Internet challenge to great wall of media censorship

The latest challenge to China's strict media control comes from nobody. Nobody@usa.net, that is. This is the e-mail address which since 3 June has been sending out Tunnel, China's first electronic underground magazine which, according to its inaugural statement, aims "to break through the present lock on information and controls on expression".

According to Chinese sources, who understandably did not want to be named, the Chinese-language e-mail magazine is written and compiled in China, sent to the United States, and then distributed back to the Chinese network. The magazine urges readers to pass on editions to others, assuring its readers that this would not put them at risk from "relevant departments". In fact, e-mail users in China assume that the security apparatus routinely monitors messages, just as it does phone-calls.

Most articles in the five issues of Tunnel have been by US-based authors, suggesting that overseas Chinese dissidents may be involved in the project.

Subjects covered so far by Tunnel include the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and a copy of the script of the US-made documentary film Gate of Heavenly Peace about the Tiananmen massacre.

Although opening an Internet account still means registering with the Public Security Bureau, China has generally embraced the information highway and is encouraging the spread of the technology across the country. Commercial Internet accounts were first available in May 1995 and officially there are now 150,000 users in China, with the figure forecast to double by the end of this year.

For a while, western media sites on the World Wide Web, including CNN and various US newspapers, were blocked, but this was stopped by the end of last year. Most of the sites still put out of bounds by the Chinese cyber-police involve pornography and discussions of human rights.

Tunnel, however, is exactly the sort of product which the Chinese authorities do not want to see. Newspapers and television inside China are very strictly controlled and there are no underground publications like the samizdats which used to be passed around in the former Soviet Union. Although the number of newspapers and magazines has mushroomed during the Nineties, censorship of anything which can be considered political has tightened over the past two years, as the country's propaganda chiefs have orchestrated a "spiritual civilisation" campaign. Fashion and lifestyle magazines have thrived, but can exist because they eschew all politics and sensitive social and economic subjects.

Tunnel's inaugural editorial made it quite clear that such self-censorship is not on the agenda: "The autocracy in the past was able to block what we see and what we hear and rectify our thoughts because they monopolised the technology for dissemination of information. The computer network has changed this. It disseminates technology onto the desks of each and everyone of us ... hence it can undermine the two pillars of an autocratic society - monopoly and suppression."

t Authors wishing to publish in Tunnel should submit their works to tunnel@earthling.net.

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