Internet has revolutionized the way people communicate and act together as a group, theoretically allowing more power to individuals and groups to access information, share thoughts and promote personal and social agenda. China has also seen tremendous penetration of Internet related technologies and usage.
The following article aims to give a quick overview and encourage a general discussion about the impact of Internet on Chinese society as a form of self-expression, social involvement, social grass-root movements and a tool for promotion of personal and social agenda in China where human rights and freedom of speech are believed to be limited and restricted by an authoritarian control. The paper will give a quick introduction on the Chinese Internet characteristics, will then present some famous recent case-studies that were translated by media and bloggers to English and discuss how those reflect on the current situation in China.
China’s Internet usage has been growing at a tremendous rate, now ranking as the world leader in number of online users. CNNIC (China Internet Network Information Center), the Chinese authority on Internet related statistics, released a report during year 2009 indicating that China has reached 298 million Chinese Internet users at the end of 2008, with an unprecedented 279 million broadband users ranking first in the world. Further growth is expected with the deployment of high-speed 3G high speed data supporting mobile networks all across China. Interestingly, growth rate between 2007 and 2008 is ~42% reaching a penetration rate of 22.6%, slightly over the global average of ~21%.
“Netizen” is an abbreviation for “Internet citizen” given to someone who is highly involved with online communities, sometimes also referred to as a “cyberspace citizen”. Netizens are believed by some to be distinguishable from other Internet users in that they focus on using the Internet as a social tool to engage in various social activities, making use of the opportunities the Internet provides in order to expand social involvement and influence, forming connections that would otherwise be impossible. Netizens engage in all forms of online social activities, such as exchanging viewpoints, reporting and discussing recent news and information, engaging in social interactions for either intellectual goals or pleasure – mostly in regards to their social affiliation or the subject of their social group. This term has been used often up to a point that it’s almost synonymous with the Internet users of China, or Chinese based cultures (including mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong), where the netizens movements constitute to most of the Internet users and online activity.
A report titled “Surveying Internet Usage and Impact in Seven Chinese Cities” (EG “Internet survey”) produced by the Research Center for Social Development, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences is conducted a bi-annual in-depth assessment of the Chinese Internet by using door-to-door interviews in 7 of China’s largest cities. The Internet survey shows that China’s Internet users are exceptionally young and that Internet adoption for the ages of up to 24 is over 80% (!) and between 60 and 80% for those between 25 and 29. Highest adoption rate for Internet is among male (57.2%), highly educated (90%), and single (77.2%) participants.
Determining how Chinese use the Internet is tricky, yet one of the common methods used to check that is through sites offering unbiased targeted traffic statistics and seeing what the most popular Chinese websites are. The most influential traffic statistics are provided by Alexa and its China targeted ranking pointing to the following website as being the most popular Chinese websites: Baidu.com, Qq.com, sina.com.cn, google.cn, taobao.com, 163.com, google.com, sohu.com, youku.com and yahoo.com. The Chinese sister site China Internet Index supports those rankings, but also provides a more detailed information on every niche in China and their global China rankings. Examining those websites it seems that most of them are portals that include news and information as well as a very developed forum/BBS and blogging services.
The Internet survey reports that 65.9% use the Internet to read news and a similar percentage does “general browsing”. China’s Internet usage is quite unique in the amazingly high usage percentage for the next 3 most popular activities – 62% “always” or “usually” play online games, 56.7% “always” or “often” download music and 53.5% download “entertainment information”. The most frequent form of communication is IRC (Internet relay chat) (68.7%) followed by ICQ/QQ (66.6%), email (63%), BBS (44.8%), MSN (43.9%) and blogs (29.5%).
An interesting find is in the section on the political participation and government services as net users see the Internet as a positive force in increased political activism even though this trend is declining with the years. Furthermore, 52.10% and 31.40% of the survey respondents indicated that they believe government control of the Internet is “Very necessary” and “necessary” respectively. More detailed questions reveal Chinese netizens would see control over junk, pornography and violence as important, with about 44% supporting control of politically sensitive information.
The issue of Internet censorship has been on the international Internet agenda for a few years as part of a more general discussion on the topic of media and citizen control on freedom of speech in the People’s Republic of China.
