I have always felt hemmed in on all sides by the Great Wall; that wall of ancient bricks which is constantly being reinforced. The old and the new conspire to confine us all.
When will we stop adding new bricks to the Wall?
The Great Wall of China: a wonder and a curse!
— Lu Xun, 1925
trans. John Minford with Geremie Barmé
Seeds of Fire: Chinese Voices of Conscience, 1986
In the breathless introduction to his 1994 book Cyberia, David Rushoff claimed that its publication marked:
a very special moment in our recent history – a moment when anything seemed possible. When an entire subculture – like a kid at a rave trying virtual reality for the first time – saw the wild potentials of marrying the latest computer technologies with the most intimately held dreams and the most ancient spiritual truths. It is a moment that predates America Online, twenty million Internet subscribers, Wired magazine, Bill Clinton, and the information superhighway. But it is a moment that foresaw a whole lot more.
For students of China, the burgeoning of online communication also promised many things; but from its inception Sino-Cyberia was predominantly the dominion of technocrats and reflected the ‘path dependency’ of the Chinese Communist Party and those under its sway. The dawning of the Internet age was hailed elsewhere as one of global openness and brotherhood. In China, with its self-regarding traditions of policed borders and aggrieved national pride the idea, and practice, of ‘Internet sovereignty’ 網絡主權 would gradually evolve. As Lu Xun observed in an earlier age, the new and the old still conspire to confine the Chinese mind.
Around the time David Rushoff was waxing lyrical, I published a study of post-1989 Chinese neo-nationalism — To Screw Foreigners is Patriotic. I was soon attacked by some of the new (commercial) nationalists I had interviewed as a tool of American cultural imperialism. By then I was collaborating on various projects with the oral historian Sang Ye 桑曄, an old friend and colleague. We had known each other since around the time he and Zhang Xinxin 张辛欣 made headlines in 1985 with their Chinese Lives 北京人, a series of 100 interviews with people from various walks of life.
In the 1990s, Sang Ye was working on what would become China Candid: the people on the People’s Republic, a series of oral histories that offered a multi-perspective history of post-1949 China. I sent the editors of Wired Magazine — celebrated at the time as ‘the Rolling Stone of technology’ — a copy of Sang Ye’s conversation with an outspoken young Beijing tech-head in Haidian, later China’s ‘Silicon Valley’. It appeared in the July 1996 issue of Wired under the title Computer Insect.
You Were Warned
In the translator’s introduction to ‘Computer Insect’, I wrote:
In Chinese, they’re called diannao chong 電腦蟲, or literally, ‘computer insects’. In English, we call them hackers, software pirates, rip-off merchants, or geeks-on-the-make.
In Beijing, computer insects congregate in the university district near the northwest corner of the Chinese capital. It’s a part of town that most Chinese refer to as ‘Electronics Street’ 電子一條街, but for the pros, the pirates, and the hackers, it’s called ‘Thieves Alley’ 騙子一條街, plain and simple. Only one syllable differentiates the two names in Chinese, but that subtle switch is enough to span the gulf between the party line and the gritty truth — the virtual from the real.
Thieves Alley is a haven for China’s massive software pirating industry, and this is an interview with a master of the trade. He’s in his early twenties and wears gray suit pants, Adidas, and a bomber jacket — the uniform of young entrepreneurs in Beijing. A handsome young man with a biting tongue and quick wit, he’s always at the ready to answer his mobile phone. He calls himself one of the Four Heavenly Kings of Hacking, and he’s got enough attitude and ego to make the title stick.
From his mouth pours the brash, in-your-face voice of contemporary China. It’s the voice of a nation proud of its 5,000-year-old culture, but acutely aware that this culture has been humiliated by more than a century of technological backwardness, political decay, and imperialist aggression. The message is unambiguous and unapologetic:
We’re here. We’re mean. Get used to it.
Quotations from Sang Ye’s ‘Computer Insect’:
The way I see it, pirating software is no big deal. Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea, and Singapore created all their wealth and prosperity by pirating. Tell me what those little shits in Hong Kong have ever invented? Zilch. They’re just a bunch of pseudo-foreign devils who started out as tailors and cobblers. Everything they know about computers comes from having learned how to pirate stuff. …
It’s ridiculous for these stinking foreigners to pick on China like they do. We’re just following the general trend by pirating some of their stuff. And they’re up in arms, carrying on about intellectual property infringement and making a fucking stink all over the world about us.
Foreign devils are just plain unreasonable. To be honest, they’ve been ripping off the Chinese for ages. What’s all this stuff about intellectual property? Whose ancestors got everything going in the first place? I don’t think there are any cut-and-dried answers, but just ask yourself: What’s the basic element of computing? Binary notation! That’s the theory of yin and yang. Everything in the universe is made up of yin and yang, and the Chinese discovered that. Let’s forget the hardware aspect of all this.
And what about electricity and magnetic fields? Who discovered magnetism? Pardon me, it was the Chinese! Then what are you supposed to do with your data? How do you record it? You need hard copy after all. Well, it’s obvious, you need paper to print a hard copy and without Cai Lun (the legendary Chinese inventor of paper), those foreigners would still be writing on parchment. Can you cut parchment into A4 size and print on it? No way! These fucking foreigners don’t have a clue. They can’t face up to the fact that they owe us for copyright infringement. When we were advanced, they ripped us off left, right, and center. Now that they’ve managed to get ahead, they won’t let us have a go. As soon as they struck it rich, they began lording over everyone else. Well, I’m going to go right on copying whatever comes my way.
