Feb 12, 2008 | 10:17 GMT

5 mins read

China: Internet Access and Control

China’s Ministry of Information Industry plans to connect more than 95 percent of the country's villages to the Internet via broadband by the end of 2008, the Shanghai Daily reported Feb. 11. The Internet poses a key threat to Beijing's grip on social stability — a channel through which people can be mobilized into mass movements. Beijing, therefore, wants to exert control over Internet access, even as it expands that access.
China plans to expand broadband Internet coverage from 92 percent to 95 percent of its villages — with some central and eastern provinces getting total coverage — by the end of 2008, the Shanghai Daily reported Feb. 11, citing the Ministry of Information Industry. Beijing wants to increase Internet access, but it also wants to control that access. The Internet — a key gateway to public information — has proven difficult for Beijing to control. It is a channel through which scattered pockets of unrest across the country can be linked and people can be mobilized into a mass movement. Petitions can be sent out or protests coordinated via text messaging to threaten China's single-party rule. As such, the Internet poses a major threat to the central government's efforts to maintain social stability. About 210 million Chinese citizens use the Internet, and that number is expected to grow within the next few months to more than 216 million, passing the amount of Internet users in the United States. Currently, only one-quarter of China's Internet users live in rural areas. However, with nearly 70 percent of the country's 1.3 billion people living outside of the cities, Beijing predicts that the bulk of future growth will be more rural than urban. There are two issues at play here. First is state censorship of Internet content, including blog sites and search engines such as Google and Baidu. Second is citizen access to the Internet and Beijing's efforts to track the identities of Internet cafe users and regulate Internet service providers such as Comcast. Beijing already has an extremely tight grip over the first, and it is now making sure that its grip over the second is just as snug. The Chinese government’s firewall is one of the world's most sophisticated state online-censorship systems, utilizing a mix of technology, intensive manpower and political pressure to police the Internet. The blocking or screening of search results on politically sensitive topics such as the Falun Gong is the norm — a norm that foreign Internet businesses such as Yahoo and Google have to accept if they do not want to be shown the door. But why can’t control over content be enough? The answer is that Beijing can have total censorship powers over people's access to, for example, "Falun Gong" searches, but it cannot stop people from using the Internet to coordinate gatherings that Beijing perceives as a threat to its authority. Beijing has done an effective job of giving state-owned search engines such as Baidu the lion’s share of the market, tracking petitions organized online and shutting down university chat rooms when political chats get too intense. But tracking and managing the flow of content through the Internet cannot stop such events from happening, which means the government can intervene only after a problem has been detected. Shutting down China’s Internet is unfeasible for both economic and social reasons. Public outcry over attempts to restrict citizens’ freedom of movement on the Internet has forced the central government to back down on plans before, so the next best solution was to control the environment in which people link up to the Web — leading to a ban on new Internet cafe licenses in 2007. Connectivity technology has spread like wildfire through China in recent years, pushed by rising disposable income levels and purchases of mobile phones and broadband access. The Chinese state owns every China Mobile shop selling mobile phones. But it does not own every Internet cafe, the owners of which often fail to register their client users even though they are legally required to do so. Beijing also is unable to monitor local government enforcement of its directives. China’s Internet cafes serve as meeting places for the young and old alike, where money and undesirables can come together. Cafes with 300 computers earn more than $556,000 a year, Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications has estimated, while China's 2007 online games market yielded about $1.45 billion in revenues. By preventing private owners from opening new Internet cafes and by directing where new ones can be opened under state control, the Chinese government is trying to reabsorb the Internet cafe sector under state control. The price of Internet cafe licenses in Shanghai, Guangdong, Anhui and Shanxi now tops $139,000 — more than 2,000 times their original cost a decade ago. Ultimately, Beijing sees the Internet both as an opportunity and as a threat, something to expand upon and yet control. It is a tool to shape the flow of information to the countryside and to encourage the movement of businesses toward rural areas. And, with more than 70 percent of all Chinese Internet users under the age of 30 and about 60 percent of users men, China sees the Internet as a necessary tool to monitor a sizable chunk of its young, male and unemployed population.

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