The Internet poses unique challenges for the Chinese Government, due to the extremely high volume of information flow, and therefore requires a complicated mixture of laws, regulations, and enforcement measures – both social and technical. It seems that the main threat for the Chinese government with the Internet is the potential anti-government uprise in regard to national issues especially regarding the issues of corruption and freedom of speech which will be discussed later in the paper. The ease of organizing a group of people to share the anti-government protest as well as publishing anti-government information has convinced the authorities that a tight control over the Internet should be implemented.
Although the Chinese government officially denies it, it is a widely accepted fact that the Internet is being censored through a combination of extremely sophisticated technical projects that monitor the Chinese Internet data-flow as well as a special taskforce – estimated at 30 thousand people – that keeps track of potential hazards for the Chinese government in the Chinese Internet and blocks them. This is achieved through the government control over the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in China, so that all communications within China and to the outside world goes through gateways which are under control.
During 1998 the Ministry of Public Security of the People’s Republic of China (MPS) in charge of the Internet censorship has initiated a complex 800mUS$ project called “Golden Shield” which was aimed at constructing a communication network and a computer information system that would improve the police’s abilities and control.
The project first started operating during the year of 2003 exhibiting the ability to block sensitive prohibited information by preventing access to various sites holding such information as well as filtering out websites that display a combination of certain keywords in real-time.
The western media covering the Great Firewall is unanimous in believing that despite the restrictions and tight Internet control “the propaganda department appears to be losing the battle for hearts and minds. This is partly because there are so many ways around the restrictions, including the use of proxy servers to reach blocked websites and the use of slang terms to discuss sensitive subjects in chatrooms. It is also partly because the volume of information available online is so huge that even an army of internet police cannot cover all billion-plus webpages, 111 million users, more than 5m blogs, countless bulletin boards, numerous languages and a vast smorgasbord of images”. Furthermore, the international Internet community has made countless efforts in order to provide both technical tools and moral support for the Chinese netizens to bypass those regulations, like the anti-Golden Shield (proxy) tools that have been set up to negate the specific advances in Chinese censorship techniques, providing bridging websites, anonymity tools and content encryption. Wikipedia, for example, a site that is usually on the blocked sites list in China has a special page on “Advice to users using Tor to bypass the Great Firewall” as well as a few other instruction pages for how to deal with censorship.
Having discussed this with my Chinese colleagues I have come to believe that the Internet censorship is considered a big success for the Chinese government, at least when it comes to encouraging users to refrain from speaking up on sensitive issues. It matters little if the Chinese government can de-facto filter and block all sensitive information as it matters little if the Israeli police can catch all those who pass the traffic-light when it’s red, but what’s important is that by knowing that there are measures being taken on those issues the common people refrain from acting against commonly enforced laws and regulations.
So, it seems that the technical enforcement are meant to serve as a basis for a more influential Chinese Internet self-censorship by the Netizens themselves.
In fear of the government restrictions on Chinese Internet many companies, website administrators and private people maintain a degree of self-censorship where they refrain from discussing banned subjects and enforce removal and banning of sensitive information within their communities.
It has been covered and criticized world-wide that Google China as well as Yahoo China, which promote themselves in the west as tools for freedom of speech with slogans like “do no evil”, are now actively exercising self-censorship within their websites and services in China, explaining that they are committed to the local laws and regulations. The international Google Search and the Blogger blogging service by Google have been blocked for a long time till late last year, when those understandings were reached.
Businesses in China whose financial future depends on website uptime fear their websites being closed by government officials or put on ban-mode in the Chinese Internet Gateways, and so those are practicing tight control over the information being contributed by users to their websites which proves much more effective than any governmental technical control possible.
Countering self-censorship – some communities, which are more committed to the freedom of speech, play a mouse-cat game allowing a time-interval before actively taking off information by themselves hoping that during the time it takes for the censorship to get into gear, the information would already be spread through enough people. Censorship could also take many forms and some censorship measures are more revealing than others, such as blacking out keywords that allow the reader to guess what was originally said.
China seems to have serious intensions to continue and tighten enforcement for all the censorship regulations in the Chinese Internet. A couple of years back, China’s president Hu JinTao has made a remark regarding the growing threat of the Chinese Internet and the Chinese government’s intentions to "strengthen administration and development of our country’s Internet culture […] Maintain the initiative in opinion on the Internet and raise the level of guidance online […] We must promote civilized running and use of the Internet and purify the Internet environment."
