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Wednesday, 5 June, 2002, 14:19 GMT 15:19 UK
China loses grip on internet
Chinese youths using internet
Internet chat rooms are starting to thrive

The internet is changing China profoundly, breaking down the stranglehold on information held by China's communist rulers.

The Chinese are now the second biggest internet users in the world. Last year more than 56 million of them logged on from home, and that number is growing by 6% a month.


A hi-tech police force keeps watch over the internet 24 hours a day

But the Chinese state will not give up its monopoly without a fight - and using the internet to express dissent in China is still a very dangerous game to play.

One man, Haung Qi found that out to his cost, as he explained in a rare interview.

In 1998 he set up a website in the western Chinese city of Cheng Du. The site rapidly became a magnet for discussion of everything from human rights to democracy.

"As the website developed it began to reveal more and more deep problems in China's society," he said. "Gradually we began to come under a lot of pressure from the government.

"First the police came to shut down the site, then agents from the state security bureau."

Web police

Not long after the interview was recorded the police came for Huang Qi. He posted a last message on the site.

"The police are here," he wrote. "Thanks to all of those who care about democracy in China. Goodbye."

Post for web company
According to a survey, China's home internet is second only to the US
Last August Huang Qi was found guilty of attempting to subvert state power. He will spend the next few years in a bare concrete cell.

Inside an imposing building in Beijing is the Ministry of Information Industry, where a hi-tech police force keeps watch over the internet 24 hours a day. It has been nicknamed "the great fire-wall of China".

Its job is to keep ordinary Chinese people from accessing unhealthy information. That could be anything from Playboy to the BBC.

The Chinese state is going to enormous lengths to control the web. But despite its best efforts, the internet is changing China.

Debate widens

At 0300 the printing presses at The People's Daily are in full flow. The newspaper is the mouthpiece of the Communist Party. Its stock in trade is industrial output figures and the latest Communist Party dogma.

It is not a good read.


Information is now being spread and exchanged in ways unthinkable just a few years ago

But a few floors above at the offices of the People's Daily website, something very different is going on. The site has real news stories and its internet chat-rooms rage with debate - some of them quite racy.

The site is rather grandly named "the strong country forum".

There is one message group which is talking about patriotism.

"Today patriotism in China means loving the Party and loving Socialism," said one contributor. "You can destroy China's environment, but you can't criticise the Party."

For the first time ever the internet is allowing people from every corner of China to engage with each other in conversation and debate. And it is changing China in other ways too.

Spreading the word

China's state-run television recently reported on a huge mining disaster in the south-west of the country in which 81 miners were killed. But without the internet this report would probably never have happened.

"The local government used all kinds of measures to try and stop us reporting the disaster," said Zheng Sheng Feng, the bureau chief for the local Communist Party daily.

"They threatened lots of journalists and succeeded in stopping many of them from publishing their stories. The officials knew they would be in big trouble if the story got out."

Frustrated and angry, Mr Zheng and his colleagues took their stories and posted them on the web. Word began to spread. Soon journalists in other provinces picked up the story and finally news of the disaster reached Beijing.

"Without the internet the story may still have got out," said Mr Zheng. "With so many people killed it would have been hard to keep it a secret for ever, but it would have been much more difficult."

The internet is changing China in subtle but profound ways. Information is now being spread and exchanged in ways unthinkable just a few years ago.

The Chinese state's once total control on information has been broken and hard as it may try it has little hope of regaining that control.

See also:

06 May 02 | Asia-Pacific
23 Apr 02 | Asia-Pacific
05 Apr 02 | Asia-Pacific
20 Jul 01 | Asia-Pacific
27 Sep 00 | Asia-Pacific
21 Aug 00 | Asia-Pacific
15 Jul 00 | Asia-Pacific
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