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The Internet and Information Control: The Case of China
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The Electronic Journal of Communication / La Revue Electronique de Communication
******* XIAOMING ******* EJC/REC Vol. 6, No. 2, 1996 *******


Hao Xiaoming
Nanyang Technological University

Kewen Zhang
University of Missouri

Huang Yu
Baptist University, Hong Kong

     Abstract.  As the history of mass communication
     has shown, the most fundamental conflict in
     communication often takes place between the
     outlook of the established authorities
     (responsible for maintaining the current order)
     and media demands for unrestricted freedom of
     expression (McQuail 1992).  Thus, new technologies
     often play a vital role in readjusting the balance
     between the established authorities on the one
     hand and the public and media on the other.  Along
     the line of such an argument, this study examined
     the potential impact of CMC on government controls
     of information in China where the government still
     keeps a rigid control over the mass media even as
     it attempts to open channels to the outside world.
     With this in mind, the authors of this paper
     explored the impact of CMC on the Chinese
     government's policy towards both the internal and
     external communications of its people.
     Specifically, it examined the following:  (1) the
     current development of CMC in China; (2)
     challenges posed by the new media technologies to
     government information control; (3) the current
     policy of the Chinese government towards on-line
     communication and its implications.


     Computer-mediated communication (CMC) is ushering in a
new era in the history of mass communication in terms of
information and culture transmission across formerly closed
or restricted national borders.  As more and more countries
link their computer networks to the Internet, CMC is quickly
expanding both the international and domestic public
spheres, through which, according to Habermas (1979), the
dissident view is registered, public opinion is formed and
eventually rational choice and/or agreement can be made
among private individuals.

     Although the corporate and technocratic promises of
Computopia _ societies based on the full potential of human
creativity and participatory democracies _ are debatable
(Wasko and Mosco 1992), advantages of these technologies in
breaking through traditional controls of information are
apparent.  Just as the invention of printing technology made
mass communication more of a reality and led to intensified
efforts by authoritarian rulers to control information, the
development of the world-wide computer networks today poses
new challenges to governments in exercising control over the
dissemination of information.

     It is true that CMC has yet to turn itself into a new
form of public sphere, considering its difficulty to meet
the requirement that all citizens be allowed to participate
with low entry cost and with equal access to information
(Habermas 1979).  Its potential in expanding the existing
public sphere by giving greater freedom to the public in
breaking through state domination of and market pressures on
mass communication to air and access dissident views should
not be underestimated.  As Sussman (1989) noted, the nature
of the new information technologies entails pluralism,
diversity and two-way interaction and thus reduces the
potential for monolithic, centralised information control
and direct or self-imposed censorship.  If "democratic
communications are the basis of any democratic culture and
political system" (Splichal and Wasko 1993, 3), we should
also expect changes in communications brought about by new
technologies to affect a country's culture and political

     As the history of mass communication has shown, the
most fundamental conflict in communication often takes place
between the outlook of the established authorities
(responsible for maintaining the current order) and media
demands for unrestricted freedom of expression (McQuail
1992).  The history of mass communication, in this sense,
has evolved around conflicts between the government and
media.  New communication technologies, providing greater
public space and new ways to break through information
controls, often lead to new rounds of conflict.  Thus, new
technologies often play a vital role in readjusting the
balance between the established authorities on the one hand
and the public and media on the other.

     Along the line of such an argument, this study examined
the potential impact of CMC on government controls of
information in China - one of the few remaining communist
countries in the world - where the authorities still want to
decide what their people should say and hear by keeping a
rigid control over the mass media.

     Although "the economic and technological revolution
promoted by Deng Xiaoping since 1978 has stripped away much
of the ideological prison in which the Chinese had lived for
three decades" (New York Times, January 4, 1994), the
Chinese Communist Party and government have never considered
giving up their ideological control over the Chinese people.
Although leaders of China today are more willing to relax
their control for the sake of the country's economic
development, they nevertheless are determined not to
"sacrifice spiritual civilisation in order to realise and
develop the socialist market economy" (Straits Times, April
13, 1994).

     With this in mind, the authors of this paper explored
the impact of CMC on the Chinese government's policy towards
both the internal and external communications of its people.
Specifically, it examined the following:  (1) the current
development of CMC in China; (2) challenges posed by the new
media technologies to government information control; (3)
the current policy of the Chinese government towards on-line
communication and its implications.

