The Internet in China

The way it is used

As Jack Qiu points out, “From the beginning, buying computers and going online have been advertised as fashionable entertainment” in China more than a tool for modernizing work processes or accessing information. “Pop-up windows, flashy banner ads, and tinkling promotions sometimes occupy half the browser space.”[1] Yet Internet shopping is still relatively uncommon. More than anything else, going online is an equivalent of window shopping, but with much more serendipitous communication with other online flâneurs than in real life. “Social software” such as bulletin boards and chatrooms, as well as instant messaging services, are much more widely used than in the West. (For example, corporate employees often “talk” to their clients on MSN Messenger.) Chinese Internet users primarily see the Web as a space to form social relationships and express opinions.[2]

According to official figures, China had 172 million Internet users in September 2007, or 13% of the population. In a survey conducted by the China Internet Information Centre in 2006,  43% of the users polled used some sort of bulletin board system (BBS) or forum. [3] Tianya, with 30 million page visits daily and 8 million registered users, claims to be the world’s largest BBS. University bulletin boards are popular with students and graduates; even Nike has its own BBS. Also, a quarter of the users polled visited blogs, and according to one estimate, China had 16 million bloggers in 2005, out of 100 million around the world.[4] This means that stories appearing on the Chinese Internet, and not necessarily on news portals but on interactive sites, can have a much bigger impact than in many other countries. Indeed, some of the blogs have already been published as books.

Part of the reason for the popularity of blogs is that the stories posted on the news portals – such as sina.com, sohu.com, netease.com, and even the Chinese portal of MSN – are often exactly the same, officially worded news. So when an interesting story – whether a report, opinion or gossip – appears on a BBS, readers will often notify their friends, and it can reach tens of millions. This is why, since 2001, the government has shut down a number of forums and university bulletin boards on which posters published comments critical of the government. But the best-known bloggers in China are “identity bloggers” who have nothing to do with politics. In 2003, a blogger called Muzi Mei has acquired national notoriety by posting accounts of her numerous sexual experiences, complete with sound recording. More recently, she has been eclipsed by Furong Jiejie (Sister Lotus), who posted accounts of her own beauty, initially on the Tsinghua University BBS. Both of their names are household words in today’s China; the singer Wang Rong has even come out with a popular song, “Furong jiefu” (Brother-in-Law Lotus), while Muzi Mei has been able to publish a book (though it was subsequently banned and the head of the publishing house demoted).

As these examples show, Chinese websites – including bulletin boards – have less of a separation between “serious” topics and entertainment, and are in general less specialized, than English-language ones. Right next to indignant nationalistic postings, one can find lurid stories about prostitution and clearly fake photos about the supposedly abnormally large penises of an African tribe.[5] Pop-up ads for pornography appear even on the site of official Xinhua News Agency.

Perhaps because of the popularity of online role-playing games, Chinese bulletin boards – even highbrow literary ones – are replete with elaborate rankings of posters, based on time of registration, number of postings, senior members’ reactions and so on. On some boards, the ranks the form of school grades (from “kindergarten” to “fourth-year university student” and so on); on others, of military ranks. In addition, the personal information that appears with posts usually includes number of posts and number of points (presumably linked to rank). Perhaps because it allows accumulating points, there is often a scramble to post the first comment – called a “sofa” (沙发) – to a post. (Often, the comment contains nothing but the words “Got the sofa!”) There are also multiple approval and disapproval ratings, ways for readers to express their support or opposition to a post, and so on. Often, readers who click on “support” – and thereby propel the poster to a higher rating – seem to reward the originality of a post and, rather than actually support his or her position in a debate. This encourages ambitious posters to be eloquent, extravagant, and often extreme.

Despite round-the-clock moderator presence – which is mandated to filter out “harmful” content – “flaming” seems to be accepted on most boards and often goes to the extreme of death threats. In several of the cases discussed so far in this book, what seemed a mild disagreement with the dominant nationalistic view triggered such threats. For example, when a poster disagreed with boycotting the company that marketed the game software with the Bruce Lee dog suit and wrote that it was more important to support a successful Chinese company, several respondents wrote “Give my regards to your female family members” and one, more directly, “I am going to fuck your mother”. Online violence, sometimes leading to offline attacks, has been documented in a number of instances, most notably after the 1996 demonstrations against Japan after an incident involving the disputed Diaoyu Islands, the bombing of the Belgrade embassy in 1999, the grounding of an American spy plane in China in 2001, and the anti-Japanese boycott movement of in 2005. The spy plane incident led to what has been described as the first large-scale “hacker war” between China and the US, while the attack on Japan immobilized the sites of the National Police Agency and several corporations with subsidiaries in China. In 2007, a series of intrusions by Chinese hackers have been reported by the Pentagon, the German Chancellery, the Japanese Defense Agency, and the French Ministry of Defense. As Jack Qiu pointed out, the “collectivist tendencies and links to state and corporate establishments” – including in their rhetoric – distinguished Chinese “hacktivists” from their Western predecessors, who stage their attacks in the name of the individualistic and anarchist “hacker ethic”.[6] The China Hackers Union’s Manifesto declares that,