The voice of the brash young Beijinger lead to widespread commentary in the digital community of North America. Subsequently Wired commissioned me to undertake a survey of the nascent Chinese Internet. In early 1997, Sang Ye and I joined forces. We travelled from the north to the south of the People’s Republic, and then on to Hong Kong. In the end we reported on what was a very Chinese story. It was called The Great Firewall of China, a title that has since become a synecdoche for the Chinese party-state itself.
We end our overview of Sino-Cyberia on the eve of the British territory of Hong Kong being handed over to the People’s Republic on 1 July 1997. The following reprint then adds to the ongoing commemoration in China Heritage of the twenty years since the establishment of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. See also:
- Cauldron 鼎;
- Yau Ma Tei’s Hong Kong Rhapsody;
- Twenty Views of Fragrant Harbour; and,
- The Floating City.
Also see the inaugural issue of China Heritage Quarterly (the precursor to China Heritage), May 2005, which took as its theme The Great Wall, and Issue No.6 (June 2006):
For an update on the Chinese Internet in 2016, see:
For more recent work by Sang Ye, see:
— Geremie R. Barmé, Editor, China Heritage
26 July 2017
The Great Firewall of China
Geremie R. Barmé & Sang Ye
Wired, June 1997
“Information Industries of China Unite!”
Xia Hong manages public relations for a year-old company called China InfoHighway Space. It’s one of the slickest examples yet of the latest innovation on Beijing’s frenetic corporate scene: Internet service providers. China InfoHighway’s offices in Beijing’s Haidian District have the airy, glaringly bright-lit open-plan arrangement favored by new-look Chinese companies. Its logo — a spermatozoid yin-yang — decorates everything in sight. A banner across the top of its homepage blazes: “Information Industries of China Unite!” As Xia Hong is happy to make clear, that’s not the only thing about China InfoHighway that screams 1997-style Chinese neosocialism:
The Internet is out of kilter with modern organizational principles. It has failed to evolve effective means of control. Frankly, I see it as being just like the United Nations. As you well know, that body is the most impotent in the world, and let’s not even talk about it being efficient or cost effective. All that confused yabbering, good and bad, right and wrong, all mixed up together. A network that allows individuals to do as they please, lets them go brazenly wherever they wish, is a hegemonistic network that harms the rights of others.
There’s no question about it: the Internet is an information colony. From the moment you go online, you’re confronted with English hegemony. It’s not merely a matter of making the Net convenient for users in non English-speaking countries. People have to face the fact that English speakers are not the whole world. What’s the big deal about them, anyway? Our ideal is to create an exclusively Chinese-language network. It will be a Net that has Chinese characteristics, one that is an information superhighway for the masses.
Ms. Z — she asked us not to use her name — is an 18-year-old recent graduate of a private secretarial college in Shanghai. We talked to her at the Shanghai Internet Café on Jinling Donglu, a bustling thoroughfare in the center of the nearest thing China has to an urbane metropolis (at least until Hong Kong’s long-awaited return to the motherland on July 1).
If you want a well-paying job with a foreign firm, it used to be you only needed to speak English and be able to use a computer. Now you also need Internet know-how. Today I’m here to send some emails to friends in Canada. It’s much cheaper than the post office fax service — Y70 (about US$8) for two sheets! Here I pay Y30 for an hour, send my letters, have a look around the Net, and get a cup of coffee thrown in free. Of course it’s pricey, but places like this aren’t run for country bumpkins. If you can’t afford it, stay home and drink boiled water!
We’re living in an information society now, and every idea is valuable. People who provide freeware or shareware on the Net for others to download are just so stupid. What a waste of effort! As for giving other people ideas via the Net, you’d have to be a half-wit. Why let someone else profit from your ideas?
What I hate most about the Internet is that there are so many wonderful shopping opportunities — all the nice clothes and makeup — but I can’t buy any of it. For example, Chanel No. 19 costs nearly Y800 (US$96) in the Shanghai shops; on the Net, it’s only half that, including postage. But even if I had a foreign-currency credit card, it would be useless: customs duty in China is so high, it’s prohibitive. So the more I see things on the Net, the more upset I become.
In the hype-ridden People’s Republic of China, 1996 was the “Year of the Internet.” No matter that, by the highest estimates, only 150,000 Chinese people — barely 1 in 10,000 — are actually wired. Or that most mainland Chinese have never touched a computer, or that there are 17 people, on average, for every phone line. From Beijing in the north to Guangzhou near the border with Hong Kong in the south, breathless news reports insist that China’s traditional greeting, “Ni chifanle ma?” 你吃飯了嗎 — Have you eaten? — is being replaced. Now any forward-looking person asks, “Ni shangwangle ma?” 你上網了嗎: Are you wired?
It’s not just press hysteria: in Beijing, shiny new computer monitors line the second floor of the famed Foreign Languages Bookstore, pushing Chinese-language versions of Eudora and the latest delights of Netscape and Internet Explorer where the interminable works of Mao, Stalin, and Enver Hoxha once held sway.
Earlier this year, the craze was modem introductory offers — computer companies flogging hardware and software packages from street stalls outside department stores. Bill Gates’s The Road Ahead has sold more than 400,000 copies — pirated editions not included. Even the massive billboards that line roads, mark intersections, and clutter the countryside are as likely now to feature Acer, Microsoft, or homegrown Beida Fangzheng computers as Shiseido cosmetics, XO cognac, or the Communist Party’s latest propaganda.
