cult members through the Internet to damage the implementation of state law and administrative laws and regulations.

Under the link to the NPC Decision is a message saying that you also have to respect all the other “relevant laws and regulations of the PRC…” A lot to read before a visitor can start chatting.



As hopes fade for an intense acceleration in rates of Internet use around the world, with the worldwide slump in Internet business and the death of Western dotcoms, what does the future of the Internet in China look like?

A mainland-based researcher thinks that today, going online and surfing the Web is free and safe. “You can even buy a card in a shop. Like a credit card. 50, 100, 200, 300 kuai (yuan). You can put it in the hardware of the computer, and log in. If the money is finished, you switch to the card of another machine. There’s no need to register. Who can find you?”

But William Foster, author of the comprehensive study “The Diffusion of the Internet in China” [] is pessimistic: “As long as there is no major organized resistance to the state, conservative elements in the Communist Party will probably allow the expansion of the Internet. The State will find one way or another to ensure conformity on the part of both individuals and organizations. Even in the face of the potential avalanche of foreign investment, the State will find ways to stay in control even if it means using the threat of force.”

JAN VAN DER MADE is a Paris-based journalist.