                  CMC Development in China

     Computer networks have had a relatively short but
momentous history of development, which can be traced to
ARPANET, founded in the United States in 1969 to connect
universities, the military and defence contractors.  Most
people date the true arrival of the Internet at 1983
(Gilster 1993), when the National Science Foundation began a
networking program to link its six supercomputer centres to
the scientific community with TCP/IP (Transmission Control
Protocol/Internet Protocol).  This marked the start of what
we know today as the Internet, which is actually "an
internetwork of many networks all running the TCP/IP
protocol suite ... connected through gateways and sharing
common names and address spaces" (Quarterman 1990).

     The pace of the Internet's growth in the 1990s is
spectacular, spreading faster than both cellular phones and
fax machines (Sterling 1993).  In June 1991, there were only
130,000 people using the Internet, but the number soon rose
to over 8 million in May 1993 and is expected to exceed 100
million in 1998 (InfoWorld, May 24, 1993).  In early 1995,
there were about 33 million Internet users in more than 100
countries (Newsweek, Feb. 27, 1995).

     The advantages of having a country connected to the
Internet are obvious.  Scientific, financial, business,
industrial, military, political and cultural information
will all be within easy reach.  As the world enters into the
Information Age, it has become more and more evident that
information is power, whether in political, military or
economic terms.  Therefore, it is not surprising that China,
which has been engaged in unprecedented efforts to overhaul
the national economy, is so anxious to upgrade its
infrastructure for information exchange.  As Chinese
Minister of Posts and Telecommunications Wu Jichuan noted,
information exchange is as important to development as the
rule of law when China tries to leapfrog its way out of
technological backwardness (Straits Times, Dec. 5, 1994b).

     China's computer information industry is currently
averaging an increase of 28 per cent annually, worth 20
billion US dollars at the end of this century.  To date,
more than two million computers are being used in offices,
management enterprises as well as families all over China;
more than 800 databanks have been set up; and there are well
over 60,000 enterprises in the information industry (Xinhua,
August 11, 1995).  According to a report released by
Microsoft Corp., China is already the seventh largest
personal computer market in the world and it is estimated
that it would overtake France in 1996 (South China Morning
Post, Dec. 24, 1995).

     China, as a large nation, appeared rather late on the
Internet map for technical reasons.  Although some Chinese
computer networks established e-mail links to the Internet
as early as the late 1980s, computer centres in the country
remained internationally isolated until 1994 when several
major computer networks began to establish direct links with
the Internet.  In May 1994, IHEP, a computer network run by
the Institute of High Energy Physics of the Chinese Academy
of Sciences (CAS) was connected to the Internet through a
64K bps line leased from AT&T (CINET-L Newsletter, May 20,
1994).  Then in July 1994, IHEP changed its satellite link
to submarine link via KEK, the National Laboratory for High
Energy Physics in Tsukuba, Japan, to Esnet in the United
States (CINET-L Newsletter, July 31, 1994).

     The IHEP link was quickly followed by other links.  The
NCFC (National Computing & Networking Facilities of China),
which began in 1989 as the first high speed network project
funded by a grant from China's State Planning Commission and
a World Bank loan, was connected to the NSFNET by a 64K bps
satellite link via Sprint International router.  NCFC, which
embraces the CASnet (Chinese Academy of Sciences Net), PUnet
(Peking University Net) and TUnet (Tsinghua University Net),
also received the country-level domain name ".CN" (CINET-L
Newsletter, Oct. 30, 1994).  Other Chinese computer networks
with an Internet link includes BUCT, a network operated by
the Beijing University of Chemical Technology; CERNET (China
Education and Research Network), a network managed by
China's State Education Commission and consisting of ten key

is the first city computer network in China; and ChinaPac
and CHINADNN, two government-run commercial networks.

     With major Chinese computer networks connected to the
Internet, paths are paved for Internet access by end users
of lower-level or independent networks throughout the
country.  At present, eight Internet providers are in place,
including the government-funded ChinaNet; China Internet
Corp.  (CIC), a commercial enterprise; and the China
Education and Research Network (CERNET) (Information Week,
October 2, 1995).  By July 1995, the number of computers in
China linked to the Internet stood at 6,000 with about
40,000 users.  By the end of 1995, the Internet service were
expected to accommodate 10,000 computers and 100,000 users.