But nothing seems to have loosened slogan writers’ pens quite like the Net itself:
— Join the Internet club; meet today’s successful people; experience the spirit of the age; drink deep of the cup of leisure. Buy Internet, use Internet. Get on board the ark to the next century. Win the prize of the world.
— Internet, the passport of the modern, civilized man.
Driving from the airport into Beijing in February, we listened to a radio feature about the latest developments in online technology on the popular program “Good Morning Taxi!”
“The Internet is not only about information,” the report concluded. “It’s about new ways of thinking, new ways of living.”
That, of course, is precisely what worries China’s rulers. New ways of thinking, of communicating, of organizing people and information — the Net takes aim squarely at things that since Mao’s earliest days have been the state’s exclusive domain. For a country still coming to grips with the passing of its latest great leader, Deng Xiaoping, it’s a double shock of the new: the technology that China needs to build the most powerful country on earth in the 21st century could also undermine the monolith state itself. Where the quest by Deng’s successors to control the Net and its consequences will lead, no one knows. But no one doubts that the Net, that amorphous and unpredictable messenger, holds out tantalizing possibilities for a country so long turned in upon itself.
From his home in Beijing, one of China’s pioneer telecommuters, Pan Jianxin, writes a widely read computer column for the popular Guangzhou based weekend paper Southern Weekly.
I’m on the Net maybe four or five hours a day. The phone bills are murder and my wife complains, but I can’t keep off it. The Net is a world unto itself.
Sound familiar? He could be any Net columnist anywhere. But this is China:
The general cultural level of the nation is woeful. We’re still trying to get people to stop spitting in public. So the Net is not a main issue.
Deus Ex Machina
Neophilia is a double-edged sword that China has eagerly grasped since the middle of the last century. In earlier eras, it was political revolution — including “scientific” socialism — that promised a quick fix to China’s problems. Today high technology is the deus ex machina. The question on everyone’s mind — the Chinese government and its critics alike — is whether it will also be a cultural and political Trojan horse.
The latest tide of high tech adulation in China started building in the early 1990s, often with a comic tinge. First it was streetside “computer fortune telling,” then “computer diagnosis” — traditional Chinese medicines mysteriously dosed out by machine. More recent crazes — supported by the inevitable billboards and hoardings — include “computer” car washing (electronically controlled sprayers) and beauty salons (automated facial analysis): not the stuff to cause anyone to lose sleep at the Public Security Bureau.
The Net has been more problematic. As in most of the world, scientists were Internet pioneers; the difference is that, due to lack of interest and primitive infrastructure, the first serious network wasn’t put together until 1993. Two years later, the national university system followed, with what is still a cherished innovation: email connections, both within the country and to the outside world.
Then came a publicist’s dream that brought the Net nationwide attention. Zhu Ling, a young science student at Beijing’s élite Tsinghua University, fell mysteriously ill. As her condition deteriorated, distraught friends appealed for help on the Net. Thousands of responses flooded in from around the world — 84 of which (according to more of those breathless press accounts) correctly diagnosed thallotoxicosis, a rarely seen condition caused by exposure to the element thallium, in her case during laboratory experiments. Zhu Ling was treated and eventually began a slow recovery; the Chinese public was enthralled. A television miniseries is reportedly in the works.
That’s the dream. Here’s the reality: 86 percent of China’s citizens have never touched a computer. Only 1.6 percent of Chinese families own one, and just 4.1 percent plan to buy. (The figures come from the Yangshi Survey and Consulting Service Center, a Beijing marketing firm.) Of course, that still means 10 or 20 million potential sales, which is why US and European computer companies don’t do too much complaining about Chinese Net freedoms.
University students are encouraged to use email to plan study overseas, but only a small number of graduate students and faculty, mainly in technical disciplines, enjoy real access to the Web. Most mainland Chinese — say, a billion or so people — wouldn’t know the difference between the Internet 因特網 and “The Internationale” 英特爾納雄納爾 the Communist Party’s theme song.
But however small the numbers, for the Chinese government’s control freaks — and that means basically everyone in authority — free-flowing information and unauthorized association are profoundly disturbing concepts. The Communist movement itself was born in China of surreptitious gatherings, cell meetings in gloomy garrets, and covert exchanges of information — plus a large dose of mass dissatisfaction and oppression. Mention information revolution, and the instinctive overreaction is to clamp down.
State Council Order No. 195 is titled “Temporary Regulations Governing Computer Information Networks and the Internet.” Signed by Premier Li Peng on February 1, 1996, the law contains the following gems:
The State is in charge of overall planning, national standardization, graded control, and the development of all areas related to the Internet. Any direct connection with the Internet must be channeled via international ports established and maintained by the Ministry of Post and Telecommunication. No group or individual may establish or utilize any other means to gain Internet access.
All organizations and individuals must obey the respective state laws and administrative regulations and carry out rigorously the system of protecting state secrets. Under no circumstances should the Internet be used to endanger national security or betray state secrets.
Spiritual Pollution Control
In an equipment-crowded office in the Air Force Guesthouse on Beijing’s Third Ring Road sits the man in charge of computer and Net surveillance at the Public Security Bureau. The PSB — leizi 雷子, or “thunder makers,” in local dialect — covers not only robberies and murder, but also cultural espionage, “spiritual pollutants,” and all manner of dissent. Its new concern is Internet malfeasance.
A computer engineer in his late 30s, Comrade X (he asked not to be identified because of his less-than-polite comments about some Chinese ISPs) is overseeing efforts to build a digital equivalent to China’s Great Wall. Under construction since last year, what’s officially known as the “firewall” is designed to keep Chinese cyberspace free of pollutants of all sorts, by the simple means of requiring ISPs to block access to “problem” sites abroad.
