Finding freedom behind China’s Great Firewall

In the beginning, some observers predicted that opening China to the Internet would unleash an uncontrollable flood of information that would lead to the collapse of the Chinese government.

But events of the last decade have proved otherwise, as the Chinese government demonstrated that it can both censor — and, to some degree, tolerate — the flow of information over the Internet.

The issue of Internet censorship in China, including Chinese government attempts to block access to some Web sites and censor discussion groups, is routinely met with criticism from human rights groups and Western observers. But the issue of Internet censorship and access to information in China is far more complex and nuanced than these criticisms and many Western media reports suggest.

“I think it’s been exaggerated by the Western media,” said one Beijing Internet user, who spoke with IDG News Service on condition of anonymity. “But what’s there is there, no one can deny it.”

Hu Yong, chief consultant at ChinaLabs Ltd., an Internet consultancy in Beijing, agreed that Western media reports place too much emphasis on Internet censorship. “This kind of news indeed happens in China but its importance is overemphasized,” he said.

Focusing too closely on Internet censorship overlooks the expanded freedoms of expression made possible in China by the Internet, Hu said. “It’s much more free and open than people imagine,” he said.

But there are boundaries to this freedom. Internet users who post content online or participate in discussion groups are generally savvy enough to know what topics test the government’s tolerance for free discussion and as a result temper their remarks through self-censorship, a phenomenon noted by several observers and decried by advocates of free speech outside China.

Understanding the scope and impact of Chinese Internet censorship efforts is complicated by the absence of official confirmation that these censorship efforts, including blocking access to certain Web sites and hijacking domain names, exist. In an effort to fill that gap, several studies have been conducted in an effort to better understand the extent of Chinese Internet censorship programs.

A 2002 study conducted by researchers at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society found that 18,931 out of more than 200,000 Web sites were inaccessible from two different proxy servers in China on two different days. While the study found that many of the sites that were blocked were sexually explicit, the list of blocked Web sites also included sites offering news, health information, education and entertainment.

In 2003, a Reporters Without Borders investigation of content filtering by Chinese Web sites showed that 60 per cent of messages posted to discussion forums over a period of one month appeared online. That number fell to 55 per cent for messages that contained content deemed controversial by Chinese censors, including criticism of the government, the Paris-based group said. Of that 55 per cent, more than half were subsequently removed by webmasters tasked with overseeing the online forums, it said.

The level of filtering varied from site to site and discussion forums run by commercial sites are generally more open than official Web sites, Reporters Without Borders said. The group noted that no messages submitted criticizing the Chinese government were posted on the discussion forum of China’s official news service, Xinhua News Agency. By comparison, 50 per cent of messages criticizing the government appeared on the discussion forum run by Sina Corp., the operator of China’s most popular Web portal,, it said.

Despite empirical evidence of Internet censorship in China, these efforts have not substantially restricted access to online information, according to one researcher.

“I don’t think it’s a big issue,” said Gene Wang, an assistant professor at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, who has been studying the Internet in China.

Wang noted Chinese Internet users are often able to access politically-sensitive information despite the best efforts of Chinese censors. In many cases, users were often aware of information contained on Web sites blocked by censors, reducing the significance of the government’s censorship efforts.

“What I really found interesting was they actually have many different sources on the Internet. There’s no way the government can control 100 per cent of the information,” Wang said.

The result is a paradox, Hu said. The Chinese government’s attitude towards the Internet is split between a desire to control the information available to Chinese Internet users and a recognition that the Internet is a critical tool for the country’s economic development and modernization, he said.

“The politicians do realize for practical matters it’s nice for people to have a way to blow off steam, which is what the Internet provides, as long as they don’t make it a platform for activism,” said Andrew Lih, an associate professor and director of technology at the University of Hong Kong’s Journalism and Media Studies Center.

One example of an online forum that allows Chinese Internet users to vent their frustrations is the Strong Nation discussion forum (, in Chinese) on the Web site of the official People’s Daily newspaper. The People’s Daily is the official newspaper of the Communist Party of China and editorials run by the paper are generally considered to be authoritative statements of Chinese government policy. The Strong Nation forum, which has been running for five years, underscores how open Internet discussions can be in China.

“In that forum you can say a lot of things, even criticize the current leadership. …It’s quite open there and it’s right under the nose of the People’s Daily,” Hu said.

The nascent openness permitted by Strong Nation and other Internet outlets is a sign of things to come. In time, the need to be economically competitive with countries like India and the West will lead to China further loosening restrictions on the flow of information, Lih said.

“The Internet in China will be freed up not because they desire democracy but because it makes business sense. For better or for worse, it’s the money that talks,” he said.

— With files from Martyn Williams in Tokyo

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