     In general, China's Internetted computer networks can
be classified into three types:  academic, educational and
commercial.  Computer networks for academic purposes are
headed by ChinaNet with NCFC as its backbone, which

      CASnet (Chinese Academy of Science Network),
      PUnet (Peking University Network),
      TUnet (Tsinghua University Network),
      CAnet (Chinese Academic Network),
      CRNet (China Research Network),
      IHEPnet (Institute of High Energy Physics of CAS),
      SSTC (State Science and Technology Commission
      CERNet (Chinese Ecosystem Research Network),
      USTCnet (University of Science & Technology of
       China campus network),
      NFCwan (National Flood Control wide area network),
      MEFnet (China National Research Centre for Marine
       Environment Forecast),
      BSTISnet (Beijing Science & Technology Information
      IMnet (Institute of Microbiology of CAS),
      Shanghai Regional Network and Wuhan Regional

     CERNET (China Education and Research Network), which
opened its Internet link via NCFC, is China's first
nationwide education and research computer network.  The
network, which is still under development, will eventually
connect all the universities and institutes in China in the
near future, as well as secondary and elementary schools and
other education and research entities by the end of this
century.  It currently consists of a national computer
network centre, eight regional network centres and a few
university campus networks.

     In addition to the academic and educational computer
networks already in place, the Chinese government also began
an ambitious plan for a nation-wide digital data network
despite little demand for computer information exchange
systems from the public sector at present (Qin 1994).  In
October 1994, CHINADDN, the country's first nation-wide
digital data network was inaugurated.  Based on powerful
fibre-optic, digital microwave and satellite transmission
systems, this commercial network connects 21 municipalities
and provincial capitals, serving the securities and banking
industries, scientific research institutions and major
companies in the country.  The first group of users of
CHINDAA include the Bank of Communications, the Bank of
Construction, the Agricultural Bank of China, the State
Foreign Exchange Administration and the State Administration
of Taxation.  The second phase of the construction of the
network is expected to hook up an additional 300 cities in
1995 (AFP, Oct. 24, 1994).  In addition to CHINDNN, the
China Public Packet Switching Data Network (ChinaPac), whose
clients include more than 20 government ministries and
commissions and a large number of China's financial and tax
units (South China Morning Post, Dec. 24, 1995), directly
covers 688 cities, with nearly 60,000 terminals.  Founded on
these two commercial computer networks, China Internet, an
Internet service operated by the China Internet Corp. was
officially opened to the public in April 1995, giving the
public direct access to the Internet (Xinhua, March 28,
1995).  In November 1995, China signed a comprehensive deal
with Cisco Systems, a Dallas-based firm, to provide Internet
access in all its 30 provinces and regions through ChinaNet
(Apple Daily, Dec. 12, 1995).  It is predicted that the
number of individuals with access to the Internet would rise
by ten times before the end of 1997 (Far East Economic
Review, July 27, 1995).

     Although only a limited number of China's computer
centres are actually linked to the Internet at the moment, a
dramatic increase in the number of Chinese users of the
Internet could be foreseen thanks to the expansion plans of
these nation-wide networks.  Of these nation-wide networks,
CHINADDN will perhaps see the largest growth since the
Chinese government has made it a priority to build eight
information projects between 1996 and 2000 covered by the
country's Ninth Five-Year Construction Plan (CINET-L
Newsletter, July 3, 1995).  The eight projects include:

    The Golden Bridge Project, a nation-wide public
     economic information processing network;
    The Golden Customs Project, a foreign trade
     information sources network;
    The Golden Card Project, an electronic monetary and
     modern payment system;
    The Golden Taxation Project, an electronic taxation
    The Golden Enterprises Projects, an industrial
     production and circulation information network;
    The Golden Agriculture Project, an agricultural
     comprehensive management and service information
    The Golden Intellectual Project, an educational and
     scientific research computer network and human
     resource system;
    The Golden Policy Project, a national economic
     micro-policy making support system.

     Four out of the eight projects mentioned above - the
Golden Bridge, Golden Card, Golden Custom and Golden
Enterprise - are already under construction.  By the end of
1995, the Golden Bridge Project had set up 24 ground
satellite stations in 22 provinces and municipalities for
networking purpose (Hong Kong Economic Journal, Jan. 4,
1996).  In addition, the Chinese Ministry of Public Health
also started a project to link the country's health
administration departments, hospitals and medical education
and research institutions.  The project, known as Golden
Health, was expected to link up 20 large hospitals and help
install health card systems by the end of 1995 (Xinhua, May
23, 1995).

                New Challenges Posed by CMC

     Technologies affect of human life even though their
invention may originally target only at changing ways of
doing things.  This is especially true for information
technologies, which often result in changes which are never
part of the intention of their inventors.  As McQuail (1992)

     The period from the invention of printing until
     the mid-seventieth century saw an extensive
     challengeto, and the fragmentation of, the
     "communication order" ...  During the sixteenth
     century, printing also became a minor industry and
     its product a significant item of commerce.  These
     activities generate a set of much-contested (thus
     internally inconsistent) principles and practices
     concerning communication, especially:  individual
     rights to publish; the rights of self-governing
     communities of like-minded believers to control
     the communication of their own membership;
     tolerance for differences of belief; the licensing
     of printers and their accountability for the views
     and opinions which they publish; the commercial
     tradability of cultural or scientific works; the
     issue of censorship or other forms of control.