China has already performed several major crackdowns on Chinese websites which were allegedly acting against government regulations. For example, during 2004 – a tough year in Internet enforcement – two leading blog-services, BlogBus and Blogcn, have been brought down temporarily due to objectionable content regarding the 1989 China events and the 2003 Chinese handling of the SARS situation. While the big portal of Sina, Sohu and Netease filtered such information, those two blogging services have failed to keep up with the information flow on the subject. Later on during 2004 a few arrests have been made on account of publishing certain content on Internet forums charging the publishers with subversion.
During 2005 the Chinese crackdown moved into high gear, targeting not only the big websites but also the universities’ BBS communities. This crackdown has been discusses widely in Chinese as well as international media since the reactions to this crackdown were very fierce with 2 major student demonstrations against the government. The crackdown has been acted upon due to the Communist party’s “ideological education” campaign in universities, and was enforced by telling the universities to practice self-censorship threatening them that they would otherwise be closed down or judged. One of the new demands made by the Chinese government was that all online users on those forums be registered with their real names and details so that offenders and those publishing sensitive anti-party information be brought to trial. This demand has later been extended to the whole Chinese blogosphere. In order to keep up with the new regulations, the universities BBSes have shut down anonymous out-of-campus access to the forums resulting in extreme student discontent.
ESWN, a journalist blogger covering Chinese online media, translated some of the official announcements that boards have made to their users, some disguising the new regulations as something technical and others clearly announcing what was going on. For example:
"Dongbei University White Mountain Black Water BBS"
In order to promote the healthy development of the White Mountain Black Water BBS and in recognition of the actual situation at our university, we have decided to enhance our account management system. The details are as follows:
1. All previously approved accounts must be reconfirmed. All White Mountain Black Water BBS users must register in their true identities before the deadline of April 2. At that time, the BBS will examine the registration data for all users and delete all those whose identities have not been confirmed.
3. For new accounts, the following rules apply:
(1) You must register with your real name
(2) You must state your real work unit, including your department, major and class year
(3) You must register your real address (your building, your floor and your room number)
(4) You must list your room telephone number, and the account manager will then verify your identity over the telephone before you can be approved
(5) You can only register from an IP address inside the school
(6) Anyone whose registration information is false will be deleted
(7) All previous approved users from outside the school will be restricted to "read-only" privileges as of April 15, 2005
Although it was covered up fast, it is said that there was an active protest of over a 100 students at Tsinghua University calling for the university to withstand government pressure to which the university had to respond with a commitment to talk to the authorities. A similar demonstration of more than 200 students occurred at the Nanjing University. Criticism of this crackdown expanded to other parts of China with newspapers editorials with titles like “Universities Should Not Build Walls Around the Internet”.
ESWN continues on this issue with a translation for some the interesting reactions of the Netizens to the Chinese crackdown. The first translation is from is from a post at InMediaHK explaining that the crackdown was just another step in an already very censored surrounding, and the second translation was from the SMTH BBS demonstrating the student extreme frustration right after the crackdown (bold not in original text) :
I have been holding back for so long. Since the people above want to defeat on us today, I am going to speak these words no matter what the consequences are for me. […]
We are all only small people and poor students. These days, it is so hard to find a job now and housing is so expensive. We have received some form of higher education. We don’t hate socialism. We are not opposed to peace. We don’t long for capitalist liberalism. We don’t support the democratic movement. We are not sympathetic towards the FLG. We can discern rumors. And we may sometimes have impure thoughts when we see the photograph of a pretty woman with big breasts.
I don’t understand how a group of reasonable people in a BBS community, a server that is only a feet tall and several tens of thousands of accounts would pose a grave danger to our great country, our glorious party and the historically illustrious Tsinghua University campus?
Please! This is the information age! If people want to know something, you won’t be able to hide it. If people don’t want to know something, it will be useless for you to force it upon them. There was no need to impose this Internet blockade again.
