Global Connections Edition
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Labor Article

Eight Things to Know About the Chinese Internet

To better appreciate these contradictions, here are eight things to know about the Chinese Internet:

1. The Chinese Internet is heavily monitored and censored.

Through its “Golden Shield Project”, or the “Great Firewall” as it’s called, the Chinese government monitors all Internet communication between China and the outside world and censors information on all the same sensitive and off-limit topics banned in traditional media. They do this by blocking access to forbidden sites covering the taboo topics, and occasionally during politically sensitive times, to foreign news sites like the BBC, and the New York Times. Also blocked are sites like Wikipedia and Technocrati, and international blogging platforms such as Blogspot. Censors also impose temporary blackouts or “time-outs” on web searches for certain sensitive topics or words, and also delete blog entries or comments thought to be “subversive”. (Those interested in the technical details of how this is done can read James Fallows’ article in The Atlantic, “The Connection Has been Reset”.) Blogs, chat rooms and online forums are the most heavily monitored, and to a lesser extent, new forms of communication such as Twitter – an application that posts blog entries to the internet via text message.[1]

2. There are ways around government monitoring and censorship.

There are of course ways around these government controls, especially for foreign businesses and companies operating in China, namely through the use of virtual private networks (VPN) and proxy servers. The Chinese government grudgingly allows these loopholes because otherwise no companies will be able to do business and as long VPN and proxy use by ordinary Chinese is relatively low.[2]

3. The majority of Chinese Internet users are not aware of and have no use for censorship loopholes.

Most Chinese Internet users, for whom this great “Firewall” is designed in the first place, are not even aware of the firewall, and do not always have the means or the patience to use these loopholes even if they were. The majority of users have no need for these circumvention techniques because they use the Internet primarily for entertainment, largely focusing on watching movies, listening to music, socializing, online gaming, and personal and social blogs, rather than on discussing politics or any other sensitive issues.[3]

4. A majority of Chinese Internet users think the Internet should be controlled by the government.

A 2008 survey by the Pew Internet and American Life Project of Chinese internet users found that from 2000 to 2007, over 80% of respondents say they think the Internet should be managed or controlled, and in 2007, almost 85% thought the government should be responsible for that.[4] Researchers found that concern about the harmful effects of the Internet revolved more around the negative effects on children, hence the need to manage the Internet; researchers also suggest that views that the government should be responsible for controlling the Internet are the natural consequences of a reality in which the state is the only legitimate authority in many aspects of Chinese life.

At the same time, a recent survey of almost 3,000 Internet users found that 70 percent of respondents believed that the Internet was a medium where they could freely express their opinions, but that laws should be enacted to protect it.[5]

5. All Internet companies operating in China practice some form of censorship.

All Internet companies including foreign-owned ones who conduct business in China have to abide by China’s rules governing all forms of media, including some form of self-censorship. Because Internet companies in China that host websites and blogs in particular are held responsible by the government for any sensitive content their users may post, these companies actually end up functioning as censors for the authorities by monitoring the sites they host and by taking down politically sensitive blog posts. Otherwise they risk losing their business licenses. Rebecca MacKinnon notes that by holding the service provider responsible, this kind of censorship actually protects the bloggers and posters themselves and saves them having to worry about that midnight knock on the door.[6]

U.S.-based search engine companies such as Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo (which actually hosts its products inside China) too abide by Chinese Internet censorship policies and practice self-censorship by blocking access to certain political websites and filtering searches for certain controversial keywords. These companies defend themselves with the argument that some presence in China is better than none at all.[7] In the last five years, Yahoo! Inc. handed over email data to the Chinese government that helped to convict four Chinese journalists, Wang Xiaoning, Li Zhi, Jiang Lijun (all in 2003), and Shi Tao (2005), though the company has since apologized and pledged to provide financial, humanitarian, and legal support to Wang and Shi’s families, but not before being twice called before Congress and being criticized by human rights groups and journalists around the world.[8] In the last few years, companies like Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo! have been part of a larger effort by advocacy groups like Human Rights Watch and the Center for Democracy and Technology to develop globally applicable corporate social responsibility standards for Internet companies.[9]

6. Chinese Internet control has become highly sophisticated.

In the last few years, Chinese online censorship and control of public opinion has gotten remarkably sophisticated. Since 2007, the Chinese government has not been content to merely react after the fact through censorship, but has learned to pro-actively use the Internet to influence public opinion in its favor.[10] One of the ways authorities are accomplishing this is by hiring a “red vanguard” of about 280,000 members throughout the country to monitor various online media and to neutralize unfavorable public opinion by advocating pro-government, pro-Communist Party views in these various media.[11] Called the “Fifty Cent Party,” (wumaodang), these pro-government web commentators are paid 50 fen (about 7 cents) for every pro-Party post online.

7. All attempts at control and censorship notwithstanding, the Internet is providing the Chinese many opportunities for free speech. And many Chinese are seizing the opportunities.

Despite government attempts to control and censor the Internet, the Internet and new cell phone and media technologies have opened up a whole new world of communication for the Chinese that would have been unthinkable 30 years ago. In online forums, chat rooms, blogs, and through applications like instant messaging and text messaging, Chinese citizens have been able to exchange information and opinions, and conduct spirited debate on a large variety of topics, including social and even political issues, on a heretofore unprecedented scale. They have even been able to organize online.