     Among things said about the development of new
information technologies, there is a popular vision of the
average citizen empowered by computer technology, able to
communicate honestly and directly, challenging established
power and planning political actions that advance democracy
(Wasko and Mosco 1992).  If Gutenberg's Bible weakened the
power of the church by passing the holy script to ordinary
people for their own interpretation, connection to the
Internet may also open a Pandora's Box for China, where the
government relies on information control to maintain its
legitimacy and authority.

     Ever since the Communist Party came to power in 1949,
it has successfully used its control of the mass media as
the bottle neck to manipulate information flow in and out of
the country.  Mass media, tamed by the government through
direct control and punishment against erring journalists,
see themselves as "eyes, ears and the mouthpiece" of the
Communist Party.[2]

     Remarkable progress has been made in the freedom of
press in China since the start of its modern reforms in
1978.  The market forces, the increasing public demand for
information access and the Communist Party's promise to have
a more open government, have brought about unprecedented
changes in the Chinese media.  These changes can be
demonstrated by the Party's recognition of the media's roles
in providing information and entertainment, open discussion
of press freedom and the media's supervision of the Party
and the government (Chu 1994).  Despite all these welcome
changes, the question of freedom of information and of the
press remains the "Achilles' heel" of the regime's
commitment to the Marxist doctrine.  Freedom of information
and of the press, as Party general secretary Jiang Zemin
noted, is merely a slogan used by "bourgeois liberals" to
battle against the Party and people (People's Daily, March
2, 1990).  The Party's determination to continue its
information control was clearly stated in a circular issued
by its Central Committee:  Newspapers and journals of the
Party, radio and television broadcasting stations of the
state as well as other relevant publications are mouthpiece
of the Party and people.  They must unconditionally
propagate the guidelines, policies and regulations of the
Party and government under the leadership of the Party (CPC
Central Committee 1987).

     The unrest of 1989, which started with student
protests, led the Party to reaffirm its control by drafting
various policies and regulations against unwanted
information and replacing untrustworthy journalists.  The
renewed fervour for a market economy following Deng
Xiaoping's endorsement for further reform in 1992 has forced
the Party and government to give more leeway to the media in
running their business, but the Party's control of the
nation's information flow through monitoring the media, has
never been seriously challenged.  The media still remains
the most important tool for the Party to manipulate public
opinion for support.  For example, a joint circular issued
by the Communist Party Central Committee and the State
Council at the end of 1994 announced a ban on all new
printing houses and audio-visual production lines for the
next two years, as part of a major crackdown on pornography
and political suspect publications (Straits Times, Dec. 5,

     In addition to exercising tight control of the domestic
media, the Chinese government also has tried to ensure the
ideological purity of its people by cutting them off from
any possible contact with undesirable information.  For a
long time after the Communists took power in China, foreign
publications and broadcast programs, except for a limited
number approved by the government, were banned in China.  At
the height of the cultural revolution, people possessing
banned publications or listening to "enemy stations,"
including Radio Moscow and Taiwan radio stations,[3] were
prosecuted as counter-revolutionaries.  As a result, China
was isolated not only politically and economically but also
in terms of information access during that period.  Although
such prosecution has virtually come to a stop since the end
of the Cultural Revolution, the government ban against
importing foreign publications without its approval and
on-and-off interference of hostile foreign broadcast have
continued.  Overseas publications are imported only for use
by foreign diplomats, business people and tourists or for
restricted circulation among academics and government
officials.  Foreign television and radio broadcasts are
allowed only in hotels for foreign tourists.[4]

     In general, however, the focus on information control
has shifted more and more from the liability of Chinese
citizens to stay away from foreign publications and
broadcast to the responsibility of government to stop the
inflow of such publications and broadcast programs.  At the
same time, the government has shown an increasingly more
tolerant attitude in this regard.

     With such a background in mind, it is not difficult to
see the potential threats the Internet may pose to the
Chinese government in information control.  What the Chinese
netters are able to get over the Internet is more than
scientific and financial information.  The wide connections
enjoyed by the Internet make it an ideal electronic forum
for diversified exchange of opinions and information.
Numerous newsletters, journals, complete volumes of books,
pictures, video and audio records are stored and exchanged
over the net.  Surfing various World Wide Web sites, one can
find virtually anything he wants or does not want.

