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China12 May 2003

"Living dangerously on the Net"
Censorship and surveillance of Internet forums

The Internet is unquestionably the freest of the news media in China. On some discussion forums ("Lun Tan" in Mandarin), one can read views that no newspaper would dare publish in its readers’ mail section. This freedom is nonetheless circumscribed both by those who run the websites hosting the discussion forums and by the security agencies, which have set up special departments throughout the country for monitoring the Internet.

Whether state or privately-owned, news sites such as sina.com.cn, xinhuanet.com, yahoo.com.cn and tom.com have set up arrays of filters that enable them to systematically screen out messages containing words banned by the authorities. The moderators of discussion forums have the job of ridding the site of messages that don’t conform to the rules set by the authorities on news content. Sites can also exclude a Internet user deemed "not politically correct" or too vulgar. Finally, teams have been established within the public security department to monitor "subversive" elements using the Internet in China who, as a last resort, are arrested. According to some estimates, around 30,000 people are employed in this gigantic apparatus of monitoring and censorship.

Two documents provide a legal underpinning for this policy of self-censorship. One, issued by the information industry ministry in November 2000, defines the different kinds of content that are banned from discussion forums and restricts the news from foreign media that can be carried on the Chinese Internet. The other is a "self-discipline pact" that was submitted to website operators on 16 March 2002 by the Chinese Internet Association. Official news media sites and both Chinese and foreign Internet companies have signed the pact, thereby undertaking "not to produce or disseminate harmful texts or news likely to jeopardise national security and social stability, violate laws and regulations, or spread false news, superstitions and obscenities." It also requires "co-operation by sites in the fight against cybercrime and against the violation of intellectual property rights."

With the help of a journalist from the Chinese service of the BBC World Service, Reporters Without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontières) conducted a month-long survey of China’s discussion forums. By posing as a Chinese Internet user, the researcher was able to determine exactly what censorship techniques are used in chat forums on Chinese sites and what kind of content is banned.

Filtering, cleansing and monitoring of forums

The main news sites have very popular forums that portray themselves as "spaces for free expression." Throughout the day, and until late at night, tens of thousands of Chinese Internet users connect to forums dedicated to the most diverse range of subjects such as international or national news, or as meeting places. Forum chatting is common practice for the 45 million Chinese reportedly connected to the Web. On 4 April, for example, more than 900,000 messages were posted on xinhuanet.com, on its forum dedicated to the war in Iraq. A spokesperson for sina.com.cn told Reporters Without Borders that the site’s 200 forums draw more than 4 million Internet users each day.

The Chinese forums use a system of filters that enable them to sort the messages into two categories: those containing banned words and the rest. Messages in the first category are systematically blocked. They do not appear in the forum even if you receive an automatic message from the forum moderator saying: "Your message has been accepted, but it will be checked by our team. So it will take a few moments before your message can be see by other Internet users" (a xinhuanet.com message). Site webmasters are supposed to check these blocked messages to establish whether they really need to be censored. But in fact, it is very rare for a message that has been filtered out to be manually restored to the forum. "We rarely have the time to do it," one of those in charge of sina.com.cn’s forums told us. Nonetheless, you can find "politically correct" messages in forums that, for example, criticise the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement even if its name is a filtered word.

A message containing an approximate list of the censored words appeared on the sina.com.cn chat forum on 11 March. The person who posted the message managed this by inserting of an asterisk between two characters so that the list was not blocked by the filters. It included "4 June" (the date of the 1989 Tienanmen Square massacre), "human rights", "Taiwan independence", "pornography", "oral sex", "BBC" and "Falun Gong". The message was withdrawn after a few minutes.

