A report in 2003 by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace suggested that, despite difficulties posed by the Internet to authoritarian regimes, it could also be used to fortify them. China, the authors concluded, had been "largely successful at guiding use" of the internet. At a congressional hearing in February on American companies involved in internet business in China, a Republican congressman, Christopher Smith, said the internet there had become "a malicious tool, a cyber sledgehammer of repression".
The government has also spent freely to keep its liberating side-effects under control. The committed few that are brave or foolhardy enough to use the Internet to challenge the authorities now face a police force of some 30,000 online monitors, say foreign human-rights groups, such as Human Rights Watch. They also say that China has jailed over 50 people for expressing views online or in text messages.
Worried about the forces unleashed by rapid economic and social change, China's leaders have stepped up their efforts in recent months to control not only the internet but other media too. A handful of outspoken newspapers have been closed and their editors sacked.
Attack on the blogs
China is moving closer to a ban on anonymous blogging. Reuter's reports that the Internet Society of China is recommending that bloggers use their real names when they sign up for a blog account. The report goes on to say that,
"The Internet Society of China has recommended to the government that bloggers be required to use their real names when they register blogs, state media said on Monday, in the latest attempt to regulate free-wheeling Web content.
The society, which is affiliated with the Ministry of Information Industry, said no decision had been made but that a 'real name system' was inevitable.
"A real name system will be an unavoidable choice if China wants to standardise and develop its blog industry," the official Xinhua news agency quoted the Internet Society's secretary general, Huang Chengqing, as saying.
"We suggest, in a recent report submitted to the ministry, that a real name system be implemented in China's blog industry," Huang said."
The article goes on to say that bloggers can still use a pseudonym but only after registering their real name with the blog service. This is just a cover-up and a scheme by the Chinese government to tighten the noose around the neck of one of the very few bastions of free media that remain in the Chinese mainland.
Everything is not lost...
The firewall, however, is porous. Imaginative users can find ways of searching for sensitive topics such as news about Falun Gong, a banned spiritual movement. In Google, entering the words "Falun Gong" will cause the entire results page to be blocked, but "FLG movement" will not.
Many Chinese internet-users are well versed in configuring their internet browsers to route page requests through unblocked proxy servers outside China which help bypass the firewall.
US search giant Google's decision to set up a self-censored version of its search engine in China this year whipped up a storm of criticism in America. iResearch, a Shanghai-based market-analysis firm, however, says China's Baidu, a state-run search engine, enjoys more than 56% of the search market; Google follows with less than a third, having been the leader three years ago. Popular features of Baidu's engine are its ability to link searches to related chat forums, and to hunt for MP3 music files, most of them pirated.
Baidu's searches are not nearly as comprehensive as Google's. But self-censorship, both by Baidu and by Google in its new China-based engine, still allows information that the party dislikes. For instance, news about the congressional hearing which concerned the censorship of Google in China-ignored by China's print media-can be found on both. For example, entering the Chinese-character equivalents of the words "Congress America internet freedom" into Baidu produces three prominent results relating to the hearing. All are blogs. Two even contain advertisements with links to pornographic websites.
It is therefore virtually impossible for the mandarins at the Chinese censorship office to fully restrict access to the news. And as the old adage goes "You may fool all the people some of the time, you can even fool some of the people all of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all the time". The internet cannot be tamed, it is a free spirit and somewhere, there is a whisper in the wind that says "catch me if you can".