     The Chinese government may have been successful in
preventing the Chinese media from publishing or broadcasting
anything it considers opposing the Chinese Constitution;
harming the socialist system and national security;
promoting subversion, rebellion, riots and ethnic animosity;
and instigating defiance to the leadership of the Communist
Party, but Chinese netters could easily be deluged by such
materials once they log onto the Internet.  For instance,
China's domestic media kept silent when its official news
agency Xinhua announced the arrest of Wei Jingsheng, China's
No.1 political dissident, only to the overseas media.  With
access to the Internet, Chinese netters could easily receive
the information from China News Digest or other publications
on the Internet, defeating the government's purpose of

     Chinese political dissidents, a large of number of whom
were driven out of China by the government to keep the
Chinese from hearing from them, have long been trying to
influence China's domestic politics, but have so far made
little impact on China's politics because of the censoring
of information about their activities abroad by the Chinese
media.  What better means could they have for their
propaganda than the Internet?  In addition to its own
dissidents, the Chinese government will also feel nervous
about letting Chinese netters play audience to various
political advocates, ranging from communist- haters and
human-rightists to proponents for the independence of Tibet
or Taiwan.  The pornographic materials available on the
Internet will also abort all its efforts against the
"yellow" culture.

     What is more important is that the interactivity and
ease of distribution of CMC via the Internet has blurred the
distinction between the receiver and publisher of
information.  Unlike the traditional mass media, where the
gatekeeper decides who can publish, the CMC over the
Internet allows all netters the right and power to publish
without prior censorship, bringing the practice of free
expression and free press to an unprecedented scale.  Such a
unique feature of CMC may not matter much to countries which
believe in a free press, but it will prove to be detrimental
to the Chinese government's control over information.

     Though experienced in playing the censor, the Chinese
government will find it extremely difficult, if not totally
impossible, to control what is being exchanged over the
Internet because today's new information technologies defy
censorship for a number of reasons.[5]

     First, unlike its domestic media, the sources of
undesirable information are simply beyond the reach of the
Chinese government.  Most publishers and senders of such
information operate in countries which practice an entirely
different type of freedom of speech or of the press and are
beyond the jurisdiction of the Chinese government.

     Second, the development of computer technologies has
greatly accelerated the speed of transferring electronic
information and diversified its means of delivery.  The
mobile nature of information on the Internet makes
"detrimental" information, as one expert put it, a "moving
target" (CINET-L Newsletter, April 17, 1995).  Even for
Chinese netters, the government will find it hard to gather
evidence against any involvement in sending or receiving
such detrimental information without monitoring all
information exchanges, which are too fast and too numerous
for careful scrutiny.

     Third, new technologies straddle the border between
being a mass or interpersonal medium with a convergence on
its mail function, information retrieval function, message
posting function and broadcasting function.  An
interpersonal exchange of information could easily result in
a massive broadcast.  Without a clear distinction made
between these two types of communication, law enforcement is
impossible without intruding on privacy and other personal

     Fourth, in the computer culture magnified by the
Internet, maximum freedom is celebrated.  The cyberspace
culture prescribes free speech and free flow of ideas as the
route to social and intellectual progress.  The Internet
lacks a central controlling body without whose co-operation
any attempt of control by the ruler of a single domain are
useless.  Although managers of the Chinese domain may try
censorship by closing the access of its netters to certain
sites as the Chinese networks are doing to the majority of
newsgroups, this does not prevent users from bypassing the
local service provider and accessing such censored
information via an overseas service provider through telnet,
FTP or Gopher functions.

     Fifth, the Internet's fault-proof set up resists
censorship.  A technical blockup is read by the Internet as
"damage," which will be reported as an error and elicit
automatic correction.  Dynamic re-routing ensures that if
one communication link is broken, the traffic can be
redirected through other existing links.  The Internet,
after all, was designed for military use, and the design
criteria expect fault tolerance and reliability even after a
nuclear attack (Business Times, March 27, 1995).

     Sixth, the global interconnectivity in the Information
Age complicates an individual country's efforts for law
enforcement.  In general, it is difficult to enforce
criminal laws outside of one's country under international
law.  It would be difficult to pinpoint the origin of
offending information.  Even if the origin can be
identified, it is still difficult to stop the inflow of such
information without effective control over the flow of
information from the originating country.  Corresponding
laws and their enforcement need to be in place in the
originating country as well in order for the receiving
country to carry out law enforcement or extradition
arrangements.  This means that censorship by an individual
country is almost impossible as long as there are no global
standards for censorship.