Comrade X explains:
The first line of defense is what we call “preventative interference,” based on selected keywords. What we’re particularly concerned about is material aimed at undermining the unity and sovereignty of China (that is, references to Tibetan independence and the Taiwan question), attempts to propagate new religions like the Children of God, and dissident publications. Commonplace ideological differences of opinion are now generally ignored.
It’s no great technical trick, especially since connections to the outside world are required to pass through a handful of official gateways — the PTT’s ChinaNet and the Ministry of Electronics’s “Golden Bridge” are two of the biggest — which do their own filtering up-front. Among the things they block, depending on circumstances, are most of the Western media, as well as the China News Digest — a sprawling online service run by Chinese exiles — and other specialized sites and newsgroups operated from abroad. Eager for a slice of the action, the major global networking companies — Sun Microsystems, Cisco Systems, and Bay Networks, among others — cheerfully compete to supply the gear that makes it possible.
But as Comrade X also notes, it’s not just a matter of technology: People are used to being wary, and the general sense that you are under surveillance acts as a disincentive. The key to controlling the Net in China is in managing people, and this is a process that begins the moment you purchase a modem.
Just Sign Here
So you want to get wired in the People’s Republic? Let’s recap the simple steps to get online:
- First, pick an ISP — there were 32 in Beijing at last count, ranging from government-run companies and China Telecom to ambitious private start ups like China InfoHighway. You fill out some papers and provide an ID card (or, for foreigners, a passport). The initial Police File Report Form has to be filled out in triplicate — a copy for your ISP, one for the local PSB, the third for the provincial-level PSB Computer Security and Supervision Office.
- Next there’s the Net Access Responsibility Agreement, in which you pledge not to use the Internet to threaten state security or reveal state secrets. You also swear not to read, reproduce, or transmit material that “endangers the state, obstructs public safety, or is obscene or pornographic.”
- Finally, there’s an application for the ISP itself — where you live and work, your profession, your home and office phone numbers, your mobile phone, and even your pager. Plus details about your computer equipment, the modem type, and, oh yes, its permit number. Back to our friends at the PSB for that.
- Now you’re getting close to that “passport of the modern, civilized man.” But you still have to pay. That means either a check or a bank account name and number – credit cards are not welcome. Figure a monthly net plus-phone bill of Y350 (US$42) – roughly half a recent college graduate’s monthly salary. Someone with a good job at a foreign corporation in Beijing or Shanghai can probably manage it. And so, of course, can the media-starved expatriates they work for.
As Comrade X remarked about the system’s launch last year, “It was a real thrill to see all the foreigners lining up outside our office to be registered.”
The Ecstasy of Communication
Here’s how Sparkice, a Sino-Canadian joint venture, promotes its new Internet Cafe in Beijing, the largest in the city since it opened in November:
Under the searchlight of history, on the cusp of the new century, a brightly lit Great Wall is spreading rapidly out of China toward the rest of the world. Its light conveys a message of a holy duty: Sparkice is building a multimedia platform that will surprise the globe.
Internet cafés are one of China’s minigrowth industries. They combine sought-after “imported” atmosphere with basic online services — “the ecstasy of communication,” as one flyer puts it. There’s a cluster of modest operations — the Papillon Music Internet Cafe is one — near Peking University’s main entrance, next to Zhongguancun, the city’s electronics district. Some have only a single computer and, judging from the Papillon, warm service but weak coffee and a serious blight of plastic foliage.
Sparkice, next to the Capital Stadium’s west entrance, has higher aspirations — it includes its own ISP, for starters. The stadium itself is worth a visit: a major sports venue during the Cultural Revolution, it is now an oversized furniture display hall. The café, for its part, is done in the latest international techno style — glitzy ambient lighting, 10 shiny new computers, and TVs beaming in the latest NBA games.
But “Chinese characteristics,” as Comrade X would call them, are right there, too. Anyone is welcome to order a cappuccino, but going online requires you to run the same bureaucratic maze as getting wired at home: Police File Report Form, Net Access Responsibility Agreement, and ISP contract. Plus an ID card or passport number, and the details of where you live and work.
Then there are the rules: no attempts to visit forbidden sites, of course, or to download inappropriate material. No changing machines during a session. Only one person online at a time. And the logs of your activities may be checked. “If anything out of the ordinary is discovered,” says the contract, “you will be fined accordingly” — up to 10 times the cost of your time online. For serious breaches, the waitpersons-cum-Net police are authorized to hand you over to the authorities. Happy surfing — or, as they say in Mandarin, manyou 漫遊, “roaming at will.” At 14.4 Kbps.
According to Zhuang Dundi, the suited college student who earns spare cash as the café’s tutor, “So far, we’ve had no incidents.” It’s not hard to see why. “We have three levels of ‘firewall,'” he says. “Our company filters things once, ChinaNet itself has its own filtering system, and then we keep an eye on everything here.”
Despite the less than user-friendly environment, Sparkice can attract upwards of 100 patrons a day. Most are foreigners — especially homesick students — or people thinking about getting wired themselves, mainly white-collar workers from joint-venture companies. For Chinese college kids, the prices are astronomical: a Y100 (US$12) deposit up-front, then Y30 an hour, plus Y15 for every 10 minutes of overtime. Tutorials from Zhuang Dundi are available at Y40 an hour; drinks are Y25 each. At this rate, an hour of mindless Net escapism plus a couple of Cokes will consume 10 percent of the average Chinese student’s already spartan monthly budget.