Results of sent messages showing existence of filters

20 March at 12:00 Letter to Hu Jintao on closure of magazine sina.com.cn No
20 March at 13:00 Letter to propaganda chief Liu Yunshan on closure of magazine sina.com.cn Yes 1 minute

Messages that contain no banned words appear in the forum and can be seen by all visitors. But a group of "Ban Zhu" (forum webmasters) are responsible for checking their content. Two or three webmasters constantly scrutinize and moderate the forums. They are not policemen or employees whose only job is to purge the sites. They are young people for the most part, sometimes students, and usually volunteers who make their time available to the forum for no charge. Above the "Ban Zhu" you find the "Guan Li Yuan" (the forum administrators), who are responsible for ensuring appropriate behaviour. They have the ability to suspend or ban forum visitors considered vulgar or politically incorrect. A member of the sina.com.cn’s staff told us he preferred to send an e-mail message warning forum visitors first, and then suspend them for a week if their behaviour did not improve.

At the highest rung of this system of control are the Internet surveillance services set up within the provincial sections of the public security department. It is very hard to get official information about the number of civil servants, police and computer specialists employed in this force of cyberpolice.

70 per cent of controversial messages censored

More than 60 per cent of the messages sent in the course of this investigation appeared on the chat forums. It fell to 55 per cent for messages with a controversial content. Of the 55 per cent, more than half were withdrawn by the webmasters in charge of monitoring sites. In other words, only 30 per cent of the messages with a controversial content were accepted by the sites.

The strictness with which messages are checked varies from site to site. On xinhuanet, an offshoot of the official news agency, messages take several minutes to appear on the forum. This, in theory, gives webmasters time to check them first. None of the messages criticising the government appeared on xinhuanet.com’s forum pages but 50 per cent appeared on sina.com.cn’s pages. The moderators of the sina.com forum on the news and news media are even allowed to encourage debate about sensitive subjects. On 14 March, for example, a sina.com "Ban Zhu" posted a text about the temporary closure of a liberal magazine in Guangzhou.

To test this difference, the researcher on 26 March posted a message about coverage of the war in Iraq by the Chinese media, in which she wondered if Chinese journalists would be allowed to cover a major event in China with the same degree of freedom. The message appeared on yahoo, sohu and sina, but was rejected by xinhuanet.

The most open Internet sites are the ones that are commercial enterprises. Competition within this sector encourages those in charge to test the limits of censorship. To attract young people - 40 per cent of Chinese Internet users are aged less than 24, according to the Nielson Institute/Net Ratings - sites have to be modern and let people express liberal views. So webmasters on the forums of 163.net and sina.com encourage open debate. On the other hand, discussions on the sites of the major official news media such as Beijing Daily (bjd.com.cn) or the New China news agency (xinhuanet.com) are muted and contain no criticism.

Forbidden topics

To conduct this investigation, Reporters Without Borders drew up a scale of the "provocativeness" of the content of the messages submitted to the forums. Level 1 messages, containing no criticism of the government, had no trouble getting through the filters and appearing on the forums. Level 10 messages, including direct criticism or demands targeted at the central government, either did not appear on the forums at all, or did so only for a very short time. More than 70 per cent of level 7 and 8 messages, broaching sensitive political topics but containing no direct criticism, passed the filters and lasted somewhat longer before being removed. Nearly 80 per cent of level 5 and 6 messages, with just factual information on current issues, appeared on the forums without any problem, except in the case of xinhuanet.com, whose filters blocked more than 50 per cent.

On 10 March, the researchers succeeded in posting a level 10 message on the sina.com.cn media forum "Chuan Mei Lun Tan". The message explicitly challenged the authorities reasons for detaining Internet user Liu Di and asked fellows users to defend freedom of speech. It got through the filters because it contained no banned words and remained on view for two hours and 20 minutes, during which time more than 70 forum visitors were able to read it.

The survey showed that webmasters give priority to censoring messages that criticise the government. On 14 March, the researcher submitted to sina.com.cn a short message about the banning of the magazine Ershiyi Shiji Huanqiu Baodao (The 21st Century World Herald) for publishing an interview with a veteran reformist leader. It appeared on the forum. A few minutes later, a message criticising this ban was rejected by the same forum. A message calling for the lifting of this ban, sent to sina.com.cn shortly thereafter, appeared on the forum but was withdrawn a few minutes later. The discussion forums let visitors post information about certain sensitive issues but do not tolerate any criticism of the communist party’s decisions.

