The Internet in China
The Internet explosion of the 1990s was hailed as the death knell of governments that relied on information control to maintain power. Many believed that, unlike newspapers and television, the sheer volume of content and data entry points would make the new Internet medium impossible to censor.
They were wrong.
But the Chinese Communist Party, though with decreasing success, has not only been able to keep unwanted content off of the majority of Chinese web browsers. It has also managed to turn the Internet – the most free and democratic form of mass communication form yet to be developed – into a trap for catching those engaging with “unsavory content,” such as human rights. Pornography and celebrity gossip, however, are easily accessible.
In other words, the Chinese Internet has been turned into a police-net. The latter is precisely the name of a product that CISCO, an American company, developed and sold to the Chinese Public Security Bureau for the purpose of catching the Falun Gong and political dissidents. It is part of the Public Security’s multibillion-dollar Golden Shield project, designed to create a digital network of ID recognition and Internet surveillance.
With Policenet technology, Chinese security can stop any citizen on the street, scan his ID card into a hand-held device, obtain a record of his last 60 days of Internet activity – including email communications, and take him away.
CISCO and other Western companies like Nortel, Intel, Yahoo, and Google have armed the Communist Party with the ability to control and monitor cyberspace. While both landline and cell phone communication have not been safe for years under the Communist Party, now ordinary Chinese can be arrested for surfing the “wrong” website or speaking their mind in a “private” email.
In 2005, Yahoo! provided Chinese security information that helped the Communist Party convict journalist Shi Tao. He was sentenced to 10 years in jail after leaking an internal Party message about the 15th anniversary of the Beijing Massacre to overseas websites.
Hundreds, if not thousands of Falun Gong adherents have been arrested in such a manner for sending information overseas exposing the persecution they are facing or telling fellow Chinese about it in personal e-mail communications (sample case). The vast majority of reports about the persecution of Falun Gong in China posted on this website have come after the informants consciously undertook such risks.
Freeing the Chinese Internet
The Party’s policy of controlling the Internet, meanwhile, is so public that it is even employing cartoon characters dressed as a policeman named Jingjing and policewoman named Chacha (screenshot). When netizens surf Shenzhen city-based portals, Jingjing and Chacha appear, answering questions about “healthy use” of the Internet. Jingjing and Chacha’s purpose, according to a Shenzhen Public Security Bureau official in charge of the project, is to intimidate and encourage self-regulation (http://chinadigitaltimes.net/2006/01/image_of_internet_police_jingjing_and_chacha_online_hon.php).
Internet police do not rely on self-regulation, though, as sensitive content is blocked. Of the ten most frequently blocked websites in China, four extensively report about the persecution of Falun Gong. Others include Voice of America and Radio Free Asia.
According to a study conducted by Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, searches on keywords with Falun Gong are also among the most tightly blocked on Chinese filters (see Berkman Center report).
The Party then fills the void created by blocking outside information about Falun Gong with its own propaganda. Attacks on the group authored by the Party’s Xinhua News Agency are often found on Sina.com and other popular Chinese information portals. Thanks to Google’s complicity, web pages that slander Falun Gong will come up first on searches conducted in China (http://www.rfa.org/english/china/2006/01/26/china_google/).
Yet what about those Chinese users who want to regularly access websites of the Falun Gong, Amnesty International, and Freedom House, or even the Washington Post and CNN.com?
They have increasingly more options around the Great Firewall. A number of overseas software engineers have been able to provide programs to mainland users that allow them undetectable access to any website.
Bill Xia, of Dynaweb, Inc., has won widespread acclaim for his “Dongtai” software. The program allows surfers to use proxies so as to bypass Chinese Internet censors, and hides the user’s IP address from the Internet police (http://www.infosecnews.org/hypermail/0602/11185.html).
Falun Gong adherents have also established a Global Internet Freedom Consortium to connect a network of technologies that could be used to break through Chinese Internet and other telecommunications controls.
Though Xia and others’ programs have been effective for many Chinese users in evading Internet controls, these software engineers face an uphill battle to constantly update their tools to meet the challenges of the ever-evolving and well-funded Chinese Internet surveillance network.
Cyber-warfare outside China
Over the summer of 2007, attacks on computers at the Pentagon and several British ministries were traced back to the PRC’s People’s Liberation Army, and Chinese spyware was widely found on German government computer systems (http://www.computing.co.uk/computing/news/2198053/chinese-spread-cyber-attacks).
The Chinese Communist regime has been using similar strategies to try to cut off Falun Gong communications and steal information for years. It has repeatedly tried to hack into and shut down overseas-based Falun Gong websites and sent viruses to the computers of Falun Gong practitioners around the world, in one example of the persecution’s global dimensions (links to: http://www.stanford.edu/class/msande91si/www-spr04/readings/week5/cia_warns_of_attack.html, /displayAnArticle.asp?ID=2340).
In one case, Jeremy Howard of the Australian-based Fastmail.fm noticed that someone was using very sophisticated and persistent technology to try to simultaneously break into six private email accounts. All belonged to Falun Gong adherents (http://www.abc.net.au/lateline/content/2005/s1397482.htm).
For more information:
- Geoffrey Fowler, The Wall Street Journal “Chinese Internet censors face ‘hacktivists’ in U.S.” (link).
- Ethan Gutmann, The Weekly Standard “Who Lost China’s Internet”? (link).
- “Aiding the Policenet,” an interview with Ethan Gutmann (link)
- Harvard Berkman Center for Internet and Society China report 2005 study (link)
- OpenNet Initiative report on China (link)
- The Global Online Freedom Act (link)