              China's Policies and Regulations

     Despite all the potential problems the Internet
connection would bring to China's political and social
systems, the Chinese government is nevertheless determined
to link the country to the global computer network.  By a
rough estimate, China still lags behind the world in
advanced electronic techniques by 15 to 20 years (South
China Morning Post, Oct. 1, 1995).  A delay in linking up
the country with the global computer network would only
further enlarge such a gap.

     While eager to link China's computer networks with the
Internet, the Chinese government has never wavered in its
determination to maintain its control over information and
extend its censorship policy to communication over the
Internet.  As Chinese Minister of Posts and
Telecommunication, Wu Jichuan, said "by linking with the
Internet, we don't mean absolute freedom of information."
He explained that China would adopt "management measures" to
make sure that only acceptable information gets through to
its people (South China Morning Post, Oct. 1, 1995).  A
participant of the Chinese Ministry of Posts and
Telecommunication at a meeting of the Internet Society in
Hawaii in June 1995 also revealed that China was planning to
block access to objectionable information (Leonard 1995).

     Although specific regulations regarding the use of
Internet are yet to be announced, existing regulations
regarding computer information systems can apply to the
Internet services too.  The Regulations on Safeguarding
Computer Information Systems issued by the Chinese
government in February 1994 (Xinhua, Feb. 23, 1994) could be
cited as an example.  Although the regulations focus on
protecting computer information systems and classified
information, several provisions can easily be applied to
Internet users.  Among other things, the regulations provide
in Article 7 that "no organisation or individual may use
computer information systems to engage in activities that
endanger national or collective interests, as well as the
legitimate interests of citizens."  Such an all-embracing
rule can cover all the Chinese netters.  In addition,
Article 12 stipulates that "individuals who ship, bring, or
mail computer information media into or out of the country
shall file truthful declarations with the customs
authorities."  Such a rule will affect all Chinese netters
who wish to download electronic publications over the
Internet and even those who send or receive personal
electronic mail messages, though whether reading such
publications over the net should be considered bringing them
into the country is debatable.  Much will be subject to the
deliberation of the authority in charge.  What will perhaps
prove to be most scary for the Chinese netters is that the
regulations put the authority of enforcement of the rules
into the hands of the public security and state security
organs, with which no Chinese in their right mind wants to
get involved.

     Another set of regulations that may affect Chinese
netters is that on electronic publications.  According to a
directive from China's Press and Publications Administration
(PPA), electronic publications must be produced by approved
publishing houses with an assigned book number, or imported
with authorisation by the PPA before they can be
distributed, sold, or rented on the market.  Starting on
April 1, 1995, all new and reprinted electronic publications
must bear an assigned standard Chinese book number of six
digits.  Although these regulations may not directly affect
on-line materials yet, the government official who announced
the directive was quoted as saying "we will certainly
regulate on-line publications in the future" (CINET-L
Newsletter, March 31, 1995).

     Another means for the government to ensure censorship
lies in its control over Internet service providers in the
same way as it controls the mass media in China.  Computer
network operators work as censors and gatekeepers in the
same way as journalists do by keeping certain information
out of the reach of Chinese netters, despite the fact that
such censorship could be technically by-passed anyway.  The
China Internet Corp., China's largest commercial Internet
service provider, announced recently that the company's
network will bar any "smut, politics or decadent Western
culture.  By eliminating these things not related to
business, we will make better use of the Internet, as
resources will be at a lower cost."  The government-run
ChinaNet is also censoring information that traverses its
access lines according to Wu Jichuan, Minister of Post and
Telecommunications, who noted that "as a sovereign state,
China will exercise control over this information"
(Information Week, Oct. 2, 1995).  In addition, Chinese
netters are also warned for "proper use" of the net by
service providers.  For example, the State Information
Centre warns users of its network in the application form
that they will be held responsible for inaccurate and
illegal information posted on the net (Min 1996).  There is
enough evidence to show that such tactics do work in China
where the Internet surfers are either technically not
sophisticated enough to bypass censors or afraid to do so.
According to a Newsweek (Feb. 27, 1995) report, when
Washington and Beijing got into a nasty dispute over trade,
no one in China logged onto the VOA Internet service for an
entire week.  The next week, with the trade issue under
negotiation, they came back on-line.

