Like many Chinese twenty-somethings, Lu Ruchao loves to surf the Internet. He
often visits a local chat room to sample the neighborhood buzz. One day, Lu noticed
that Netizens were complaining that local police often drove down the main street
of Suquian with sirens blaring, disturbing half the city. Lu, himself a policeman,
jumped into the e-fray. He tapped out a defense of the police, arguing that a
cop car sounding its siren is responding to an emergency and shouldn't be criticized.
But Lu isn't just any cop. He's one of China's estimated 30,000 to 40,000 e-police
who collectively serve as an Orwellian Big Brother for the country's nearly 100
million Internet users. "We have to face knives and guns while on duty every
day," Lu explained later to the Chinese publication Southern Weekend. "How
can they criticize us?"
Beijing's Web commissars have made a quantum leap in their efforts
to tame the Internet. Much has been written already about Chinese censors' ability
to monitor Net postings; to block or delete undesirable content, and to detain
Netizens deemed to be troublemakers. The larger story is the degree to which
China's e-police now proactively influence Web content in ways beneficial to
the regime—and pre-empt people from organizing politically. The aim is
not simply to stifle dissent or to control the free flow of information, but
increasingly to shape public opinion in cyberspace. In fact, Chinese propagandists
worry less about the Web as an information source than as a tool for mobilizing
mass movements. "Most foreign analysts get it wrong," says Anne Stevenson-Yang,
a Beijing-based Internet entrepreneur. "Political concern about the Internet
is totally about social organization, not about information. It's how you act
on the information you have."
Last month a new set of Web rules—the latest of about 38 regulations
since 1994—was unveiled to help ensure the posting of "healthy and
civilized" news, as the official Xinhua News Agency put it. Most tellingly,
the rules forbid Web content in two new categories. One bans "inciting
illegal assemblies, associations, marches, demonstrations or gatherings that
disturb social order." The other forbids conducting activities in the name
of an "illegal civil organization."
That emphasis suggests authorities aim to avoid any repeat of last spring's
unrest. Then, spontaneous bulletin-board postings and SMS text messages inspired
thousands of youth to participate in anti-Japanese protests, catching riot police
off-guard. (The authorities had tried, unsuccessfully, to defuse the crowds
by sending text messages to all cell-phone users in Shanghai, warning residents
to avoid illegal demonstrations and to focus their patriotism on their studies
and jobs.) In many ways, China's nationalistic surge is a result of the government's
successful effort to control the nation's e-dialogue. "It means people
are less likely to bump into information showing the Chinese government in a
bad light, and more likely to bump into information showing the Japanese or
American governments in a bad light," says Rebecca Mackinnon, cofounder
of a global blogging forum. "It reinforces Chinese nationalism, and skews
people's view of the world."
Beijing is eager to shape the discourse even further. Local governments have
recruited a growing number of Web "moles" like Lu, paying them to
pose as grass-roots chat-room participants and bloggers. Their job is to tout
the party line online and, by doing so, to nip unrest in the bud. Southern Weekend
reported Lu's story, saying the Jiangsu city of Suqian hired him and 25 other
e-cops last April to form its "Internet commentator team." (The Southern
Weekend later censored itself by removing the article from its Web site.) It
said e-cops join chat rooms and offer "timely explanations for pessimistic
talk," such as portrayals of local cadres as "dirty" or corrupt.
E-police postings were "very effective," one of them, Ma Zhichun,
was quoted as saying. "[We] will lead public opinion as ordinary Netizens."
This past year a new Internet division was formed by the party's powerful propaganda
bureau, which takes the lead in muzzling conventional media. Just last week
authorities compelled the popular online Yannan forum to close down after it
posted news and commentary about rural unrest in Guangdong. Moreover, authorities
have used "enormous financial resources to set up government-sponsored
Web sites at all levels of government," says Xiao Qiang, head of the China
Internet Project at the University of California, Berkeley. He estimates that
one tenth of all sites in Chinese cyberspace are set up and run by authorities.
Such sites allow locals to register online for jobless benefits, say, as well
as host chat rooms where e-cops do their thing. According to the OpenNet Initiative,
a project involving researchers from Toronto, Harvard and Cambridge universities,
China has "the most extensive and effective legal and technological systems
for Internet censorship and surveillance in the world."
Much of that effort uses sophisticated "filtering." Chinese routers—most
of them made by Cisco Systems—connect local area networks to ISPs and
can be configured to block up to 750,000 Web sites. Keyword-filtering software
installed on all Web-site hosting services automatically bar postings on Chinese
online forums if the titles include certain buzzwords. A list compiled by the
Berkeley China Internet Project includes more than a thousand naughty words—including
"dictatorship," "riot police" and, especially, "truth."
An estimated 64 Web dissidents are behind bars, according to the Paris-based
Reporters Without Borders. In the last three months of last year, the government
shuttered 12,575 unauthorized Internet cafes.
Tech-savvy Chinese can use proxy servers to access banned sites (a software
program titled Boundless is especially popular among Falun Gong followers).
And some pro-democracy advocates say that efforts to infiltrate cyberdiscourse
show that China's e-police are desperate. "They're losing, not winning,"
says Xiao Qiang, who notes that the regime's Internet moles are often paid about
eight cents for every progovernment message they post. Web power was manifest
in the deluge of postings on an Internet site related to the immensely popular
"American Idol" -inspired TV show called "Super Girl," during
which millions of viewers cast SMS votes, he says. "There were hundreds
of thousands of people plotting their voting strategy online. If I were a censor,
I'd be scared."
Still, the notion that the Web cannot be managed is a myth, insists Mackinnon.
"While the Internet can't be controlled 100 percent, it's possible for
governments to filter content and discourage people from organizing." Barring
a technological breakthrough, she predicts that, as long as there's a Chinese
regime in power that wants to control the Web, "10 years from now it'll
be doing pretty much as it's doing today." Big Brother seems to be winning
the Chinese Net battle, at least for now.