Those limits don’t bother café manager Bai Jinghong, who has the official line down pat:
Absolute freedom is an impossibility. It would create anarchy. To censor harmful things doesn’t just ensure that the Internet can develop in a healthy fashion; it will also ensure stability for China. I think Singapore has the right approach. They have been energetic in their development of the Net and tireless in managing it. Their tough line is worthy of emulation; a laissez-faire attitude is destructive and must be rejected.
At a friend’s on-campus apartment, a 15-year-old boy who attends a prestigious Beijing middle school talked about his experience with the Net:
I have the advantage of “superhighway driving on public gas” — I go online through my mother’s work unit, which subscribes to ChinaNet. If I had to pay for Internet access myself, my parents would murder me. I’m no Net-insect 網蟲 — I’ve only been at it a few months. Hey, I’m only in my third year of middle school, and my English sucks. There’s people around who are really into surfing — all I can do is bumble around, though I do find some good stuff by chance.
Sure, I could get onto the real Internet by ringing a Hong Kong or Taiwan access provider. The work unit wouldn’t be able to tell who was ringing out, but if I stayed online for very long it’d cost a fortune in international phone bills, and my family would have to pay. My mom would kill me for sure.
I suppose the NetWall is all about keeping pornography out of the country. They’ve blocked things like Playboy, for example, but that’s hardly going to stop you. If you really want to find stuff, then you’ll get through the wall — you just have to know how. Anyway, there are things that are much worse than Playboy, and it’s easy to get access through sites in northern Europe or Japan. Once you hit upon one, you just take a trip round the neighborhood through links they provide, and you’ve got yourself a gold mine.
But porn on the Internet is a bore, all static images or small-frame videos. It’s not nearly as much fun as watching a good video. As for “reactionary propaganda,” I’m just not interested in it. I don’t even go looking.
Shanghai has always been China’s cosmopolitan entrepôt. It’s also where the virtuous realities of Comrade X and talk about Singapore models give way to the down-to-earth facts of market forces and resourceful practicalities.
Pan Weimin, a thirty-something electrical engineering graduate from Shanghai’s prestigious Fudan University, runs the day-to-day operations of the PaCity Computer Company, which makes and sells computers and peripherals.
The aim of going on the Net is to be able to communicate and exchange with other people or engage in business. It’s a two-way highway. If the Net becomes a national net, limited to a certain culture, then what’s the long term use of getting wired?
Pan practices what he preaches. To promote its machines, PaCity runs a bare-bones “café” with eight online computers in Putuo, the heart of Shanghai’s electronics industry.
People can come and use the equipment for free — it could never survive as a café anyway if we tried to live off our customers. But there’s another thing: if we started charging, we’d have to get every user, casual or not, to register with China Telecom and the PSB. As is, we can pretend we’re demonstrating our computers and training potential buyers. So we’re free of control. Otherwise, both the police and the entertainment bureaucracy would be on our backs.
There’s nothing he can do, of course, about China Telcom’s filtering. And whatever kind of loopholes he or others can find are a long way from letting real Net genies out of the bottle:
When push comes to shove, the authorities don’t have to restrict themselves to imposing a NetWall around China. They can use tried and true traditional methods: one administrative order from on high and everything can be shut down. It’s simple and effective.
Brave New Net
It should not surprise anyone that the Chinese authorities see the Net’s opportunities, along with its threats. Time and again, the 20th century has proven the value of information technology for building a heaven for bureaucrats — or for secret police. For Communist Party cadres, that means a network devoted to the transmission of party directives, government orders, and local bureaucratic folderol — in other words, an intranet. The ever-vigilant PSB already has one, linking it to every major hotel and guest house where foreigners stay. The minute you register at your five-star joint-venture hotel, Comrade X and his associates know you’re there.
Elsewhere, such efforts are still mostly works in progress. In Guangdong province, for instance, few local-level party offices have the bandwidth — meaning more than a single phone line — to keep their computers permanently online. So headquarters first has to telephone to say that a document is on the way, then local officials turn on their modem to receive it, along with the relevant party secretary’s seal of office — suitably encrypted — and signature. Clunky and primitive it may be, but it works. And an infrastructure that will wire the whole province is well under way — Communist Party offices first, of course.
One university computer specialist we talked to in Guangzhou has been called in to help with several of what he waggishly calls “DocuNets”:
The bureaucrats don’t give a damn about the Net or connecting with the outside world. What everyone is really getting into — as long as they have the money to do it — is establishing their own local networks. When they receive a telex from Beijing, they get their secretaries to type it into the computer, and then use the DocuNet to distribute it. It’s the latest in paperless offices, and they want it.
There’s an old saying in south China: “The heavens are high and the Emperor is far away.” From the late 1970s — the dawn of the post-Mao era — people in the areas of Guangdong province bordering on Hong Kong were among the first mainland Chinese to glimpse the outside world through Deng Xiaoping’s then-new “Open Door.” They were also the first to be able to start turning off Central People’s Broadcasting and tuning in to the British colony’s televised version of capitalism’s decadent charms.
