Internet Transforming China's Economy, Society, Experts Say

By Todd Bullock
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington - From online business services to blogs and instant messaging, the Internet is transforming the way information is shared in China.  However, the Chinese government's ability to block access to certain Web sites and its efforts to monitor users have raised issues of censorship and freedom of speech.

John Frisbie, president of the U.S.-China Business Council, told participants at a March 7 forum organized by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) that the Internet has transformed China's private sector.

"China is rapidly importing U.S. information technology, which they are using to maximize efficiency in all aspects of services and trade," Frisbie said.

James Keith, senior adviser at the State Department's Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, says that the Internet is crucial to China's long-term modernization goals, but warns that censoring political and religious content runs counter to those interests.

"Regrettably, China's leadership's efforts to monitor the content of the Internet have accelerated in the past year, sending a chilling message to all Internet users," Keith said during a joint hearing of the House International Relations Committee subcommittees on Asia and the Pacific and Africa, Global Human Rights and International Operations February 15. (See related article.)

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

Representative Jim Leach, chairman of the House Asia-Pacific Subcommittee, said that American technology companies have become embroiled in the debate over China's censorship practices "because of allegations that they have become complicit in the restrictive activities of the Chinese security apparatus."  (See related article.)

James McGregor, a former Beijing bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal who is now an entrepreneur in China, told AEI March 7 that the U.S. Internet company Google's managers "are keeping their blogs and e-mail systems out of China because they do not want to hand over information on its users to the Chinese government."

McGregor said Google has had to agree to the Chinese government's information-control policies to do business in China.  As a result, Google filters searches conducted on its Chinese servers and blocks sites prohibited by the Chinese government, but it publicly announces to its users that it does so, he said.

Christopher Smith, chairman of the House Africa, Global Human Rights and International Operations Subcommittee, charged during the February 15 hearing that the Chinese government utilizes the technology of U.S. information technology companies, combined with human censors, to control information in China. (See related article.)

At the same time, Smith said he was encouraged by efforts by U.S. companies to develop anti-censorship technology that will enable Chinese citizens to access the entire Internet filter-free and detect monitoring by Chinese officials.

According to Frisbie, some Chinese journalists are using the Internet to report on stories considered sensitive by the Chinese government despite its efforts to control information.

He cited Chinese media coverage of the chemical spills in the Yellow River in January as an example of the Internet's ability to disseminate information.  Even though Beijing tried to control media coverage of this event, news got out through the Internet, he said.

"To me the trend line is toward more openness and more information not less," Frisbie said.

Leach stressed the importance of providing people full access to information.

"We live in an era in which the advancement of human understanding and the growth of the global economy cannot operate effectively without the broadest possible dissemination of knowledge," he said.

For more information on U.S. policy, see The United States and China.