• In early 2008, for example, bloggers used the Internet to force Chinese authorities to investigate beatings and other abuses by corrupt government officials in Tianmen in Hubei Province. [12]
• During the March 2008 Tibetan riots and the subsequent controversy over the Olympic Torch Relay in foreign countries, when much of the Chinese blogosphere was full of anti-western, nationalistic viewpoints, other alternative voices asking for more measured consideration of the issues could be and were represented as well. Some of the English translations of these latter blogs can be found at Roland Soong’s excellent EastWestNorthSouth blog, including here and here.
• In the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, Twitter – an application that allowed blog entries posted to the internet via text message - allowed ordinary Chinese to relay information far ahead of the mass media. Ordinary folks had been turned into citizen journalists. • Activists and dissidents who are arrested, usually charged with threatening state security or for “illegal possession of state secrets” as in the case of web activist Huang Qi or Shi Tao, often find there is a whole network of supporters who are using the Web to take a stand against the arrest, or to post all kinds of information and details surrounding the particular detainees case, and to keep alive the cause of freeing these dissidents. • A small group of influential and sophisticated bloggers are able to constantly test the limits of the censors by couching their opinions and criticisms in euphemisms or homonyms, which are difficult for censors using automated “keyword” systems to detect. Others take advantage of the time between posting sensitive or controversial items and their removal by censors to copy the posts and re-circulate via email.[13]

8. The Chinese government’s aim is not to shut down free speech but to maintain power and legitimacy.

While critics may think that the Chinese government’s goals are to shut down free speech or to control behavior with its censorship of the Internet and other forms of media, observers like MacKinnon and Fallows believe that the government’s ultimate aim is to preserve power and legitimacy. The goal is not make it impossible but rather to make it as inconvenient as possible to access information or take any real steps that may undermine the government’s and the Party’s authority and legitimacy. [14]

In the end, while many critics may be focusing on all that is wrong with the Chinese government control of the media and the internet, and on everything Chinese Internet users cannot do, the small group of politically and socially minded Chinese netizens and others who study the Chinese media and the Internet are cautiously optimistic that the many opportunities for expression, communication and exchange provided by new media and technology can only lead in the direction of greater and more open public discourse. [15]


Most Popular Portals in China:
Sina.com (news)
NetEase.com (news)
Taobao.com (online shopping)

English Language Websites and Blogs that cover Chinese Media and Internet issues:
China Media Project
Isaac Mao
OpenNet Initiative
Notes on the Net
China Web 2.0 Review

1 Frederik Balfour, “China Censorship 2.0 extends to twitters,” in Eye on Asia blog, Business Week, July 17, 2008, http://www.businessweek.com/globalbiz/blog/eyeonasia/archives/2008/07/the_long_arm_of.html?chan=technology_technology+index+page_top+stories (accessed 7/22/08).

2 Abigail Cutler, “Interview: Penetrating the Great Firewall,” The Atlantic Online, February 19, 2008, http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200802u/fallows-china-censorship (accesed 2/27/08).

3 Tangos, blog post in “What Do Chinese Internet Users Do Online,” The China Web2.0 Reivew Blog, January 17, 2008, http://www.cwrblog.net/976/what-do-chinese-internet-users-do-online.html (accessed 2/2/08).

4 Deborah Fallows, “Most Chinese Say They Approve of Government Internet Control,” Pew Internet & American Life Project Report, March 27, 2008, http://www.pewinternet.org/report_display.asp?r=246 (accessed 4/8/08).

5 Li Xinran, “Internet a boost for Chinese democracy,” Shanghai Daily, June 30, 2008, http://www.shanghaidaily.com/sp/article/2008/200806/20080630/article_365122.htm (accesed 7/1/08).

6 Rebecca MacKinnon, blog post on “Index on Censorship: China Issue,” RConversation Blog, June 10, 2008, http://rconversation.blogs.com/rconversation/2008/06/index-on-censor.html (accessed 6/30/08).

7 Erica Naone, “Search Engines’ Chinese Self-Censorship,” Technology Review, June 30, 2008, http://www.technologyreview.com/Infotech/21016/?a=f (accessed 7/1/08).

8 Rebecca MacKinnon, blog post on “Yahoo! settles with victims’ families: the big picture,” RConversation Blog, November 15, 2007, http://rconversation.blogs.com/rconversation/2007/11/yahoo-settles-w.html (accessed 7/24/08).

9 Andy Greenberg, “Internet: China’s Overeager American Censors,” Forbes, June 20, 2008, http://www.forbes.com/2008/06/20/internet-censorship-china-tech-security-cx_ag_0620censure.html (accessed 7/1/08).

10 YL, “The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Cadres Learn to Control Media,” Chinascope, May 29, 2008, http://chinascope.org/main/content/view/943/92/ (accessed 6/26/08).

11 David Bandurski, “China’s Guerilla War for the Web,” Far Eastern Economic Review, July 2008, http://www.feer.com/essays/2008/august/chinas-guerrilla-war-for-the-web?searched=Bandurski&highlight=ajaxSearch_highlight+ajaxSearch_highlight1 (accessed 7/22/08).

12 David Barboza, “Bloggers Push China to Prosecute Beating Death,” New York Times, January 18, 2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/18/world/asia/18china.html (accessed 1/18/08).

13 MacKinnon, “Index of Censorship.”

14 James Fallows, “The Connection Has Been Reset,” Atlantic Monthly, March 2008, http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200803/chinese-firewall (accesed 2/20/08).

15 MacKinnon, “Index of Censorship.”