The researcher posted a message on sina.com.cn on 17 March that had as its subject line "The leadership has changed except one person." The message, which raised questions about former President Jiang Zemin’s continuing as the head of the central military commission, appeared on the forum for 40 minutes before being removed. The same message lasted even less time on tom.com. A short message giving the Internet address of the international Radio Free Asia could be read for an hour although the station’s signal is permanently jammed by the Chinese authorities and its Internet site is blocked.

Fate of messages posted on chat forums

Date & time GMT Message content Website Appeared yes/no Time it remained
3 March at 12:00 Call for free elections Sina.com.cn Yes 14 minutes
4 March at 14:00 Lack of debate in China on war in Iraq Iraq forum of Sina.com.cn Yes 1 hr 40 mins
10 March at 14:00 Concern about Liu Di Xinhuanet.com No
10 March at 14:00 Concern about Liu Di Sina.com.cn Yes 2 hrs 20 mins
11 March at 11:00 Free Huang Qi Sina.com.cn Yes 40 minutes
11 March at 15:00 Criticism of judicial system BJYD (Beijing Youth Daily) Yes Not removed
12 March at 12:00 Problem of justice in China Xinhuanet.com Yes Not removed
14 March at 13:00 Lift ban on a magazine Sina.com.cn Yes Less than two minutes
14 March at 15:00 Interview with reformist leader Li Rui Sina.com.cn No
17 March at 11:00 Hope for new leaders Xinhuanet.com No
17 March at 15:00 Jiang Zemin is still in control Tom.com Yes 37 minutes
17 March at 15:00 Jiang Zemin is still in control Sina.com.cn Yes 49 minutes
17 March at 17:00 Debate on war in Iraq Sina.com.cn Yes 9 minutes
18 March at 14:00 Web address of Radio Free Asia Sina.com.cn Yes 1 hour
20 March at 12:00 Letter to Hu Jintao on banning of magazine Sina.com.cn No
20 March at 13:00 Letter to Liu Yunshan on banning of magazine Sina.com.cn Yes 1 minute
10 April at 16:00 "SARS: who is to blame?" Sina.com.cn No

Limited freedom for comments on SARS and the war in Iraq

The war in Iraq was the first foreign war to be covered live by China’s state-owned news media right from the outset. Journalists’ commentaries reflected the position of the government, which was opposed to the war. The main Chinese news websites carried many dispatches, especially those of the official news agency Xinhua. The discussion forums had hundreds of thousands of comments, mostly critical of the United States. Comments criticising the Chinese position were blocked or removed. On 17 March, one of the Reporters Without Borders messages was removed from a sina.com forum for questioning the way the news media were covering the war.

The SARS epidemic is also subject to censorship. The government has done everything possible to prevent independent information coming out in the news media, including the Internet. Criticism of the government’s management of the crisis is also unwelcome on the websites. On 10 April, the researcher posted a message on a sina.com.cn forum containing the word "SARS" and just calling on the Chinese government to work closely with Hong Kong to arrest the epidemic. The message did not appear. A second message about SARS was submitted to the site five days later. It met the same fate. The authorities seem to have asked the websites to add the term "SARS" to the long list of banned words. So no criticism of the government’s handling of the SARS crisis can be seen on the most popular sites. On the contrary, forum visitors apparently acting on orders were repeating the official line which, until 18 April, boiled down to: "Thanks to the hard work of the health authorities, the virus is under control." A message dated 10 April accused Hong Kong, the liberal Guangzhou newspapers and the foreign news media of spreading the rumours about SARS.

Website managers confirmed to foreign journalists in early April that the government had given orders for the subject of SARS to be handled with extreme care. Zhang Zhongying of the People’s Daily site told Agence France-Presse that "rules" had been imposed. A member of the staff of the commercial site sohu.com said that "positive messages can go online but not negative ones."