The growing importance of neutralizing or balancing the online Chinese netizens received strong support during 2005 as the Chinese president Hu Jintao introduced a “new pattern of public-opinion guidance” through an estimated 300,000 “red vanguards” whose role was to seek out publicly undesirable online content in online Chinese webforums, report those to the authorities and promote pro-party views. The success of those “red vanguards” further legitimized the practice as now the Chinese Culture Ministry holds regular training for forum appointed web commentors.
(Main sources : Far Eastern Economic Review)
There are increasing signs that netizens are also becoming more active in fighting censorship. During April-May 2009 netizen "zhijiasha" reported that he was threatened by official Yunnan authorities to take down an unfavorable post on a Chinese BBS forum showing the local traffic police in a negative light as being responsible for an accident due to conflict of interests. The following day other netizens replied by repeating zhijiasha’s messages in other posts. Webmasters reported that the local authorities officially requested the removal of zhijiasha’s posts, yet – interestingly – while the nation-wide forums removed the post the local Yunnan webmasters collectively refused to follow.
A female student of Beijing Foreign Studies University by the online name of “Perform female student” reported during March 2009 that she was forced to quit school because her blog posts criticizing the Chinese Ministry of Education which resulted in a government pressure on the university to expel her. Although doubts have been raised as to the authenticity of her claims the online community reacted by strongly criticizing the university and the Ministry of Education, making it to the frontpage of QQ and discussed widely across all the national websites.
(Main source : ESWN translation of various Chinese media sources)
An even more interesting case is commonly known as “Eluding the Cat”, where a special netizens committee was formed to investigate the death of a detainee in a detention center which the authorities absurdly claimed died while playing the game “Eluding the Cat”. The pressure created by the online social movement resulted in the authorities agreeing to accept this committee and answer their questions as “the Yunnan provincial publicity department insisted on having fully open information in order to deal with the public opinion storm over the ‘elude the cat’ incident.” Although the formation of this committee was so chaotic and access to security cameras and other detainees playing the game was not permitted that it seemed at times as if it is a PR stunt, nonetheless the committee was allowed relatively wide access to sensitive information not available beforehand and had the right to question some of the other people in charge, working or being held at the center.
The previous story perhaps shows a softer line in the Chinese handling of Chinese online netizens power learned from previous clashes between the state and the online mobs that turned to the streets. More famous stories that received international attention include the “Weng’an incident” at Guizhou and “Longnan incident” at Gansu. In Weng’an County of Guizhou province an online netizens protest turned into a violent street clash with the Chinese authorities after the online netizens discovered that in the case of a dead girl found in the river the police ignored the dead girl’s family claim that the girl has been raped and murdered with the main suspect being the son of a senior Chinese official who was with her at the time of her alleged suicide. The incident was taking place in a highly sensitive time for China just before the Beijing Olympics 2008 which resulted in the Chinese authorities working around the clock to erase traces of the online responses and quiet the media about the incident but with very limited success. In further development of the story, the family went to complain at the local authorities, but instead of receiving justice the relatives were assaulted by the staff and the uncle of the dead girl was severely beaten (believed to have died from his injuries). This triggered a wide spread angry riot by tens of thousands of protestors initiated by the family and the uncle’s students with violent clashes of over thirty thousand protestors torching and destroying the local police offices. News about the incident spread fast across China and Chinese everywhere were discussing the case, but after a few days the Chinese Internet censorship seemed to have managed to control the spread of information in Chinese while the main remaining sources were the official Chinese government media websites through Xinhua. The official sources suggested that the public dissent helped in initiating a re-investigation of the case.
A curious anecdote of the Weng’an story was how the Chinese netizens protested their frustration of the Chinese censorship and the case online once the Chinese authorities were at work to censor the information. As a criticizing joke on the police report that the dead girl “suddenly committed suicide” while one of the boys she was with was “doing push-ups”, the Chinese webosphere was filled with discussions and posts indirectly referring to the case without mentioning it using the keyword “push-ups”. Endless creative “push-up” protests sprang up including a naked man “only doing pushups” in various Chinese landmarks, collections of artwork showing push-ups in various forms finally making “push-ups” one of the most popular keywords in the Chinese net. Interestingly, while the official websites were widely discussing the topic and “push-ups”, “push-ups” did finally become a forbidden keyword by the forum hosting services as an act of self-censorship (and not the Great Firewall of China). Western Chinese-net observers suggest that the Chinese government was allowing a professional media discussion of the story while trying to control for the amateur mob effect, but that the general understanding of how this case of netizens protest was handled by the Chinese government shed a much more elaborate system of information control giving a lot of attention and respect to the growing power of online netizens.