Will the Net follow a similar path? One affluent electronics buff in Guangzhou, the provincial capital, is looking for new opportunities after making a killing in the last few years selling computers made with pirated processors from Taiwan. He offers a classically hedged south China viewpoint:
You only have to think back to how things were in the early 1980s. Then a major political issue was the direction you pointed your TV antenna — toward Hong Kong or inland. The struggle went on for years — the police carried out door-to-door checks, people were ordered to pull down their aerials, and party members were warned they’d be expelled if they watched. Then underground factories that produced signal boosters mushroomed, and soon everyone was watching Hong Kong TV without a visible, external aerial. It became such a farce that in the end the authorities simply gave up. But these days, it’s not only this side that is different. TV stations in Hong Kong have been changing. They want to reach the massive market that covers the whole Pearl River Delta. And to get that, they are making compromises about content — they won’t show anything that’s too provocative. It’s the nature of business; if you want it, you have to make concessions.
If the Net’s going to be a success in China, people will just have to accept the fact that the Chinese government blocks some things. If the foreign media makes a big stink about it, don’t worry, it’ll pass. The people interested in the Net’s commercial possibilities will carry on regardless.
Let’s face it: Be it China or America, the government’s voice is not as loud as that of business. Those who are willing to put up the money will have the last word.
The Great NetWall
The computer cordon sanitaire that Chinese authorities are trying to build around China is called the fanghuo qiang 防火牆, or “firewall,” a direct translation from English. But a more popular phrase for it is wangguan 網關, literally “NetWall” — a name harking back to an earlier effort to repel foreign invaders. As every Chinese school kid knows, the original Great Wall failed in its basic mission (though it did better as a communication avenue). Will its digital successor fare any better?
The PSB’s Comrade X sees both the scope of the problem and the need for what strategists call “defense in depth”:
Nationwide regulations are being formulated, but because these will involve so many other laws and areas — advertising, news, and so on — it will be impossible for us to draw up comprehensive legislation in the short term. At the moment it is up to the ISP and the individual to be responsible for the regulation of newsgroups and the leaking of state secrets.
A professor at a Guangzhou electronics college has a different view:
The NetWall is something born of a typically Chinese mind-set. Perhaps it’s just a matter of face-saving. People in the government feel they’ve got their backs to the wall. They’re not stupid. They know full well how viciously everyone denounces them every day in private.
In the People’s Republic, coded communications are second nature, developed over years of mass surveillance, people reading other people’s mail and diaries, tapping phones, and generally being inquisitive about your affairs. The idea that the walls have ears doesn’t shock anyone.
In conversation, for instance, comments about the weather often carry a political subtext. Low temperatures and storms indicate that the shit has hit the fan; extreme heat can mean that things are precarious for the individual, their company, or inside the government. The Chinese language’s rich imagery and telegraphic allusions can make it hard for censors to discern subversive messages from poetic flights of fancy.
Not that it stops them from trying.
The authorities have seen what can happen when the information revolution takes a swipe at its socialist predecessor. Last summer, during a furor — initially encouraged by the authorities — over Japan’s occupation of the historically Chinese Diaoyu (Senkaku) Islands, students used the national university network to organize demonstrations. They also transmitted news of the protests, much of which was going unreported in the nervous official media. In this case, the censorship was as crude as it was effective: the most prominent online activist was quickly banished to remote Qinghai Province, and for 10 days, all university access to newsgroups was shut down — those in English (favored by scientists) and in Chinese alike.
The move coincided with an ongoing general crackdown on dissent. Semi independent journals and newspapers have been banned, writers and intellectuals harassed. The few active dissidents who have managed to stay out of jail (or, more commonly, exile) have had to be even more than usually circumspect about their contacts with the outside world.
One who manages is the controversial environmentalist and investigative historian Dai Qing. Frequently detained by the authorities, she sees the Net as a lifeline to friends and supporters outside China.
Whenever I get back to my apartment, the first thing I do is check my email. In Chinese there’s a saying: “The ends of the earth can be brought close to you.” That’s what email allows me to feel. To be in constant contact with people throughout the world gives me a sense of security.
Since the crackdown, the Net — however problematic — has also become one of the few remaining sources of unofficial news. The main online Chinese language information sources — the Hong Kong and Taiwan presses, and the China News Digest — are among the NetWall’s high-priority targets. But anyone with access to the Net and a little skill can find uncensored information — even something as simple as weather-oriented email messages — that fill in the blank spots created by the authorities, whether regarding dissidents, rumors surrounding the demise of Deng Xiaoping, or Islamic separatist bombings in downtown Beijing.
Other tiny digital islands exist — an online magazine for Beijing’s “unofficial” art scene, run by two expat Japanese, for example, and another site where a small group of mainland gays sends out news about their lives and activities to the wider world. How long this will last is anyone’s guess; Chinese authorities often let things happen until problems arise. As Comrade X put it in his gnomic style, “You make a problem for us, and we’ll make a law for you.”
It would be easy enough in China to radically limit the Net’s spread. But companies like China InfoHighway have a more focused agenda: turning information technology to their own, avowedly chauvinistic, advantage. It’s not official policy, but it’s close. And it certainly reflects the attitude of thinly disguised nationalist grievance that informs so much of China’s current relations — the debates over Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Tibet, for starters — with the rest of the world.
Here’s another serve from Xia Hong, China InfoHighway’s PR man:
*The Internet has been an important technical innovator, but we need to add another element, and that is control. The new generation of information superhighway needs a traffic control center. It needs highway patrols; users will require driving licenses. These are the basic requirements for any controlled environment. All Net users must conscientiously abide by government laws and regulations. If Net users wish to enter or leave a national boundary they must, by necessity, go through customs and immigration. They will not be allowed to take state secrets out, nor will they be permitted to bring harmful information in.