Internet users blacklisted

The Reporters Without Borders researcher was banned from all of the sina.com.cn discussion forums after sending a message that called for the release of jailed webmaster Huang Qi. The message was entitled "Free Huang Qi" but it contained no words that would activate the filters so it passed the first hurdle. It appeared on the sina.com.cn forum for 40 minutes, during which time 40 forum visitors were even able to read it. But after 40 minutes, it was removed by the webmaster and the personal ID used by Reporters Without Borders was blacklisted. The researcher received such messages as: "Your user ID is invalid, please try again." A member of the sina.com.cn staff confirmed in an interview that Internet users are sometimes banned from visiting forums. Since the Reporters Without Borders researcher is based abroad, the police presumably did not try to track her down.

It is possible for an Internet user based in China or abroad to register with a discussion forum under a false identity. Sites request the user’s name, gender, e-mail address, telephone numbers and the number of an identity document. Since the website administrator can easily verify the Chinese IDs, it would be more difficult for people inside China to obtain false identities. Hence they are more at risk.

Some forum users openly denounce censorship and sanctions. One often sees such messages as: "Dear webmaster, why have you censored or removed my message?" These embarrassing proofs of constant censorship are also withdrawn after a few minutes.

Discussion forums: traps for Internet users

The official China News Service reported on its website in April that a 17-year-old Internet user was arrested on 27 March for posting "harmful messages" on discussion forums. The agency did not explain the nature of these messages. The authorities had been looking for the young woman, identified only by her first name Zheng, since December 2002, when she began posting these "unlawful messages" using the pseudonym "Sini" (girl). Zheng was identified by police in the southern province of Jiangxi, who reported her presence in the town of Xinmi (in Henan province) to the local security services there. She was arrested while surfing in an Internet café in Xinmi.

Liu Weifang, a shopkeeper, was sentenced by a court in the northwestern province of Xinjiang in spring 2001 to three years in prison for "subversion" because he had posted several articles very critical of the communist party and the government’s economic reforms on discussion forums in 2000 and 2001. The police had managed to identify him although he used the pseudonym Lgwf. Wang Jinbo, a dissident, was sentenced to four years in prison a few months later for posting a message calling on the government to change its position on the June 1989 student movement.

On 7 November 2002, on the eve of the opening of the communist party’s 16th congress, Liu Di, a student aged 22, was arrested on the campus of Beijing university. Her family was not told of her arrest until police came to search her home, confiscating her notes, books and computer. Her father told Reporters Without Borders he did not understand the reason for the jailing of his daughter, who posted messages signed the "stainless mouse" in discussion forums. "She loved to surf the Internet in search of news but she was frustrated by the lack of freedom on the Internet and she may have been critical or sarcastic without ever thinking of the consequences," her father said. Her family has still not been allowed to see her. The authorities accuse her of "jeopardising national security" and say they are not revealing her place of detention in order to put "pressure" on her.

The government no longer hides the fact that it has created a cyberpolice throughout China capable of spotting, identifying and arresting dissident Internet users. The manhunts for individual Internet users, which often mobilise dozens of agents from the public security and state security ministries, serve as warnings for the recalcitrants and dissidents who continue to surf the Internet.

To be able to implement these threats, the government has issued around 60 laws and sets of regulations about use of the Internet. All Internet users registering in a discussion forum are warned very clearly that they risk heavy penalties. The supreme court determined in January 2001 that the punishments for breaking the law on state secrets and the dissemination of information jeopardising the state included the death penalty.

All these measures are part of a programme called "Golden Shield," which replaced the "Great Cyber Wall" strategy at the end of the 1990s when the spiralling growth of the Internet made it obsolete. Proposed by the ministries of public security and information industry, this secret programme was assigned sizeable financial and human resources. In April 2002, then public security minister Jia Chunwang called a meeting in Beijing to discuss the protection and security of government information. Ways of combating Internet offences, especially those considered subversive, were considered and the minister reportedly said Internet monitoring units had become "vital tools for national security, political stability and national sovereignty." The authorities decided to step up recruitment of experts to combat "foreign forces" trying to "subvert China via the Internet."

