China's Economic Reforms Depend on the Free Flow of Information

By Jane Morse
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington - The Internet is crucial to China's long-term modernization goals, U.S. officials say, but censoring political and religious content runs counter to those interests.

China's love-hate relationship with the Internet was the topic of a February 15 hearing called "The Internet in China:  A Tool for Freedom or Suppression?" that was held by the House Committee on International Relations' Subcommittee on Africa, Global Human Rights and International Relations and the Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific.

James Keith, senior adviser at the State Department's Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, told the subcommittee:  "China's leadership recognizes the centrality of the Internet and the free flow of information in providing the economic data to make China's market-oriented reform possible, but its effort to regulate the political and religious content of the Internet is counter to our interest, to international standards, and we argue, to China's own long-term modernization goals."

According to Keith, only 8 percent of China's population uses the Internet.  But that percentage represents 111 million users, making China second only to the United States in the number of Internet users.

"Regrettably," Keith told the subcommittee, "China's leadership efforts to monitor the content of the Internet have accelerated in the past year, sending a chilling message to all Internet users."   Beginning in March 2005, Chinese authorities began to enforce the Computer Information Network and International Internet Security Protections and Administration Regulations, which require that all Web site operators register their sites with the local Public Security Bureau within 30 days of beginning operations.

"The Chinese government has shut down thousands of sites for failing to register, Keith said.  "Then in July, the government issued new regulations requiring instant message users and bloggers to use their real names."

In September 2005, Beijing attempted to control what Internet content providers could and could not publish, Keith said.

The U.S. government, he said, publicly has decried Beijing's treatment of Internet activists, especially those journalists, editors and writers who have been detained or imprisoned for expressing their views or sharing information on the Internet.

In its effort to "manage" the Internet, the Chinese government has enlisted the efforts of as many as 30,000 government monitors involving more than 20 ministries and government organs. But this campaign has had limited success, according to Keith.

Enforcement of registration requirements is uneven from city to city, he said.  And computer-savvy Internet users usually can get around the censors by using any number of proxy servers.

English language Web sites such as for the newspapers TheNew York Times and TheWashington Post are accessible in China, Keith said.  Although the Web sites for the Department of State's embassies and consulates are blocked only intermittently, those for the British Broadcasting Company (BBC), Reporters Without Borders and the Voice of America (VOA) are blocked consistently, he said.

U.S. Ambassador David Gross told the subcommittee that China's regulations that provide the legal means to censor a very broad spectrum of legitimate speech "run counter to the commitments China itself has made to the world community."  Gross is the U.S. coordinator for international communications and information policy at the State Department's Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs.

Gross said the U.S. government consistently emphasizes to Beijing the need "to uphold its constitutional guarantee of freedom of expression and to bring its own practices into compliance with international standards."  He said the U.S. government is consulting closely with American companies doing business in China, urging them to implement "a set of meaningful best practices and emphasizing the "common interest in establishing the free flow of information in China…."

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has established a Global Internet Freedom Task Force to address the challenges to Internet freedom, drawing on the State Department's multidisciplinary expertise in international communications policy, human rights, democratization, business advocacy, corporate social responsibility and relevant countries and regions, Gross said. (See related article.)

"Secretary Rice pays close attention," he said, "to threats to the Internet and its transformational power as a force for freedom."

"The Chinese leadership," Gross said, "has sought to draw a line between economic reform and political dissent.  That line is an illusion.  As Secretary Rice said very recently, 'It is very hard to tell people to think at work but not at home.'"

For additional information on U.S. policies, see The United States and China, Trade and Economics and Human Rights.

Texts for prepared testimony for all the witnesses, including Keith and Gross, are available on the website for the Committee on International Relations, U.S. House of Representatives.