CAPP Seminar Examines the Internet in China

On September 15, 2000, Nina Hachigian, Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellow with the Pacific Council on International Policy, presented a seminar sponsored by the Center for Asia Pacific Policy (CAPP) on "The Political Implications of the Internet in China" at RAND Santa Monica.

Ms. Hachigian provided a brief history of the Internet in China. The first commercial accounts were established in 1995. At that time, about 15,000 people were online. Today, 17 million citizens use the Internet. The typical user tends to be urban, male, single, educated and young. The current average usage is 17 hours a week. This year, 27,000 new sites have been created, and China has generated $42m in e-commerce. China adds about 2 million telephone lines every month to meet increasing demand.

The Chinese government is currently supporting Internet expansion as an engine of economic growth by sponsoring Internet contests and offering tax breaks to IT companies. Despite this encouragement, however, the government is aware of the political dangers surrounding the free flow of ideas that the Internet fosters.

Ms. Hachigian described the following potential problems that the Internet poses to the Chinese government:

1) While the government can exert some control over the information posted online by blocking sites and enforcing censorship regulations, state control over the Internet is diminishing.

2) A wealth of information can be found online from foreign sites and other sources that directly contradict the party's spin on local events and crises.

3) Dissident material online can easily be distributed via e-mail. The government has already shut down several pro-democracy sites, but new ones rapidly take their place.

4) The Internet has created a shift in communication that allows people to speak en masse. Hostility towards the government can grow and pool.

5)The Internet is a powerful tool for organizing and empowering forces that offer alternative ideologies to the Chinese Communist Party, such as the Falun Gong.

6) The Internet contributes to the economic independence of the people of China. The entrepreneurial, individualistic spirit that the growth of Internet commerce engenders would seem to contradict Communist principles.

These threats are difficult for the government to address. There is not much that China can do to put the brakes on the Internet for political reasons that will not also have negative consequences of limiting the Internet's commercial potential.

The Ministry of Information controls content regulation. Self-censorship is the main form of content control, as the government has instituted Internet regulations at every level and does not shy away from making examples of violators. Most Chinese Web sites have monitors to ensure that their sites avoid posting sensitive content that might inspire the government to shut them down.

The government also controls content to some degree by blocking objectionable sites hosted by other countries. This slows the entire system down, however, especially since Internet access is limited to dial-up connections at the present time. Since the Internet is changing and growing by leaps and bounds, China's task of blocking Web sites is not unlike Sisyphus's work of pushing a stone up a hill, only to have it fall back down again and again. China is finding it hard to keep up with the Internet's continual evolution, as well as technologies such as proxy servers and peer-to-peer networking that allow sites to circumvent blocks.

What Does the Growth of the Internet Mean for China's Future?

Ms. Hachigian described how the Chinese government is using the Internet to strengthen itself by automating certain processes.  The government is likely to continue exploring ways to use the Internet as a force for strengthening its authority and will probably continue resisting aspects of the Internet that might weaken its control.

Ms. Hachigian theorized that the influence of the Internet will be demonstrated most forcibly during a major crisis. If a political crisis erupts, the government could not shut down the Internet and thus won't be able to hide the truth surrounding such a crisis.

What Should the U.S. Government Do?

Anything the United States might do to attempt to influence the regulation of the Internet in China would probably be considered imperialism, according to Ms. Hachigian. The U.S. government should refrain from doing anything. She proposed that the most effective vehicle for promoting continued development of the Internet in China along international standards would be a forum created by non-governmental organizations where China's regulation of the Internet could be reviewed and discussed.