China and the Internet: An Uphill Fight for Freedom

Harvard International Review, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

China and the Internet: An Uphill Fight for Freedom


ANONYMOUS

Although China is home to the largest population of internet users in the world and has witnessed increasing creativity and "pushback" from its netizens, the country's internet environment remains one of the most controlled in the world. China's 1.3 billion citizens have only a limited ability to access and circulate information that is vital to their well-being and important to the country's future. The Chinese authorities maintain a sophisticated and multilayered system of mechanisms for censoring, monitoring, and controlling activities on the internet, mobile telephones, and other information and communication technologies (ICTs). Government-imposed obstacles to accessing ICTs are significant, including restricted access to advanced applications, government control over the backbone of the network, and a freeze on the opening of new cybercafes. In recent years, the government has also mounted new attempts to manipulate online discussion, such as recruiting commentators to guide opinions and forcefully encouraging self-discipline among private internet companies and web-hosting services. Perhaps unsurprisingly, China has the world's largest number of individuals imprisoned for their online activities.

The internet was first opened for public access in China in 1996, and the number of users has since grown exponentially, from 20 million in 2001 to over 200 million in 2008. In 2008, China surpassed the United States as home to the largest number of internet users in the world, with the government-linked China Internet Network Information Center (CINIC) announcing a total of 298 million users. Broadband access is widespread. Use of mobile telephones has also spread quickly. According to the ITU there were 633 million mobile-phone users in China by the end of 2008, giving the country a penetration rate of nearly 50 percent and the world's largest population of mobile users. Access to the internet via mobile phones has increased in recent years; state-run media reported that 117 million people used this service in 2008, more than double the total from the previous year. The increase in both the overall internet population and the number of mobile internet users may be attributed in part to a gradual decrease in the cost of broadband and mobile-phone access.

Realizing the potential contributions of the internet and other ICTs to economic modernization and growth, the Chinese leadership has encouraged the expansion of the relevant underlying infrastructure. From the beginning, however, the Chinese government sought to assert its authority over the new medium. The underlying system of infrastructural control and filtering technology has been more or less complete since 2003, while more sophisticated forms of content manipulation have gained prominence only recently. In some instances, the government has shut down access to ICTs or applications surrounding specific events. During the summer and fall of 2007, prior to the 17th Party Congress, the authorities carried out a widespread shutdown of data centers housing servers for websites, online bulletin boards, and comment forums, affecting millions of users.

The Current Status of Control

Though Chinese citizens have widespread access to internet technology and applications, such as video-sharing websites, social-networking tools, and email services, extensive restrictions remain, particularly on advanced applications whose providers are based outside the country. The You Tube video-sharing site and overseas blogging platforms like Wordpress and Blogspot cannot be reliably accessed in China; the email services Gmail and Hotmail are frequently jammed. The social-networking site Facebook, which is popular among Chinese college students, was periodically blocked during 2008, especially during the run-up to the Beijing Olympics. In cases where international applications are available, as with Google search engines and Skype Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), the foreign corporations in question have agreed to alter their services and implement monitoring and censorship of political content in order to gain access to the market. …

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China and the Internet: An Uphill Fight for Freedom
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