China's E-Rebels

By Liu, Melinda; Platt, Kevin | Newsweek International, October 2, 2000 | Go to article overview

China's E-Rebels


Liu, Melinda, Platt, Kevin, Newsweek International


China's rulers refuse to give up. They may have abandoned Mao's unworkable daydreams of pure socialism and a classless society, but they are defending to the death his central dogma: the supremacy of the Chinese Communist Party's authority. Now that economic necessity has dragged the country into the age of e-mail and Web sites, Beijing has wasted no time setting up new police units to patrol the Internet. Anyone who might weaken the party's control over people's lives and minds is a target: hackers, democrats, pornographers, ethnic separatists and others who seem to defy the party line. The cybercensors have shut down local Web sites and blocked access to foreign sites run by human-rights groups, Tibetan exiles, the banned Falun Gong meditation movement and some Western media outlets.

The clampdown is futile. As fast as Beijing can erect barriers, the country's Net users keep finding ways around them. They know the government has access to any e-mail sent to or from mainland-based Internet service providers. No problem. Chinese privacy lovers can hook up to Yahoo or Hotmail for free e-mail accounts outside their government's jurisdiction. The online cops can block access to any foreign Web site they deem unsuitable--but what of it? For anyone who knows how to navigate, the Web has "proxy servers," sites designed to function as untraceable detours around such obstacles. The trick is hardly a state secret, even in China. Mainstream technology magazines there have run detailed reports on the servers, providing readers with the equivalent of how-to manuals.

Ultimately there's one way China can stop the deluge of forbidden ideas: by unplugging itself. And that's not likely. Beijing's leaders are convinced that China's future depends on embracing the Net. President Jiang Zemin said as much at an international computer conference a few weeks ago in Beijing. "We should deeply recognize the tremendous power of information technology and vigorously promote its development," the official Xinhua News Agency quoted him as saying. "The speed and scope of its transmission have created a borderless information space around the world." His own son Jiang Mianheng has become an IT heavyweight in Shanghai.

Change is sure to come even faster after China joins the World Trade Organization, a milestone now expected within a few months. The market forces that are unleashed in China will make information technology "even cheaper, better and more widely available," Bill Clinton told an audience at Johns Hopkins University's graduate school of foreign affairs earlier this year. …

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