     Realising the technical impossibility of completely
censoring all undesirable information over the Internet, the
government also employs the most traditional means of
censorship - limiting the public access, by granting such
access only to people who not only need to use the Internet
for government-approved purposes but are also politically
reliable and manageable.  When e-mail link was first
established between the Internet and China's computer
networks, access was granted only to a few hundred of the
country's top scientists and researchers.  When the Internet
becomes more accessible with direct links established
between the global computer network and China's various
computer systems, priority is given to staff of academic
institutions and government offices.  The reason for such
control is simple - government and academic institutions are
more controllable than private companies and institutions.
The effectiveness of such a measure could be seen in a case
involving the computer network of the Institute of High
Energy of Physics (IHEP), a pioneer in China's Internet
connection.  From April to June 1994, a few IHEP users
received e-mail messages discussing the 1989 crackdown of
the Chinese student protest and issues related to the
independence of Taiwan and Tibet.  Officials of the
institute were so nervous that they immediately reported the
"incident" to higher authorities, and took the occasion to
reiterate the policy against the use of computer systems for
illegal purposes (Huaxia Wenzhai 1995).

     Although public access to the Internet is officially
approved and opened in April 1995, the actual number of
independent users of the Internet service remains small.  By
the end of 1995, there were only about 10,000 Internet users
in China (China Computer News 1996).  Of the 4,000 users of
China Internet, which is the most attractive to individual
users because of its free installation and low user fees,
only 45 per cent are individual users (China Infoworld, Jan.
2, 1996).  On the one hand, the high user fees, which could
easily run into a few hundred yuan a month, keep the service
out of the reach of ordinary Chinese citizens.  On the other
hand, the state monopoly on providing Internet service
limits the on-line access.  Requests to get leased lines
from the government to make the Internet access more
available to the general public have been shelved by
government officials even though such requests are mainly
for legitimate research purposes.[6] What is ironic is that
in June 1995, two months after the Internet service was
opened to the public, the Chinese Ministry of Posts and
Telecommunications issued new regulations to restrict public
access and use of the Internet in light of increasing
undesirable access from inside China to political news and
information via the Internet by means of electronic mail,
FTP, Gopher, World Wide Web, Usenet and so on (China News
Digest, June 22, 1995).

     There is further indication that the Chinese government
is ready to crack down on the unrestricted exchange of
information over the net.  Only eight months after China
officially opened public access to the Internet, the
Communist Party and the State Council, China's cabinet,
issued a circular in December 1995, ordering the service
providers to take measures to stop "pornographic and
detrimental information" from entering the country via the
Internet (Associated Press, Dec. 31, 1996).  On January 1,
1996, Internet service providers were told that new
subscription to their service must be postponed indefinitely
and no additional permit would be granted to establish
international links (China News Digest, Jan. 16, 1996).
Three weeks later, it was announced that the State Council,
China's cabinet, approved a set of draft regulations on
access to the international computer network designed to
strengthen controls over on-line links with the outside
world (South China Morning Post, Jan. 24, 1996) The new
regulations are expected to be made law by the State Council
for implementation after some "revisions" (Hong Kong
Standard, Jan. 24, 1996).


     A paradoxical praxis of the 20th century communism lies
in its political unreformability despite its acknowledged
need for economic reforms.  The question of freedom of
information and of the press will remain a taboo in China as
long as the government does not give up its commitment to
the Marxist doctrine.  Since the political system itself
depends on the manipulation of information for survival, it
is impossible for the Chinese government to give a free rein
to the Internet penetration in China.

     In its quest for modernisation, the Chinese government
had no choice but to let the country join the global
computer networking.  Such a decision was a result of the
government's desire to catch up with the advanced countries
in scientific and economic development rather than a change
in its stand on information control to ensure the continued
leadership of the Communist Party.

     Unfortunately for the Chinese government, however, the
development of new information technologies has reached such
a stage that these technologies make it difficult to
maintain the existing level of censorship.  Although
determined to not let the Internet access destroy the
equilibrium of the Communist society, the Chinese
authorities are yet to fully realise the potential threat of
the Internet to the country's political system.  As
Microsoft Corp.  President Bill Gates said that Chinese
officials might not understand that to implement full
Internet access and maintain censorship, they would almost
have to have someone looking over the shoulder of every user
(Vittachi 1995).  The strategies and tactics that have been
traditionally used by the Chinese government in controlling
the mass media are critically challenged by the Internetted

     There is already a sense of freedom among Chinese
netters.  Unlike the traditional media, for which the
government plays the role of censor and gatekeeper, the
Internet provides an efficient and safe forum for Chinese
users to discuss politically sensitive issues and exchange
information censored by the government- controlled media.  A
lecturer from Beijing University who is accessing the
Internet through the university computer centre said:  "I am
now talking to my friends on almost everything, even
politically sensitive issues, without the worry of being
bugged.  A friend of mine communicates frequently with an
old friend who fled to the U.S. because of his involvement
in the pro-democracy movement.  A few years ago, a person
would have been in real trouble if found talking by phone to
blacklisted overseas activists" (Asia Week, Sep. 8, 1995).
As a result, the new communication revolution is likely to
affect the way information is generated, distributed and
consumed in China.  The fact that the Internet allows more
open-ended access to outside information and creates dynamic
interaction between the media and audience, poses a direct
challenge to the Communist Party's control over the
communication channels and contributes to the transformation
of China's existing communication system.

