China seeks to make the Internet toe party line

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The Independent Online
TERESA POOLE

Peking

China has wasted no time in adding its voice to international calls to curtail access to information through the Internet.

A joint statement from the Central Committee of the Communist Party and the State Council this week warned that pornography and "harmful materials" had entered cyberspace. "We must take effective measures to deal with this," it declared, giving no indication of what those measures might be.

It was not the first time that China's leaders had admitted concerns about the power of the Internet in an authoritarian society, while also realising that information technology is the key to the country's economic development.

It was only last May that commercial access to the Internet became available in China, provided by the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications in association with Sprint, the US telecommunications company. The growth has been exponential. Between March and July the number of Internet users in China jumped from 3,000 to 40,000, while the number of computers with access rose from 400 to 6,000. Until then, access to the Internet had been largely confined to academics and university researchers linked to a system set up by Qinghua University in Peking.

For a country where news management is a well-defined art and foreign radio broadcasts are regularly jammed, the free flow of traffic down the information highway poses a daunting challenge. Just this week, President Jiang Zemin, on a visit to the Liberation Army Daily, held forth on his opinion of news values: "The most important thing in running newspapers is to uphold the party and political line." It is not a view that is current among exiled Chinese dissidents as they meet in cyberspace or in the Tibet information news groups.

In June, China's Minister of Posts and Telecommunications, Wu Jichuan, said the government would limit access of Chinese users "to some Internet information". He added: "By linking with the Internet, we do not mean the absolute freedom of information." He did not explain how China might stop it, but did say that foreign firms will continue to be banned from providing information services. Besides fears of free exchange of information, the government is worried foreign information services would quickly a grab market share from China's own domestic news agencies.

There are more than 2 million personal computers in China, and the official Xinhua news agency forecast that Internet users would have risen to 100,000 by the end of 1995. Such is the popularity of the Internet that access to the system is now regularly clogged. Under a deal with Sprint, the first quarter of this year will see access capacity tripled in Peking. This year will also see more cities brought on-line.

Even the Chinese government realises that information technology is one of the keys to the country's modernisation, and has earmarked the sector for rapid development - even if it has not quite worked out how it will maintain control. "Good use of the Internet is of great importance to increase global information exchanges, promote economic construction and development science," this week's statement said. It is also good for spreading official propaganda.

Earlier this year, the China Accounting Office teamed up with a Hong Kong company to release the monthly State Statistics Bureau figures and other government information on to the Internet "to help the world know more about China".

One answer from Peking's point of view is indirect access, as intended by China Internet Corporation, a company controlled by Xinhua news agency. This Hong-Kong based company will select and translate business and economic information on the Internet and deliver it to corporate subscribers in China.

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