As we stand on the cusp of the new century, we need to — and are justified in wanting to — challenge America’s dominant position. Cutting-edge Western technology and the most ancient Eastern culture will be combined to create the basis for dialog in the coming century. In the 21st century, the boundaries will be redrawn. The world is no longer the spiritual colony of America.
Judgment Day for the Internet is fast approaching. At most it can keep going for three to five years. But the end is nigh; the sun is setting in the West, and the glories of the past are gone forever.
China InfoHighway is a major player in what its brochures call “the Chinese information supermarket.” Its managing director, a well connected woman named Zhang Shuxin, isn’t shy about her ambition to be the “Bill Gates of China.” But when we asked other Internet specialists — a technician at Peking University, the manager of China Telecom, even Comrade X — what they thought about Xia Hong’s boasting, they replied with variations on the same answer: “Those people are completely out of touch with reality.”
But then reality in modern China has always been a tentative concept.
Zhou Hongwei is a senior engineer with Shanghai’s Ge’er Electronics Corporation. He uses his spare time to help local academics get online:
*A few years ago everyone was asking, ‘Have you started up your own company yet?’ Then it was, ‘Do you have a driving license?’ followed by, ‘What model computer did you get?’ Last year the big thing was, ‘Are you into multimedia yet?’ Today it’s, ‘Are you wired?’ No one really cares if you are actually wired. Forget about what the Net is for and what it might become. People only want to show their friends that they’ve done the right thing and got themselves wired.
China in the 1990s is a country embarked on what some local economists call “the acquisition of primitive capital.” Individuals, companies, and state enterprises are all vying for advantage in the rough and-ready atmosphere of a unique historical moment: simultaneous industrial and information revolutions in the oldest, most populous nation on earth.
For all their unabashed efforts to control the Net in China, the authorities and their entrepreneurial offspring can also see its potential, at least for generating profits. That’s one reason the most strident antiforeign rhetoric comes not from pragmatic technocrats like Comrade X, but from fledgling local capitalists and professional xenophobes, who have their own obvious reasons for wanting anything foreign — including potential competition — kept in its place.
Last December, the conservative Beijing journal Strategy and Management 戰略與管理 published a commentary by Yang Xueshan, head of the State Information Center’s Capital Investment Office:
Following the end of the Cold War, certain developed nations (meaning the United States and its allies) are determined to protect their own interests by labeling themselves as internationalists. They pretend to be the benefactors of all mankind, while constantly expanding their sphere of influence and attempting to contain the development of others. … They want to envelop everything in their information umbrella.
Paranoid nationalism is not just good politics — it’s a useful way of garnering support for homegrown solutions. One of the most prominent of those is the China Wide Web, a joint venture of the official New China News Agency and China Internet Corporation, a “patriotic” Hong Kong company. Inaugurated last October, the CWW (www.china.com/) is creating a nationwide Chinese commercial network, all guaranteed spiritually pollution-free. Meanwhile, much-watched digital model country Singapore is blazing a path with Singapore One, an exclusive “supernational intranet” to be launched later this year, with all the advantages of the Internet and none of the “problems.” The digital gated community, infohighway as one-way street. It won’t pass muster in San Francisco or Sydney, but that’s no reason it can’t work.
For now, the Net in China will remain a privileged realm, enjoyed by the well heeled and well educated, by foreigners, and by the government itself. The cabal of policy makers that is advising the national leadership — Public Security, China Telecom, politically well-connected entrepreneurs — is by no stretch of the imagination enlightened, digitally or otherwise. Internal debate will continue — which organizations or individuals will be allowed to get wired, which will be refused, what those who are online will be allowed to see, and who will profit. The one certainty, given the headstrong Chinese bureaucracy and the Maoist mentality that spawned it, is that China’s adaptations of the Net will be unique, and probably bizarre by Western standards.
China’s Open Door policies have had momentous, mostly uncalculated consequences. But that doesn’t mean that the China of the future is going to look more and more like us. It is going to continue to look like China — and will have the wherewithal to do so. As China gets stronger and more wired, it will still be limited by intellectual narrowness and Sinocentric bias. Pluralism and the open-mindedness that comes with it — the worldly curiosity of previous great powers and the idealism that often supports it — simply are not present. More to the point, they are not about to be encouraged.
Many Chinese computer terms are homophonous transpositions from English. The expression for hacker is heike 黑客, literally “dark guest.” As travelers in China’s Net world, we were sometimes regarded as slightly suspicious visitors. One army general’s son — himself a classic nerd who runs his own computer graphics company — said point-blank, “What are you people doing here in China? Foreigners have never done us any good.” He fell silent when reminded that without his Western glasses, designer running shoes, computer technology, and command of English, his Sinocentric world might be far more narrow and lackluster.
A young Beijing woman who works as the night manager at a Sino Japanese joint-venture hotel whiles the hours away “roaming at will” on her office computer. With access to foreign currency, she’s an avid online consumer who’s already used the Net to make a few modest purchases from abroad — à la mode sportswear and assorted accessories.
They’re the latest fashion, and it’s worth it. Of course, there are things I can’t afford, like a swimming pool or a circus elephant or real designer clothes. But there are people out there who can. I don’t have the wherewithal now, so I know I have to work harder and make more money.
And what about someone without a credit card? She was honestly bemused:
If you don’t have a credit card, what in heaven’s name are you doing on the Internet in the first place?
