China uses jail threat to keep control of internet

Click to follow
IN A Shanghai jail, a 30-year-old software entrepreneur is about to become the first victim in China's battle against anyone who sees the internet as a tool for political change.

In the next week or so, Lin Hai is almost certain to be found guilty and sentenced after a closed-door trial for "inciting the overthrow of state power". His alleged crime? Providing the e-mail addresses of 30,000 Chinese computer users to Big Reference, a US-based pro-democracy internet magazine.

China has enthusiastically embraced the information technology revolution, and is spending millions cabling the country and connecting schools and universities to the internet. But the prosecution, and likely jailing, of Mr Lin is China's warning that it still believes it can control how the technology is used by the country's surging number of internet users.

Of particular concern to the authorities is the ability of Chinese dissidents to collaborate with their exiled counterparts, and to use the net to make direct contact with computer users inside China. Earlier this year Peking's cyber-police tried, unsuccessfully, to shut down the web site of Tunnel, an online dissident newsletter, which contains material from China which is distributed via the US.

In practice, Peking seems to have already lost the war. Regular updates of Big Reference are still e-mailed to around 250,000 addresses in China. The government may block access to high-profile media sites such as the New York Times and some BBC news sites. But an hour or so in one of the country's myriad internet cafes would give any internet novice access, for instance, to the website of the London-based Tibet Information Network, which one might have assumed would be high on Peking's list of sites to be blocked.

For those who prefer to stick to Chinese-language material, the web offers a multitude of Taiwanese newspapers, which are, of course, banned in China. And a variety of news sites provided detailed accounts of the arrests of more than two dozen dissidents over the past two weeks, all members of the China Democracy Party.

It was internet access which earlier this year first brought news to China of the attacks and rapes of ethnic Chinese women in Indonesia during the anti-Suharto riots in May, nothing of which had been reported in the national media. A groundswell of discontent amongst intellectuals at Peking's failure to respond to the attacks finally provoked an official condemnation two months later.

There are now more than 1.2 million internet accounts in China, each one often used by several people to shang wang, (log on to the internet) and the government estimates this will reach 5 million by the year

2000. Sales of personal computers reached 1.5 million units in the first half of this year, representing a year-on-year growth rate of 27 per cent, which is expected to continue for the foreseeable future.

While Peking harbours fears of cyber-dissidents, the vast majority of this new class of Sino-surfers use the internet for the same reasons as their counterparts in more democratic countries. After the Starr Report, Chinese were quick to click into everything omitted from the brief reports in the state-controlled newspapers.

A survey of users conducted by Sohoo, a Chinese-language search engine based in China, found the favourite directories were computers/internet, entertainment, and sport. Almost all Sohoo users were graduates, and nearly half worked for either private or foreign firms. Sohoo, launched in February, offers 100,000 links to sites.

Charles Zhang, who has a physics doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, admitted before Mr Lin's trial started, that Sohoo steered clear of sites likely to antagonise the authorities. "We have informal communications with the Ministry of Information Industries officials, and telecom officials, to make sure that the content is correct, very politically correct in China." Had there been any trouble? "There is some informal discussion and debate, but no problems," said Mr Zhang. When the internet first took off, Peking believed it might be possible to create an internal network ring-fenced from the rest of the world.

"People did not understand the nature of the internet, the openness, the information sharing, that there are no borders," said Mr Zhang.

"But the officials already realise that it is not possible simply to block sites. Their understanding of the internet is maturing.

"Ordinary Chinese people want to enjoy the open internet, just like any other people in the world."