in a future information war, Chinese hackers will build an impenetrable Great Wall for the Chinese Internet. … Because, as hackers, our duty is to look for loopholes, to safeguard Internet security; as sons and daughters of the Chinese race, who all have Chinese hearts, we will use our weapons to hurt the enemy, to protect the security of the fatherland. … [Therefore,] hackers’ thinking must be nationalized; hackers’ organization must be regularized; hackers’ actions must be unified. … We love the computer, but love our fatherland more.[7]

Peter Yuen, a researcher of the Chinese Internet, writes that “nationalist sentiment is not only unchecked but characterizes the bulk of online political debate”.[8] But neither violent cursing – which led a number of celebrities to closing down their blogs – nor extreme mass reactions to mobilization on the Chinese Internet are limited to nationalistic causes. In the 2000s, there have been a number of high-profile “Internet hunting” cases, where a personal denunciation of an individual or company as immoral led to the involvement of thousands of readers in virtual or even real-life witch hunts. In August 2006, a professor of psychology in Shanghai launched a “movement” to “catch” a foreign teacher who, on his blog, bragged about his easy conquests of his female students. The article, which attempted to identify the man and his Chinese sex partners, was reproduced on dozens of forums, including Tianya, and many eager posters joined in piecing together information that could lead to his unmasking and, hopefully, expulsion.[9]

The story made it to television: a commentator on Phoenix Satellite News – a Hong Kong-based channel very similar to state television in both style and stance of its programming – expressed support for the “movement,” though warning against it growing into a wholesale targeting of foreigners.[10] But another 2006 “Net hunt” was actually launched by a foreigner who posted the photo of a car that had pushed her while she was riding her bicycle in Peking; the culprit was caught and forced to apologize on television.[11] Earlier in the same year, a man denounced a college student he suspected of having an affair with his wife on the Tianya BBS. In response, readers teamed up to uncover and then post the student’s address and telephone number, then showed up at his university and his parents’ home, forcing him to drop out of school. Others denounced the university for not expelling him, with one poster saying it should be “bombed by Iranian missiles.” Many others said the student should be beheaded, beaten, or have his hands chopped off, or that he and his alleged lover should be drowned.[12] (This in a country where Muzi Mei is a celebrity, and apparently no one thinks of drowning her.)

The student denied having an affair with the woman, but admitted to having met her at a gathering of fans of the online game World of Warcraft. The game has three million players in China, more than in any other country. The popularity of online role-play games based on group violence may provide a clue to the phenomenon of “Internet hunting” and perhaps to the easy success of nationalistic mobilization. Yet the fact that the Internet is seen as a place to seek justice – not just by moral vigilantes but also by academics and lawyers speaking out against police brutality or eviction of peasants from their farmland – also has to do with a widespread lack of trust in China’s court system. On the other hand, the cultural critic Zhu Dake suggests that the state-sanctioned right of “the people” to impose its moral judgement, like during the Cultural Revolution, ultimately strengthens its legitimacy in the eyes of the majority (whose moral rectitude is thereby reaffirmed). In Yu Hua’s popular novel How Xu Sanguan Sold His Blood, Red Guards parade Xu’s wife, in her youth a well-known beauty, through town as a prostitute. They explain that they had already picked up all other kinds of enemies of the people — landlords, capitalist, spies and so on — but were still missing an example of the “decadent morality of old society”.

