February 5, 1996
China Issues Rules to Control Internet
Controlling the Internet, Chinese Style
HANGHAI, China -- Inside a gray six-story office building, a dozen young men gathered around a conference room table Saturday evening to discuss the Internet.
By SETH FAISON
Only one was over 30, and all looked like computer nerds, the kind of people who prefer to spend a Saturday night talking about their favorite software, rather than venturing into one of the lively cafes on the street below.
Yet with the Chinese authorities tightening control over information networks, even something as innocuous as an Internet club is now suspect. So the participants met with an air of secrecy, engaged in a lengthy debate over lukewarm cups of tea on how to avoid government interference, and wondered about the true identity of five late-comers who sat to one side of the room and said little.
"The Internet is still very sensitive in China," said a 24-year-old computer technician, who like the other participants asked not to be named. "We're not trying to do anything illegal, but if the government finds out about us, we're finished."
The Internet is just starting to grow in China, and the authorities are trying to keep it firmly within their grasp. Sunday, China issued a new set of rules to regulate Internet use, the latest in a recent series of moves to assert control over the flow of information.
Rather than try to choke off Internet access, as some of the young men gathered around the table had feared, the regulations instead appear to be steering the flow of electronic information through officially controlled ports so that it can be better monitored.
The new regulations require that any network offering Internet service be subject to close supervision by the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications or one of three other designated government agencies, the New China News Agency announced.
The new regulations are intended to insure "healthier development of the exchange of international computer information," the news agency said. But the rules were clearly also concerned with information the government deems threatening.
"Neither organizations nor individuals are allowed to engage in activities at the expense of state security and secrets," the agency said. "They are also forbidden to produce, retrieve, duplicate or spread information that may hinder public order."
The transmission of pornographic or obscene material was also expressly banned.
The rules come at a time when Internet users in China have gained easy access to a wide range of politically sensitive material posted by dissident groups based outside of China.
Human Rights in China, a New York-based group; the Center for Modern China, run by the dissident writer Liu Binyan and based in Princeton, N.J.; and China Spring, another New York-based dissident group, each offered reports that were accessible within China via the Internet on Sunday.
China's security apparatus is widely believed to actively monitor an enormous volume of telephone and fax connections, and it is expected to do the same with Internet messages. It is an open question whether the authorities will try to block access to information they do not like, and whether they would succeed if they tried.
Access to the Internet, however, is still a privilege for relatively few in a country where few homes have a private telephone let alone a computer. Most who do have access to a computer do so through their workplace.
About 4,000 people have registered for Internet accounts with the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications in Beijing and Shanghai since it began offering China's main commercial Internet service in mid-1995.
Zhang Shiyong, a computer science professor at Fudan University in Shanghai who directs the university's Internet operations and advises Shanghai's Post and Telecommunications on computer networks, estimates that fewer than 30,000 Internet users in China have an e-mail address, mostly university professors and students, and scientific researchers.
Others familiar with the Internet assert that 50,000 to 100,000 in China may be using it, many of them university students with irregular access because of limited computer time, and others who privately pay a registered user to share an e-mail address.
One of the main impediments to Internet growth is the high cost. While university professors and students get e-mail free, Shanghai's Post and Telecommunications office charges $75 a month for 40 hours of use, a sizable fee in a city where a typical office worker makes $250 a month.
For all the free speech potential that the Internet portends, Robin Munro, Hong Kong director of Human Rights Watch/Asia, said few if any dissidents within China had access to it, because of limited access to computers. He suggested that, with official monitoring, the Internet would not be an ideal route for transmitting politically sensitive information anyway.
Most professors who use the Internet focus on research, Zhang said, while most graduate students he knows use it to get information on how to study overseas.
"We're not happy about that, of course, but we don't stop it," he said. "We want to encourage them to use the Internet as much as possible."
Proponents of the Internet hope that Chinese users will eventually send 70 percent of their electronic transmissions to other domestic users, Zhang added. He estimates that only about 10 percent is domestic now, with the overwhelming majority of e-mail directed overseas.
Sunday's regulations were not the only recent effort to control information services in China. Last month, the government announced that foreign news organizations selling economic information would now be supervised by the New China News Agency, which will have the final say over who can have access to the service and how much they pay.
President Jiang Zemin, in one of several efforts to assert wider political authority, recently called on the nation's news media to "pay special attention to politics." In less formal wording: obey orders.
In early January, China's Ministry of Post and Telecommunications suspended all new subscriptions to the Internet indefinitely. While the official reason was that this was necessary while the network's technical capacity was expanded, officials of the Shanghai Post and Telecommunications said that authorities in Beijing suspended the system's growth while they formulated the new regulations.
Now that the regulations are out, new subscriptions will presumably resume soon.
As concerned as they are about the Internet's capacity to spread undesirable information efficiently, China's leaders also recognize its benefits.
Shanghai's municipal government recently announced plans to link its tax offices and social security services via a local Internet connection, as well as to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in telecommunications infrastructure.
"Over the past few years, with the growth of a market economy and progress in spreading information, computer information networks have been playing an active role in accelerating China's economic, scientific, technological and educational development," the New China News Agency reported in January.
At the gathering Saturday evening, nearly all of the participants voiced optimism that the Internet's expansion in China would help businesses, in particular, because of the way if would expand their access to information.
All, that is, but the four conservatively dressed men and one woman who came late and sat in a clump to one side. None offered a name card when everyone else passed out their own, and none signed the e-mail address list.
They watched, they listened, they said little. One took notes. And everyone else was reminded that, Internet or not, best watch what one says.
Other Places of Interest
Internet Hangzhou Folks Club
Asian Studies: Internet in Mainland China
Copyright 1996 The New York Times Company