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Beijing Strangles the Internet By: Frederick W. Stakelbeck Jr.
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, February 02, 2007

The internet has become an important part of Chinese culture, with the country’s increasingly diverse population embracing the technology’s many powerful features. According to the state-controlled think tank China Internet Network Information Centre (CINIC), the country had 137 million internet users as of December 2006, up 26 million users, or 23.4 percent, from 2005.

Unfortunately for the country’s technology-starved citizens, Beijing has also taken notice of this emerging phenomenon. At a meeting of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) last week, Chinese President Hu Jintao ordered government officials to use new tactics and advanced technologies to “purify” and “regulate” the country’s Internet by guiding the opinions of the public. President Hu called for officials to use the Internet as a platform to spread “healthy” information and to improve conditions for the development of websites that carry “good content.”


President Hu’s comments come on the heels of a report released by the CINIC in January that estimated the country will have more internet users than the U.S. in two years. Based on an annual 24 percent growth rate, the CINIC estimates are optimistic, but not entirely unattainable, given the country’s burgeoning middle class and the proliferation of cheaper, more powerful computers throughout the mainland. Furthermore, the government has encouraged citizens to go on-line for education and business purposes, hoping that a well-educated and entrepreneurial population, under strict state supervision, will lead to greater regional and global influence, increased economic opportunities and foreign investment.


But for President Hu, the undisputed economic and educational opportunities of internet adoption also pose a threat to the very power, influence and control of the country’s communist elite. “Whether we can cope with the internet is a matter that affects the development of socialist culture, the security of information and the stability of the state,” the president said in an address to the country’s Politburo.


China Internet Association (CIA) Councilor Hu Qiheng noted last month that Beijing was already considering additional ways to supervise blogs by having the country’s 20 million bloggers provide their names and any pseudonyms to state officials during Internet registration. Beijing already uses a large contingent of “Internet Police” to monitor bulletin boards, websites and blogs for messages and keywords related to human rights, religion, and democracy. Access to overseas websites and domestic websites that criticize the ruling communist party are prohibited. In addition, Beijing has closed tens of thousands of independently run internet cafés that were havens for intellectual dialogue on the grounds that state officials were “protecting children from unsavory influences.”


With the possibility of nearly 200 million registered Internet users by 2010, pressure is building for the communist regime to take forceful action now to control the internet, while at the same time giving the impression as a “protector of the welfare of the people.” Although President Hu’s recent comments failed to mention government censorship, many observers feel his comments mask a hidden intent to suppress, control and ultimately punish both individuals and organizations that support self-determination, free speech, and open discussion. “[We] must maintain the initiative in opinion on the Internet and raise the level for guidance online and promote the “civilized running and use of the Internet” and “purify the Internet environment,” the president noted recently. Promote the civilized running of internet? Purify the internet environment? Both statements sound benevolent on the surface, but the average Chinese citizen is likely to have a far different perception of their meaning than President Hu and the communist ruling party.


Despite Beijing’s previous transgressions in the area of free speech and human rights, foreign businesses continue to position themselves for a piece of China’s “Internet Pie,” heeding President Hu’s calls to “release the economic potential” of the country’s internet. Economic overtures aside, however, Beijing is quickly gaining a global reputation as a no-nonsense bargainer where the internet is concerned. This month, News Corp. Chief Executive Rupert Murdock announced his company was finalizing an agreement with several partners led by powerful private equity firm International Data Group (IDG), to launch a localized version of the popular MySpace.com. in China. The site, which allows users to post pictures, videos and blogs, is expected to be released later this year.


But Murdock, along with his wife Wendi Deng and their partners have significant hurdles ahead, as they negotiate with Beijing to secure an internet license and modify website content to conform to China’s strict internet regulations. Why has China decided to take such a tough stance during these negotiations? Imagine for a moment the global uproar if uncensored images of police brutality during the upcoming 2008 Olympics were posted on the internet? Think of how the bloody Tiananmen Square protests would be handled today by an internet obsessed world? Beijing knows full well that the stakes are high, since negative publicity will hurt the country’s overall global aspirations. To avoid this, Beijing has decided to take a very active role in any foreign-controlled internet ventures.


Of course, no discussion of Chinese internet censorship would be complete without mentioning Google. In a frenzied rush to secure the country’s vast internet – and its profits – Google agreed last year to censor its search engine, modifying it to exclude controversial keywords such as “Tiananmen Square massacre” and “Falun Gong movement.” The revisions evoked instantaneous outrage from human rights groups who said the company had “sold out” to Beijing. Since that time, Google officials have backpedaled, with the company’s two founders saying last week they made a “mistake” that was bad for the company. What they failed to say, however, was whether changes would be made to address unresolved censorship issues.


In addition to placing pressure on foreign businesses looking to operate in China, Beijing has increased pressure on the international community. In September, a three-year agreement was reached giving the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the non-profit body formed in 1998 and assigned oversight responsibility on behalf of the U.S., greater autonomy. However, this arrangement has come under fire recently, as China and other developing countries have pushed for a greater say in the Internet’s overall administration and development.


At a July ICANN hearing, several statements were made by foreign governments, many of which are aligned with China and openly hostile to the U.S., seeking to diminish U.S. control over the internet. “No single government should have a pre-eminent role in Internet governance,” one statement noted. Dr. Paul Twomey, CEO of ICANN, said the recent agreement is a step on the path to an international “multi-stake holder organization.”


There is also a growing movement led by China to place control of the internet under the auspices of – gulp - the United Nations. Backed by Syria, Egypt, Vietnam and South Africa, China has said it wants to “globalize” the internet’s administration, giving control to a monopoly of nations. Recalling the UN’s record of inaction on human rights issues where powerful members are involved, it is only logical that China would support such a move, seeing UN control of the internet as a second-best alternative.


In a position of internet authority, there is little doubt that China would use its growing economic, geopolitical and military influence to bully the UN into giving it “special” internet oversight powers. After all, some in the international community would say, how could the UN deny management of the Internet to the world’s largest user? For better or worse, a proposed multi-stakeholder environment is gaining momentum. For the U.S. and its citizens, this is a dangerous development and should be resisted at the highest levels of the U.S. government.


Will the U.S. allow countries such as China with a history of abuse, torture and religious oppression, gain control of the internet? Any network, especially one the size and scope of the internet, needs a centralized control mechanism for operational stability. Arguments that the internet is just another example of America’s hegemony over cyberspace are off-the-mark.


According to the CINIC, Beijing residents account for 30 percent of the country’s total number of internet users, so it is safe to assume that a majority of the ruling communist party leaders are “surfing the web” daily without prohibition. Perhaps they intend to show the Chinese people what a wonderful communication and research tool the internet can be by using it themselves? Not likely.

President Hu made his intentions concerning the internet clear earlier this month, saying, “We must ensure that one hand grasps [Internet] development while the other hand grasps administration.” Unfortunately for the Chinese people, President Hu’s management style usually involves grasping freedom by the throat.

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Fred Stakelbeck is a Senior Asia Fellow with Washington-based Center for Security Policy. He is an expert on the economic and national security implications for the U.S. of China's emerging regional and global strategic influence. Comments can be forwarded to Frederick.Stakelbeck@verizon.net.

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