The way it is regulated

China is generally considered as having one of the least free Internet environments in the world. The Open Net Initiative describes government controls on Web content as “pervasive, sophisticated, and effective”[13]. They include over 60 sets of regulations and involve a large number of personnel, reportedly including some 30 thousand state security employees as well as part-time “state information security liaison officers,” many of them college students who get computers and Internet access in return for reporting suspicious content.[14] According to the Temporary Regulations on Internet Publishing, issued in 2002, Internet service providers may not – among others – publish content that might endanger “the reputation and interests of the state”, “national unity” or “territorial integrity” or that promotes “heresies and superstition”, and are required to employ personnel to monitor such content. Although these code words make it amply clear that content supporting Taiwan independence or the Falungong is prohibited, the regulations are left purposely vague so that any official can request the removal of any information that he deems inappropriate. Most of the blocking of sites occurs at the level of China’s Internet gateways, through which Internet service providers are required to route their services. To get a licence, ISPs must also sign a declaration that they will not provide content that contravenes the “interests of the state.” As a result, there is extensive blocking of sites (up to 10% of the Web[15]) with content deemed politically undesirable; search engines and blog service providers filter content by keyword and/or remove certain results/postings; bulletin board moderators delete offending content; blogs are sometimes removed and sites shut down. In response to blocking, Google developed a new version for users in China that offers filtered content (the original Google site remains intermittently blocked); Yahoo has complied with a government request to provide information on a poster who was subsequently imprisoned; and MSN has removed a blog from MySpace.[16] In 2004, the government shut down three popular domestic blog providers, and allowed them to reopen after implementing filtering mechanisms. In 2005, individuals maintaining blogs and other non-profit Web sites had to register and obtain content provider licences, and the Education Ministry issued a separate order to universities to censor their BBS. The order stated that “[h]armful information should be detected and deleted… [message boards] on which harmful information has been spread should be shut down.” Thus, the successor to Yitahutu, the Peking University BBS that was shut down in 2004, has a rule of “no politics allowed”, while many other university BBSs became read-only sites.[17] Most bulletin boards also post notices to warn users to keep to the rules, though the primary purpose of these notices is probably to signal their own compliance to the government. The news site of Tom.com, a partner of Skype, simply displays the following characters above the window where posters write their messages: “Patriotic, Law-Abiding, Self-Disciplined, Truthful, Civilized”. According to one author, posting prohibited words on BlogCN results in a polite error message that says “You are using forbidden words, please try again,” while on BlogBus, ellipsis marks show up in place of the prohibited terms.[18] When MySpace – a site backed by Newscorp, which also ownes Star TV, a satellite television that broadcasts to China – launched its Chinese version in 2007, it followed the practice of domestic providers — on whose portals cartoon figures of virtual police appear every now and then for this purpose — by asking users

to click a button if they spot any “misconduct” by other users. This “misconduct” includes actions such as “endangering national security, leaking state secrets, subverting the government, undermining national unity, spreading rumors or disturbing the social order” – according to the site’s terms and conditions. Attempts to post content containing a variety of sensitive terms, such as “Taiwanese independence” […] or the Dalai Lama, produce the following message. “Sorry, the article you want to publish may contain inappropriate content. Please delete the unsuitable content, and then try reposting it. Thank you.” [19]

Domestic search engines Baidu and Yisuo, in addition to filtering, also terminate the connection of users who search for blocked keywords. More than 120 Chinese and foreign-owned ISPs have responded to the Internet Society of China’s call to sign a “Public Pledge of Self-Regulation” by stating that they would block “unhealthy content”[20]. Some posters who write about innocuous topics but use sensitive-sounding keywords begin their messages with disclaimers. Thus, someone who protested a slogan used by a local government in Guangdong Province because he thought it sounded “separatist” wrote “This message has no unhealthy content. Please check and let it through. Thank you!”[21] As a result of these precautions, ISPs are rarely punished, although in 2007, a Henan Province ISP was shut down for publishing an “illegal” message. 

Internet cafés have to display their own regulations prohibiting users from accessing “prohibited pages,” and they are required to have video monitoring systems. Internet cafés as well as BBSs and chatrooms are required to track customers’ Internet use and keep it on file for 60 days. Users who post unacceptable materials on bulletin boards are sometimes banned from the forum, and in extreme cases arrested. (For example, student Liu Di was charged in 2002 with “threatening state security” after posting comments about labour unrest on the Peking Normal University BBS; Li Zhi was sentenced to eight years in prison in 2003 for accusing officials in Sichuan of corruption; and a fifteen-year-old girl named Wang was arrested the same year for posting a message comparing the government to a prostitute.) At the same time, lack of clear guidelines and the presence of human monitoring means that the filtering, blocking, and removal of content is inconsistent, so that some posts may appear on a BBS for a few hours or days and then be deleted. In the latest sign of increasing surveillance, a government-commissioned report by the Internet Society of China, released in October 2006, recommended that posters register their blogs with their real names and identity card numbers, and the city of Chongqing began requiring Internet users to register with the government via their ISPs before browsing the Web from home.[22]

Despite these varieties of what Rebecca MacKinnon calls “outsourced censorship,” the Chinese internet is not unfree. Despite occasional deletions, bloggers happily rail against outsiders, in ways that go clearly against the government-endorsed narrative and explicitly violate clauses against hurting the “feelings of nationalities” (such as calling for the bombing of Indonesia), and even make remarks critical of the government (such as “the Communist Party are all thieves”). Why can they get away with this while, for example, a Wikipedia article or a professor’s website with a report on unrest in a village are blocked? The shutdown of a number of “pro-democracy” forums – such as Democracy and Human Rights (民主和人权) since 2003 suggests that the governments is more willing to tolerate attacks by nationalists than by liberals, and that posters learn this over the long run.

