Chinas Great Firewall

June 2002-A policeman inspects an Internet cafe in Beijing. Photo: AFP

WASHINGTON – The Chinese government's system for blocking access to the Internet is now the world's "most sophisticated," according to a report released in Washington on Thursday.

The report, "Internet Filtering in China 2004-2005," was prepared by the OpenNet Initiative, a collaborative project by groups based at Harvard University, the University of Cambridge, and the University of Toronto.

Speaking at a hearing of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, John Palfrey, one of the co-authors of the report, said, "While China seeks to grow its economy through the use of new technologies, the State's actions suggest at the same time a deep-seated fear of free and open communications made possible by the Internet."

This fear has led the Chinese government to create the world's "most sophisticated Internet-filtering regime," Palfrey said.

Palfrey noted that government efficiency at filtering has increased since 2002, when the OpenNet Initiative released its last report.

"As more Internet communications methods have become popular in China - for instance online discussion forums, search engines, and Web logs ("blogs," personal online journals) - the Chinese state has extended its filtering apparatus to control expression in these new media."

Banned Topics

They have the power to block offending material temporarily or permanently, or edit it electronically.

Palfrey said that China's Internet blocking is cued by "keywords" to prevent access to politically sensitive topics such as political dissent, movements for the independence of Tibet and Taiwan, and the 1989 government crackdown at Tiananmen Square.

Filtering of these topics relies on multiple and overlapping systems, Palfrey said, and takes place at access points like cyber cafes, at intermediary points like Internet Service Providers, and at the central national Internet network.

Other, nontechnical means are also used by China's government to prevent free access to information. OpenNet Initiative representative Derek Bambauer, also speaking at the hearing, said, "Cyber cafes are required to log users and the pages they accessed, and particularly the pages they accessed that are blocked or prohibited."

Bambauer said that this puts users on notice they are being watched.

Other Media Also Controlled

Speaking before the Commission, U.S. State Department human rights official Susan O'Sullivan said that China is matching its citizens' growing Internet use with an increase in the numbers of technicians trained to block access to material the Chinese government deems offensive. About 30,000 are now employed in this way, she said.

"They have the power to block offending material temporarily or permanently, or edit it electronically. And if the Web site is domestic, they can issue a warning or close it down ."

China last year spent an estimated $800 million on Internet-filtering efforts according to Jack He, a network technologies specialist speaking in November at a symposium titled “Ethnic Relations During the Information Age.”

Princeton University China scholar Perry Link, speaking at the China Commission hearing, said that Chinese government control over all media has become tighter, not looser since Communist Party leaders Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao took power in 2003.

Link noted that Chinese media are now freer, but only on the surface and focus mainly on topics like commerce, entertainment, fashion, sports, and romance. Sex and corruption are also more openly discussed, Link said, as long as the first is not taken too far and reporting on the second is not aimed at targets that are placed "too high."

This, Link said, can lead observers to conclude that "a kind of liberalism" has set in. "And that's a mistake, a serious mistake, in my view."

"Whenever the topic is serious, from the point of view of political control at the top – topics such as [China's northwestern Muslim province] Xinjiang, Tibet, of course Taiwan, of course [the banned spiritual group] Falun Gong and so on – on those topics, the control is tighter."

Little Progress Toward Openness

Addressing Commission members and witnesses, Commission chairman Richard D'Amato recalled that when the U.S. government granted China permanent normal trading status in 2000, it hoped that China's government would gradually ease its rigid political controls over the Chinese people.

There has been little progress toward that goal, D'Amato said.

"Control over information is one of the most powerful and dangerous tools that can be developed by a government," D'Amato observed. "China has clearly worked hard to establish and maintain such control."


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