So far, the cases reviewed show two growing forces in China that are seem, atleast at first, somewhat contradicting to one another. On one side there are now endless new ways for the average Chinese netizen to exercise more freedom of speech and express frustrations with what’s happening in China, either locally or nationally, while on the other side the Chinese government is implementing newer more modern and advanced technologies and methodologies to try and better control information on the web and public opinion. As we’ve showed it seems that the two can coexist, especially so when netizens actions may serve the Chinese government national agenda. An interesting example of one such case is the case of the torch relay Beijing Olympics 2008 incident in France.
China was making final preparations to host the 2008 Beijing Olympics as the western world was debating the morals of hosting the event in an authoritarian regime. The 2008 torch relay, a tradition since the 1936 Summer Olympic games, became a venue for protestors of China’s politics to expand world-wide coverage of the issues. On April 7 as the torch passed through Paris the protests became very heated as pro-Tibet and human rights activists repeatedly attempted to disrupt the relay. To add fuel to the fire the Paris City government displayed a banner on City Hall which read “Paris defends human rights throughout the world” while a Tibetan flag was flown from a City Hall window by Green Party officials. Additionally, French members of Parliament paused during a National Assembly session so that they could step outside and display a banner that read “Respect for Human Rights in China” while chanting “Freedom for Tibet!”. Subsequently, the Chinese decided to extinguish the torch 5 times due to anti-China pro-Tibet protest disruption and the decision was made to cancel a scheduled town-hall ceremony and shorten the torch relay route.
In response to the pro-Tibetan protests in Paris, Chinese state media launched an attack against foreign critics. Meanwhile, thousands of Chinese, mostly students, began a series of boycotts, protests, and attacks on anything or anyone in China that symbolized France. Unfortunately the French retailer Carrefour, which operates 122 stores throughout China, bore the brunt of these anti-French protests. One website post was titled, “Boycott French goods, let’s start with Carrefour.” An estimated 1,000 protesters gathered outside the Carrefour store in Wuhan carrying Chinese flags and pictures of Mao Zedong. Similar instances occurred at Carrefour stores throughout China. There were also many calls in chat rooms and via text message for the Chinese people to boycott purchasing goods from Carrefour. Amidst the protests were allegations that Carrefour supported the Dalai Lama and Tibetan independence. While many argued that the incident proved a public-relations disaster for the Chinese government on the Tibet issue, others saw the main focus of the Chinese attention as mainly targeting the domestic audiences in promoting a nationalistic agenda. Chinese protestors believed that their boycott would be recognized by Carrefour and the rest of the world as the great strength that the new Chinese consumers possess.
Another area where Chinese national agenda and the netizens’ might be going in the same direction is keeping track of and fighting corruption in local authorities. One such case that has been a hot item recently in newspapers all over Hong Kong and China is the interesting case of Deng Yu-jiao. Deng is a waitress in Hubei province who stabbed a Chinese official to death and injured another in an alleged resistance to their sexual assault. Since the waitress turned herself in and confessed there is no doubt as to her role in the killings yet she has received tremendous nation-wide support from Chinese netizens and social groups as somewhat of a symbol of justice in a social fight against local corruption saying she acted in self-defense. Netizens everywhere supported her actions and a public letter called for her release. Each time the netizens would voice their opinions in online discussions the authorities would release an official reply statement, suggesting that “No matter how the case develops in the future, the government, the officials and the netizens have all agreed that there has been a social revolution in this information age. New technology has empowered the people with the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech to express their opinions, to which all the parties must pay minimal attention and express concern” (ESWN). Regardless of how this plays out, the authorities now have to answer to an increasing pressure from public opinion online to fully investigate the officials behavior and produce sufficient evidence to incriminate the girl, whereas in past years this was not made possible in China.