And what about censorship that appears to be exercised by “the people”? In a 2003 survey, almost 90% of Chinese agreed that some measure of control and management of the Internet is necessary.[23] While critics are right in questioning the accuracy of a survey on “sensitive” questions that is vetted by the government both during the research and before releasing the results, there is other evidence that suggests that at least a vocal minority wishes to impose even tighter limits on the expression of others’ views (while, of course, seeking freedom to express their own). At a Sydney language school popular with students from Asia, one of the questions students are asked to write a discussion paper on is “Should the Internet be censored?” According to a teacher at the school, a large majority of Chinese students consistently argue that it should, in order to protect the integrity of the family and/or the nation.

In 2005, mainland Internet users launched a petition campaign calling for the boycott of 22-year-old Taiwanese media personality Yang Chenglin, who had a large (presumably teenage) fan base in the mainland, for her appearance in a Taiwanese TV programme several years earlier. The sequence they posted showed her first responding incorrectly to the question how long the Anti-Japanese War lasted, and when told that it lasted eight, not eleven years, answering: “Oh, just eight years!” The posters, who found this offensive, compounded their charge of antipatriotism with an unrelated quote of Yang saying “In my previous life, I must have been Japanese! Walking in the snow wearing a kimono, that feels really noble!” After the campaign, Yang reportedly did not appear in the mainland for a year, and when she did she made a tearful apology to a journalist. The scene, as reported in Huaxi Dushi Bao 华西都市报, is eerily reminiscent of the enactments of contrition by victims of Cultural Revolution struggle sessions. Yang expresses her gratitude to those who called for the boycott for “making me see my errors” and asks her fans to “give me a chance to correct my mistakes”. She promises to “make an effort to work [on myself], to bring to everyone a Yang Chenglin that is completely different from before”. In this story of thought crime and reeducation, the “Net hunters” who successfully censor Yang are referred to as “wangyou,” “Net friends”, obviously a positive term, while Yang speaks in the language of a reformed criminal. (Not everyone was persuaded. In January 2007, another net campaign linked two favourite targets: this time, an ad featuring Yang Chenglin resulted in calls for the boycott of McDonalds, which hastily pulled the ad off air.[24] Posters responded with the usual enthusiasm: on Tianya, for example, a post by mandymeng1984 received hundreds of responses within one day. The tenor of the replies was much in the familiar bloodcurdling vein: youke7699 wrote, for example, that “McDonalds is a stupid cunt (shabi), and it asked another stupid cunt to speak for the hamburgers. Fuck them! No Chinese with some blood in his veins should eat those.”[25]

In what ways is the Chinese Internet then a free-speech space and it what ways isn’t it?

According to one blogger, posters are left alone as long as they limit themselves to expressing ideas, but as soon as one calls for action the site is blocked. Indeed, the Patriots’ Alliance Web was shut down for a week when it gathered almost 70 thousand signatures for a petition opposing a decision to grant Japanese companies contracts to upgrade Chinese rail lines.[26] In line with the principle that differentiates what is acceptable for a domestic versus a foreign audience (内外有别), a critical opinion being picked up by foreign media will almost automatically invoke charges of disloyalty and result in official action. In 2004-05, police appeared to tolerate anti-Japanese violence up to a certain limit, but repressed attempts to document it, beating up two photographers for the foreign press who tried to cover violence at the 2004 Asian Cup match.

The idea that whistle-blowing is bad is a widely shared one. As one poster – borrowing liberally from Party newspeak – wrote in response to a comment criticizing the government as oppressive in a debate on Sohu.com, “Naturally, we must solve our domestic contradictions, but they can only be solved by ourselves; faced with quarrelsome outsiders, we must still resolutely oppose and attack them.”[27] When consular official Chen Yonglin requested asylum in Sydney, claiming that he would face retribution upon return home for his reluctance to report on Chinese Falungong practitioners in Australia, reaction among local Chinese students was almost overwhelmingly negative. Even those who were neutral towards the Falungong thought that Chen, as a diplomat, should not have gone public with his spying accusations against the Chinese government. Would the defection of a Soviet diplomat have caused popular resentment among educated Russians – including nationalists like Solzhenitsyn, who remained an icon in his own later exile – during the Cold War? Unlikely. Is the idea that criticizing the government internally can be patriotic, but doing so abroad cannot, specific to Chinese nationalism? Or is it the world that has changed?