     In the face of the potential explosion of all kinds of
information, both desired and undesired, that could come as
a result of the Internet connection, the Chinese government
finds it hard to locate the bottleneck for information
control in the cyberspace.  At present, it has no choice but
to slow down the process of plunging the country into the
cyberspace by drafting new laws and regulations, controlling
the Internet service providers and limiting public access
until it can find a right balance between control and
access.  Such actions, however, defeat the very purpose of
connecting China to the global information network because
it also hampers the flow of desirable information in and out
of the country.

     All signs seem to indicate that the Chinese government
is determined not to let the Internet connection destroy its
controls over what the Chinese people should hear and see,
to say less about what they want to say and show.  At the
same time, Chinese leaders also seem genuinely concerned
about the possibility that China would further lag behind in
scientific and economic development if it is left out of the
cyberspace.  But the questions is:  Can they have their cake
and eat it, too?

     While it cannot be denied that the Internet connection
will greatly challenge the Chinese government's control of
information and media, it must be acknowledged that the
Internet connection is unlikely to produce fundamental
changes in China's political system or media system in the
foreseeable future.  On the one hand, the environment for
drastic political changes in China is no longer present.
The government high-handed policy towards political dissent
and the lures of the market economy have made the Chinese
people less politically active and more materialistic than
they were in 1989.  On the other hand, the role of the
Internet in promoting the public sphere for the Chinese
society is limited by at least two factors.

     First, access to the Internet is unequally distributed
due to government restrictions as well as its high cost and
technical know-how required.  As a result, the Internet is
mainly used by government officials, scientists and
businessmen mainly for financial and scientific purposes.
The number of net users in China no doubt will rise
dramatically by the end of this century, but it will take
much longer before CMC is able to pass from its current
elite stage to the mass stage.  Without massive
participation in the electronic communication over the net,
it is impossible for CMC to replace the governmentcontrolled
mass media as a major source of information despite its
advantages in freedom of information and free exchange of

     Second, the fact that communication over the net is
mainly conducted in the English language because of the
Western dominance also keeps out a large number of potential
Chinese users and limits the role that Chinese users could
play in the international exchange of information.  Although
more and more Chinese can communicate in English today, the
number of those who can effectively use the language to
communicate over the net is still limited.  At the same
time, net communication in the Chinese language is not as
convenient and restricts net activities to communication
among China's netters themselves or with Chinese living

     Because of the elite nature of net communication in
China, CMC is unlikely to produce any fundamental changes in
China's political and communication systems in the near
future although it will help to expand and diversify the
country's communication structures.  In addition, the
Internet access may also further enlarge the gap between the
information rich and information poor in the country.  With
the elite having greater access to information and thus
bigger profile in the public sphere, it may make it even
more difficult to achieve the goal of participatory
democracy on a massive scale.


     [1].  Source:

     [2].  Hu Yaobang, former general secretary of the
Communist Party, emphasised this in a speech delivered to
the Communist Party Central Committee Secretariat, February
8, 1985.  It was printed in People's Daily on April 14 the
same year.  Jiang Zemin, current general secretary of the
Communist Party, reiterated the idea in an article printed
in the Chinese Journalism Yearbook (Beijing:  Chinese Social
Science Press, 1990).

     [3].  Some of the radio programs considered hostile to
China, such as Voice of America, could not be received in
China because of government interference of their signals

     [4].  For various government regulations and decrees
against the import of foreign publications and broadcast
programs, see Press Laws and Regulations (Beijing:  Study
Publishing House, 1994).

     [5].  Some of the reasons were proposed by Ang Peng Hwa
in a paper entitled "Control and Censorship in the
Information Age:  A Singapore Perspective," presented at a
workshop on Chances and Risks of the Information Society:
Its Social and Economic Effects in Europe and Southeast
Asia, in Singapore, September 18-20, 1995.

     [6].  See Li Lailai's story in Christian Science
Monitor, April 13, 1995.


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Author Information:

Hao Xiaoming is lecturer at the School of Communication
Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Nanyang Avenue,
Singapore 639798, Kewen Zhang is a
Ph.D. candidate at the Journalism School, University of
Missouri.  Huang Yu is lecturer in Journalism Department,
Baptist University, Hong Kong.
                      Copyright 1996
   Communication Institute for Online Scholarship, Inc.

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