Update June 9th – Financial Times indicates that authorities acknowledge self-defense yet argue “disproportionate use of force” and highlights the role blogs and online forums play in such sensitive stories fighting for the public right to know and against censorship quoting one blogger saying “Every time we learn a little more about how the officials try to trick us, and every time we succeed to enhance freedom of information and the rule of law a little more.”
A netizen from Nanyang City with the nickname of “Nysky81” wrote a post on an online Chinese forum Tianya that has led to a netizens movement against local gangsters. The post mentioned his personal story as a small shop owner in Nanyang that was bullied by government hired local garbage collectors and reacted to his questions about the high fees and their identity in dumping huge piles of garbage in front of his store. Similar stories from other netizens soon appeared calling for action by the local authorities, making headlines in local newpapers and eventually driving the city mayor to call an emergency meeting. The mayor then announced a public apology, a 65% fee reduction and a strict prosecution of the local gangsters.
Some forms of online protest and activism are slightly more off the mainstream track of blog posts and comments with the increasing technical power netizens possess in order to actively overcome online censorship and spread their message. The Chinese internet is abound with endless tutorials and guides on how to overcome the Chinese Great Firewall of China (examples in English web), allowing the more advanced Chinese computer users free access to all censored information and websites outside China. The Chinese authorities, in turn, are increasing their efforts in enforcing censorship by shipping out new technologies, such as the one announced this month of pushing “Net Nanny” technology software by the name “Green Dam Youth Escort” to the end users as a mandatory install for any computer provider in China and registered user. Promoted as means to fight pornography and help promote harmony in society, these tools are another step in the ever increasing war to close the gaps, but there’s no doubt that the holes and counter technologies will always overcome the security measures the Chinese government can master therein always assuring a certain degree of freedom to the tech-savvy users.
Another form of resistance, although also considered highly controversial in places outside China, is the form of online piracy and hacking efforts. An example for such incidents includes government website defacement where the site is hacked and mainpage replaced with a political message. During December 2008 the official website of the Jingzhou City Bureau of Commerce was hacked and replaced with a photo of a sexy lady wearing rather exposing clothing, with the Bureau’s leader photo replaced to an AV idol and his statement suggesting immoral behavior. Various similar cases of Chinese hackers attacking websites to promote political agenda is reported often both in China and abroad on China related issues. Around the same time, another Chinese hacker group defaced the Japanese website of the Yasukuni Shrine where Japanese soldiers that occupied China during second world war are being respected.
The short case studies presented imply a more complex image of China than the one usually stereotyped in the west. While the Chinese authorities do exercise controls over the right to form social movements and freedom of speech, the Internet has contributed in forming a new medium for Chinese netizens to express their frustrations and act together to promote social agendas in fighting local corruption and protesting injustices. While the two sides – the government and the netizens – may sometimes appear to work in contradicting even conflicting directions the two do also seem to merge on a number of key issues on the national agenda. The new power given to Chinese netizens through the Internet may pose new challenges for authoritarian China, yet it might also give room for new opportunities where online social activism goes hand in hand with the idea of a “harmonious society” on a delicate balance between what promotes society and doesn’t undermine the authoritarian role. The next few years will be especially interesting to follow how that balance is reached and how the interaction between netizens and the Chinese government plays out.
 An update on the following personal sources also available for further readings : http://www.visionsoftravel.org/2009/03/28/china-internet-seo-cnnic-2009-report-chinese-netizens-survey/ ; http://www.visionsoftravel.org/2007/02/27/the-chinese-netizens/ ; http://www.visionsoftravel.org/2007/03/01/the-social-impact-of-the-chinese-netizens/
 The Guardian – http://www.guardian.co.uk/china/story/0,,1713317,00.html
 China Daily – http://chinadaily.com.cn/china/2008-07/01/content_6807540.htm
 2008 Summer Olympics torch relay http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2008_Summer_Olympics_torch_relay
 L’Express (April 8, 2008), Flamme olympique: ce qui s’est vraiment passé à Paris (French). http://www.lexpress.fr/info/quotidien/actu.asp?id=469562
 http://www.randomwire.com/2009/06/02/how-to-bypass-the-great-firewall-of-china/ ; http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200803/chinese-firewall ; http://www.howchinaworks.com/2008/10/03/how-to-get-uncensored-internet-acess-in-china-behind-the-great-firewall/