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China 50 years of communism Thursday, 30 September, 1999, 08:52 GMT 09:52 UK
China and the challenge from cyberspace
Chinese police use 3D headgear
Looking at a technology-filled future: Chinese soldiers watch 3-D TV
By the BBC's Gillian Gray

As China prepares to mark the 50th anniversary of the People's Republic, 20th century methods of communication are opening up access to information in China, and posing fresh challenges for the authorities.

Around 20 years ago, during the Cultural Revolution, only propaganda was available.

China: 50 years of communism / Revolution Glossary
The only other information you could get hold of were the broadcasts that people heard in secret - the Voice of America or the BBC. Even as recently as the late 1970s, anyone discovered listening to these stations risked a jail sentence.

Things improved when Deng Xiaoping set China on the path to what he called the socialist market economy.

Chinese Internet surfers
Internet use is booming in China
Gradually, Chinese people had more access to news and other information. But the real change came in the late 1990s.

Technology improved, and the country had access to programmes on cable and satellite television, better telephone communication systems including cell phones, and international calls - and the Internet.

Despite the fact that Internet access is still available only in the cities, it has enjoyed spectacular success in China in the five years since the first users went online.

 OMNIBUS: An investigation into China's new media

Web freedoms

Figures released in July 1999 showed that there were about four million Internet users in China.

By the end of the year, numbers are expected to reach eight million.

"Now you can talk to anybody, anywhere," explains Charles Zhang, a director of one of China's few privately-run Internet portal sites, is used by Chinese officials
"The average person in China now knows more and is developing independent opinions and becoming more sophisticated and balanced. Everyone is moving forward, even officials are influenced by the Internet and use," he adds.

Most Internet users are young male professionals with above average income, who use the Internet to find out about news and current affairs, and for entertainment.

Chinese Internet users can now express themselves freely to a degree never before experienced - in a country that forbids public gatherings and demonstrations.

According to Charles Zhang, Western commentators exaggerate the extent of censorship by the authorities.

Policy challenge

"You can block a demonstration with tanks, but you cannot use tanks to block the Internet," says Gua Lian, a philosopher at a Chinese academy, looking back to the violent suppression of the Tiananmen Square protests in June l989.

Beijing newspaper reader
Newspapers are still subject to strict control
And it is in this respect that the phenomenal growth in Internet users is posing a challenge for the Chinese government.

If the country is to continue to enjoy economic growth and modernisation it needs the Internet and so has invested a good deal of money in it.

But the country still has a totalitarian government, and the authorities continue to exert tight control on information.

In China, the media is looked on as a tool that the government must control in order to keep the country and the economy stable.

1999 is a particularly sensitive year, with the 10th anniversary of Tiananmen Square and the 50th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic.

China internet surfer
But blocked information can still slip through the net
At the beginning of the year, China's leaders were reported quietly to have 'tightened the screws' on liberal intellectuals.

Journalists, magazines and newspapers that strayed too far from the prescribed line were sent stern warnings. An influential book publisher and an "adventurous" newspaper were closed.

There was a crackdown on foreign satellite programmes carried on cable television channels.

BBC News Online blocked

But the Internet is much more difficult to police.

Falun Gong cult
The Falun Gong cult's web presence was targeted
Zhuhai Culture Weekly, a newspaper published in Guangdong, was closed down for publishing work by environmental journalist Dai Qing and all the staff lost their jobs.

But according to Dai Qing, whose writing has been banned since l989, her work was recently published on the Internet in her name by her editor with no response from the authorities.

Nevertheless, Chinese police departments have been authorised to monitor individual users of the Internet, and they can ask service providers to block troublesome web sites.

A number of sites including the BBC, CNN, ABC and Voice of America have been blocked, and a Chinese computer executive who supplied e-mail addresses to a human rights organisation in the United States was sentenced to two years in prison.

Falun Gong Web crackdown

The strength of the Internet was brought home to the Chinese authorities by the religious group Falun Gong.

Sect leader Li Hongzhi
A government Website criticised sect leader Li Hongzhi
They used the Internet to spread their message, and to organise huge public demonstrations that took the government completely by surprise.

When the government cracked down on the group and its leader, Li Hongzhi, it had to try to crack down on the Internet too.

Many Websites had been carrying material relating to the group. The government suspended them for a couple of days, and one practitioner with his own Website was imprisoned.

The authorities also launched their own site directed against Falun Gong, with around 100 articles trying to refute every aspect of the sect - including one in which Li Hongzhi's mother's midwife claimed that he was a trickster.

The existence of this Internet site might seem like overkill, but China's leaders have good reason to fear religious groups.

The first dynasty of China, the Han dynasty, was toppled by a quasi-religious sect, and they have played a major role in Chinese politics in the 2000 years since then.

Access not lost

It is harder for the government to reach people based abroad.

New York-based organisation Human Rights in China's Website is blocked, like hundreds of others, but determined users can get round the firewall by using proxy servers.

Human Rights in China member Xiao Cheng reports that a statement on their site about Falun Gong attracted a lot of interest and was immediately cut, pasted, and spread around by several Chinese electronic newsletters.

Hours later, it was discovered that the same article had been posted inside China's chatrooms and electronic bulletins so people could download it and e-mail it on, with no possibilty of tracking the person responsible.

So messages for a Chinese audience can very easily be made available to the country's Internet users.

For more than 2,000 years, China looked inwards to a world seen as complete in itself.

Now there is no turning back. Technology has linked the country with the outside world and as we move into the next millennium, it is a revolution only just beginning.

See also:

09 Dec 98 | Science/Nature
22 Jul 99 | Asia-Pacific
12 Feb 99 | Asia-Pacific
01 Aug 99 | Asia-Pacific
26 Dec 98 | Asia-Pacific
23 Jul 99 | Asia-Pacific
14 Jul 99 | The Company File
16 Sep 99 | The Economy
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