International Herald Tribune

China's tyranny has the best hi-tech help

LONDON You can find anything you want on China's Internet: sex, fashion, business, travel, entertainment, romance. Anything, that is, except democracy, Tiananmen, Taiwan, human rights, Tibet and hundreds of other subjects. Chinese searching the Internet for key, or "black" words are likely to be arrested, tried and imprisoned for up to 10 years on charges of subversion, revealing state secrets or spreading propaganda injurious to the state. They meet a similar fate if they use "black" words in something they post on the Internet, especially for foreigners to read.

This is the biggest campaign of state censorship that has ever been carried out, John Palfrey, executive director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School, testified to Congress last April. Fear, he said, "has led the Chinese government to create the world's most sophisticated Internet filtering regime."

This surveillance and blocking, Harvard experts have found, extends over tens of thousands of sites. "China's system prevents users from accessing most politically sensitive content on the Internet," Palfrey said in his testimony, "including information about opposition political groups, independence movements, the Falun Gong spiritual movement, the Dalai Lama, and the Tiananmen Square incident."

Some Westerners will shrug their shoulders, filing Internet censorship in their mental index of Chinese human rights violations. Despite its rapid economic expansion, they presume, China is at best a second-world country when it comes to sophisticated technology.

But Beijing has the very best help. Some of the world's most famous Internet companies have lined up to show China how to cripple the Web. A partial list includes Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Cisco, Sun Microsystems and Skype. Each has its expertise. Google removes from its Chinese site whatever the Chinese deem politically sensitive. According to Reporters without Frontiers, "Cisco Systems has sold several thousand routers to enable the regime to build an online spying system and the firm's engineers have helped set it to spot 'subversive' key-words in messages."

In 2002, Yahoo signed a document called a "Public Pledge on Self-discipline for the Chinese Internet Industry." That agreement led to disaster for Shi Tao. Shi, 37, worked for a business daily. On April 30, last year, he was sentenced to 10 years behind bars for revealing a top state secret, to foreign Web sites. The secret was an official warning to the news media on the threat to China posed by dissidents returning to mark the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen killings. Yahoo and Cisco furnished the technology that permitted the security services to identify Shi.

According to Joseph Kahn in The New York Times (IHT, Sept. 8, 2005), "Shi's case alarmed critics of the Chinese government because his posting did not reveal the sender or the source of the information. ... Using investigative techniques that were not revealed during Shi's trial, Beijing state security officials pinpointed the Chinese source of the e-mail."

All the American companies helping the Chinese police state insist they are merely obeying local laws. A Cisco spokesman said, "Our perspective is that it's the user, not Cisco, that determines the functionality and uses to which the technology is put." Google's spokesman stated that defying could result in Google News being kept out of China altogether - and losing millions of dollars worth of business. "The trade-off," he explained, is in the "best interests of our users located in China." Yahoo's chief executive officer also justified his company's actions: "It's just really important for us to have good relations and good partnerships with governments all over the world." "This is a complex and difficult issue," said Brooke Richardson, of Microsoft. "We think it's better to be there with our services than not be there."

Optimists in the West suggest that Chinese economic reform will soon be followed by political reform. There is little evidence for this. President Hu Jintao is more repressive than his predecessor. Most of the Chinese returning from Harvard, Oxford and the Sorbonne will dissolve into the vast sea of Chinese whose view of the world is shaped by the Communist Party.

But should we care what Chinese are reading on the Internet? John Palfrey of Harvard is blunt: "The ramifications of this censorship regime should be of concern to anyone who believes in participatory democracy. How the Chinese government restricts its citizens' online interactions is significantly altering the global Internet landscape."

Americans who think that in any event China is far away may be jolted by this suggestion from Rebecca MacKinnon, a former foreign correspondent in China now specializing in Internet censorship: "If these American technology companies have so few moral qualms about giving in to Chinese government demands to hand over Chinese user data or censor Chinese people's content, can we be sure they won't do the same thing in response to potentially illegal demands by an over-zealous government agency in our own country? Or will we all sit there like frogs in water being brought very slowly to a boil?"

(Jonathan Mirsky is a journalist specializing in Chinese affairs.)