More people are in prison in China for expressing their views on the Internet than in any other country in the world. The total is at least 36, according to the information we have obtained. Whether dissidents already known to the authorities or ordinary Internet users caught in the act of transgression by the cyberpolice, most of them were snared in discussion forums.

Technology at the service of repression

As well as the filters on the discussion forum servers and the firewalls that prevent access to thousands of Internet sites based abroad, the Chinese authorities set about obtaining and developing new censorship technologies. At the end of December 2002, the public security department in the southern province of Guangdong organised a conference on Internet development and security to assess the Internet’s influence on "stability and public order." Officials made no secret of the fact that the Internet has to be "very tightly controlled" and users have to "take responsibility if they pass on dangerous material."

The authorities adopted a series of measures in 2002 that forced Internet operators (websites, cybercafés, Internet service providers) to act as police auxiliaries. In June, cybercafé owners had to install on all of their computers software capable of blocking access to as many as half a million websites and of informing police about anyone who looked at allegedly subversive sites. This software is thought to be one known as "Filter King," which was designed by Chinese based on technology sold by western companies. In September, Chinese Internet users found that new "sniffing software" had been installed that blocked access to just some pages on websites. For example, access to articles on China - especially on Tibet, Taiwan or human rights - were blocked on foreign newspaper websites while other parts of the sites could still be visited. This selective censorship also applied to search engines such as Google.com and e-mail messages sent from mail services such as Hotmail. In October, the cybercrime department in the central province of Jiangxi ordered cybercafés in the province to sell customers access cards that allow the police to check the websites they look at. The experiment may be extended to other provinces.

The Chinese authorities have been trying for several years to combat the supremacy of western Internet companies by developing technologies likely to meet the regime’s political requirements. The search engine Google has given a lot of headaches because it provides access to many "subversive" sites. The authorities at first took the heavy-handed approach in August 2002 by blocking all access to Google. In the face of an outcry in China and abroad, the authorities then tried a selective blocking of Google, just barring access to some of the pages listed in its search results. In the latest phase, the governmental Chinese Centre for Internet Information and the Chinese company Sinobet have developed Chinasearch.com, a search engine that meets Chinese criteria. The website sina.com.cn decided in April 2003 to adopt Chinasearch.com, which excludes from its search results all sites considered subversive or pornographic. According to the government, 200 other Chinese sites have made the same choice.

This use of new technologies to repress cyberdissent would obviously have been impossible without the support of such international companies as Websense, Sun Microsystems, Cisco Systems, Microsoft and Nortel Networks, which have all at one point or another traded or cooperated with the Chinese state apparatus.

Conclusions

In the almost eight years since the start of the commercial Internet in China, the government has set up a sophisticated system to control it. The cyberpolice, which has of tens of thousands of members, is capable of arresting Internet users anywhere in the country if they send a few messages considered "subversive" or likely to "jeopardise the state’s security."

Discussion forums, portrayed by the websites that host them as areas of freedom, are in fact the target of permanent surveillance. The government has forced these sites to install filter systems that block messages containing banned words. The list of banned words has never been published, but it includes dozens of terms relating to politics, religion and pornography. Zhen Ya (repression) and Fa Lun Gong (Falun Gong) are on the list, which is frequently updated because the word "SARS" was banned from the discussion forums in the course of March 2003.

Internet sites, including those run or financed by international companies such as Yahoo!, have become Chinese police auxiliaries. After agreeing to self-censor their content, they have not objected to the installation of police spy software in their servers that enables the cyberpolice to identify recalcitrant Internet users. Chinese cybercafés ("wang ba" in Mandarin) have also had to submit to the demands of the security services in order to be able to reopen after a vast nation-wide inspection campaign in 2002.

The discussion forums, which bring together hundreds of thousands of Chinese every day, represent both a space for expression unequalled in any other media and a trap for Internet users.

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