In November 1992, an oceanographer in Seattle called my office after finding a bottle that had been drifting across the Pacific Ocean for 11 years. A leaflet inside contained information about Wei Fingsheng, then China's most prominent political prisoner, who had been sentenced to 15 years in prison in 1979. Until the contents of the bottle arrived on my desk in New York City, the world had not heard anything about Wei since his sentencing.
A decade later, we no longer have to rely on fortuitous messages in bottles to receive news from inside the People's Republic of China (PRC). The country's opening to the outside world, the rapid expansion of access to the Internet, and reforms in state-owned media reveal a greater flow of information within China and between China and the rest of the world. Over the past two decades, China's rapid economic growth allowed it to emerge as an economic and political power in the international community. China is now a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and will host the 2008 Summer Olympic Games. With booming Internet use and an expanding high-tech sector, the government lauds the country's transformation into an "Information Society."
Despite this remarkable progress, however, the country is still a one-party state, and its leaders are fearful that free speech combined with the free flow of information could destroy their political legitimacy and control over society. Maintaining the status quo and preventing democratic reform is the central agenda of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Although Wei Jingsheng was eventually released and exiled after international pressure and attention, thousands of political prisoners still languish in China's jails, including an increasing number of individuals who published material online. The government views the Internet as vital to economic and technological development but is expending significant resources to maintain control over both Internet content and public access to that content.
The rise of the Internet has provided PRC citizens with unprecedented opportunities to access a diverse range of information and perspectives. Furthermore, citizens' rising demands for greater freedom of expression, combined with new technologies, are challenging government controls and facilitating conditions for the growth of civil society and the emergence of free press.
China is experiencing a digital revolution. Internet usage has continued to expand exponentially, rising from two million registered Internet accounts to 59 million people with 21 million computers online in the past five years. Some optimistic government officials predict that China's online population will reach 300 million in three years, which represents more than 15 percent of its 1.3 billion people. Although most Internet users today live in large cities, Internet cafes are becoming ubiquitous throughout China.
Since 1995, the PRC government has been the main force promoting the expansion of the Internet and high technology in China, in order to improve the country's economic competitiveness as a "knowledge-based economy." Though they acknowledge that China needs the economic benefits the Internet brings, authorities also fear the political fallout from the free flow of information. Since the Internet first reached the country, the government has used an effective multi-layered strategy to control Internet content and monitor online activities at every level of Internet service and content networks.
As PRO citizens increasingly rely on the Internet for news and perspectives banned from the official media, the government has escalated its efforts to control online content. Known to the world as the "Great Firewall," a sophisticated infrastructure blocks access to "harmful" or "subversive" websites and monitors users' online activities, allowing the government to enforce self-censorship of China-based websites and arrest Internet users for publishing online. …