C.H. Tung, the Hong Kong government’s newly appointed head, has said that individual rights should be subject to the will of the people. Tung has also indicated that making derogatory remarks about Chinese leaders after the transition may be illegal, and he has moved to replace the colony’s legislature with one consisting of Beijing-approved representatives. In addition, China will invalidate parts of a Hong Kong Bill of Rights passed six years ago. The new government has announced plans to repeal or amend 25 existing laws, including many pertaining to civil liberties. Permission to demonstrate, for example, soon must be requested one week in advance, and all meetings of 20 or more people will have to be registered with the government. The changes also tighten controls on links to foreign organizations and will weaken privacy rights.
Might those restrictions apply to electronic rights as well? “It’s entirely likely,” says James McGregor, director of Hong Kong-based business consultancy J.D. McGregor Ltd. “Somewhere down the road, China could make use of what technical means it has to restrict the Internet.
Those “technical means” could take many forms, ranging from a Singapore-style proxy server approach, in which ISPs are forced to weed out Web sites the Chinese government deems offensive, to filtering of financial news from sources such as Dow Jones, Bloomberg, and Reuters by the government-controlled Xinhua News Agency, as is the case in mainland China.
Hong Kong’s government may have already employed high tech tactics. Last October, Wang Dan, a noted activist involved in the Tiananmen Square civil rights protests, was sentenced to 11 years in Chinese prison. Hong Kong radio broadcasts about the sentencing were posted on the Internet for worldwide dissemination. But for two days, Internet users overseas complained that sound was inaudible or blocked entirely. Says Ben Yoong, a Hong Kong Web site designer, “It may have been technical, but the widespread suspicion (that the interference was intentional) tells you something about how concerned people are.”
Yoong believes suppression of free speech on the Internet may begin with monitoring of both private and public email and may lead to use of email records as court evidence. “People will really be scared if one or two of their email messages or their comments in online forums get brought into the courts,” he adds.
Such privacy concerns as these have caused uneasiness in Hong Kong’s network of multimillion-dollar businesses, particularly those in the financial community. “Certain banks, such as those in the EU, will not transact with institutions that don’t observe certain regulations with regard to privacy,” says Susan Schoenfeld, president of Advisors for International Media Asia Ltd.
David Carse, deputy chief executive of the Hong Kong Monetary Authority, claims there is no indication that privacy safeguards concerning financial data will be diminished; nevertheless, there’s a chill in the air.
“When China makes noises about changing laws, it throws everybody into orbit,” says Simon Murray, executive chair of Deutsche Bank for the Asia-Pacific region. “To banks, privacy is like gold dust. If there’s anything that interferes with the way in which we do business, and the rights we have to do our business, people will say, Fine, we’ll go somewhere else.”
Result: a quiet flight of capital from Hong Kong has occurred as companies depart for more open Asian business environments such as Singapore and Malaysia.
For those that remain, quiet acceptance and self-censorship may ultimately prevail. “Our position is, Don’t ask, don’t tell,” says Charles Mok, general manager of HKNet, Hong Kong’s fifth-largest ISP. “People aren’t avoiding the issue, but they probably don’t see the need to ask China if it’s going to regulate us more.”
The promise of gaining access to one of the largest consumer markets in the world may stifle any potential criticism from the local business community. One intoxicating attraction is the mainland’s telecommunications market, which has yet to open except to equipment suppliers. When free trade begins, Hong Kong telcos will be salivating for the business and will be potentially more amenable to meeting Beijing’s stringent demands for Internet control.
“If the Chinese cracked down on the Internet, the average businessman would not move out,” McGregor says. “These are not such dramatic things that companies would be affected in terms of profitability.”
Selective monitoring is already business-as-usual for foreign firms doing business with China. “The ISPs in this town are used to working with censorship regulations,” says Joe Sweeney, vice president of marketing for Asia On-Line, one of Hong Kong’s largest ISPs. “China doesn’t need to apply any laws — they’re already here.”
Chinese censors would face a daunting technical challenge if they tried to monitor all of the Internet traffic passing through Hong Kong. “The manpower needs would be extraordinary,” says a local ISP’s technical support manager. Mok and others argue that Hong Kong’s sprawling telecommunications infrastructure — including four major telcos, more than 40 ISPs, about half a dozen cellular providers, and a wealth of private networks — would make it impossible for the government to enforce the use of proxy servers. However, the Chinese could limit Internet use through licensing, as they’ve done on the mainland. The city’s Internet market is dominated by only about a half dozen ISPs, such as Hongkong Telecom, and even such market leaders as Asia On-Line expect the ISPs to consolidate. Such a shrinkage would ease Chinese monitoring.
Some longtime Hong Kong residents believe that merely the hint of an organized electronic protest could precipitate a devastating crackdown. Last September, for instance, student activists in Beijing and Hong Kong staged a coordinated gathering over the Internet, challenging Chinese claims toward the Diaoyu Islands, possession of which is under hot dispute between China, Taiwan, and Japan.
This electronic organizing made the Chinese government uneasy, and it later blocked some of Hong Kong’s most active Web sites. With new restricted rights of public assembly in Hong Kong, more Internet-facilitated protests could potentially follow, and that could be precisely what it takes to make China close its fist around the flow of information into the newly integrated territories.
“It’s just the perception of a threat,” says Lau. “But the question still remains, What would trigger such an action? If the Chinese perceive things to be getting out of control, then all bets are off. There is no reason to think that the Chinese are going to be threatened by Hong Kong. But if they are, we’re all in deep trouble.”
It is curious that, for reasons unknown, in the online version of this article Sang Ye’s and my name have been deleted.
The style of the original publication has been retained, although some Chinese characters have been added. — GRB