[Go to next chapter]


[1] Jack Linchuan Qiu, The Internet in China: Date and Issues. Annenberg Research Seminar on International Communication Working Paper, 2003, pp. 14-15. http://annenberg.usc.edu/international_communication/Papers/JQ_China_and_Internet.pdf[2] Karsten Giese, “Surfing the Virtual Minefield: Doing Ethnographic Research on the Chinese Internet,” Berliner China-Hefte 28:20-43 (2005). See Giese’s China BBS Research site here[3] China Internet Information Center, 中国互联网络发展状况统计报告 (Statistical report on the Internet’s state of development in China). http://www.cnblog.org/, July 2006.[4] Ibid.[5] http:/news.tom.com/1006/2004923-1351385.html

[6] Qiu, The Internet in China, p. 16.

[7] All members of the China Hackers Union, “中国黑客联盟宣言” (Manifesto of the China Hackers Union), 22 February 2002. http://www.cnhacker.com/alliance/declaration/index.html. The declaration was still available in June 2007, but had been removed by September, when the attacks on Western government websites received global publicity.

[8] Peter Yui Chi Yuen, “Civilisation Online: How the Internet challenges elite discourses of the Chinese nation(s),” paper presented at the Hawaii Conference on Social Science, Honolulu, 2003. Read the paper here.

[9] The initial article is “网络追逐流氓老外大行动” , posted by Zhang Jiehai on 25 August 2006. Read the post here.

[10] On 1 September 2006.

[11] Cynthia Li, “Cyclists and drivers at war on teeming city streets,” South China Morning Post, 4 December 2006, p. A6.

[12] Howard W. French, “Online Throngs Impose a Stern Morality in China,” New York Times, 3 June 2006.

[13] Open Net Initiative, Internet Filtering in China in 2004-2005: A Country Study. 14 April 2005. The following section is based primarily on this report.

[14] Qiu, The Internet in China, p. 11; also Sharon Hom and Amy Tai, “Human Rights and Spam: A China Case Study,” in Spam 2005: Technology, Law and Policy. Washington, D.C.: Center for Democracy and Technology, 2005, pp. 63-69. Read the study here

[15] Jonathan Zittrain and Benjamin Edelman, Empirical Analysis of Internet Filtering in China. Berkeman Center for Internet and Society, Harvard Law School, 2002. Read the report here.

[16] In 2007, a lawsuit was filed against Yahoo on behalf of the jailed journalist. Yahoo’s shareholders rejected a proposal by management to issue a resolution condemning censorship and to set up a human rights commission.

[17] He Qinglian, “The Hijacked Potential of China’s Internet,” China Rights Forum 2/2006, pp. 31-48.

[18] Hom and Tai, “Human Rights and Spam,” pp. 63-69.

[19] Lu Enjie, “MySpace now available in China – minus politics and religion,” Texyt.com, 24 April 2007. Read the article here

[20] Hom and Tai, “Human Rights and Spam.”

[21] The post appeared in a thread entitled 支持一个中国!反对”四个梅州”!促进梅州”统一” (Support one China, oppose “Four Meizhous,” promote Meizhou’s “reunification”!) on 11 December 2006. Read it here.

[22] 21st Century World Economic Herald, 19 October 2006. Read the article here in Chinese or here in English translation by China Digital Times. See also “Registration Required,” China Rights Forum 3/2006, p. 6.

[23] Guo Liang et al., Surveying Internet Usage and Impact in Twelve Chinese Cities. Research Centre for Social Development, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, 2003. Download the report here.

[24] “杨丞琳再遭网友抵制 代言麦当劳广告被删除” (Yang Chenglin meets netizen boycott again; McDonalds spokesman ad cancelled,” Sina.com, 24 January 2007. See article here.

[25] “杨丞琳代言麦当劳 万人签名拒吃!!!” (Yang Chenglin as McDonalds spokeswoman: gather ten thousand signatures for a boycott!), Tianya.cn, 4 January 2007. See post here.

[26] Adina Matisoff, “News Roundup, August through October 2004”, China Rights Forum 4/2004, p. 8.

[27] Read the discussion here.

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