IP: Internet Police on the Prowl in China

Robert Hettinga rah at shipwright.com
Sun Oct 25 15:27:15 PST 1998

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Source:  Washington Post

Internet Police on the Prowl in China

By Michael Laris
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, October 24, 1998; Page A12

BEIJING - As head of the Shanghai Police Department's Computer
Security Supervision office, Qing Guang is in charge of ferreting out
"harmful information" on the Internet.

He has to look only as far as his own in box.

Qing is an unwitting subscriber to Chinese VIP Reference, an electronic
pro-democracy magazine run by Chinese students and scholars from a
small office near Washington's Dupont Circle. Every 10 days, editors
e-mail their magazine -- with its essays on "thought liberation," bulletins on
democracy activism, and reader-inspired reports on corruption -- to more
than 100,000 Internet users in China. Qing is one of them. And that
makes the tough-talking Shanghai cop crazy.

"For me, this kind of information is useless. When you put it in my
mailbox, it's a type of spiritual pollution. All the users don't want to
these kinds of things," Qing said in a rare interview. "If there was
something you didn't need, and I sent it to you by force, could you accept
that? Would you be disgusted or not?"

The Internet is slowly coming of age in China, prompting a showdown
between Communist Party officials who seek to maintain their media
monopoly, and upstart Internet publishers relying on powerful technology
and their uncensored news coverage to appeal to China's best and

The number of Chinese Internet users has jumped 75 percent this year to
1.2 million, and it is expected to reach 10 million in five years. Eighty-five
percent of users are under age 35, and they represent an influential elite of
students, intellectuals and officials. VIP Reference reaches at least 10
percent of Chinese users and perhaps a greater percentage if reader
surveys about how often it is forwarded are accurate.

The Chinese government is ambivalent toward the Internet.
Telecommunications officials have been investing millions of dollars to
increase Internet access, and national policy supports its swift growth, but
propaganda and security officials oppose its unfettered expansion. As
Chinese at home and abroad have become more effective at spreading
their ideas online, police and state security agents have launched a
campaign to train "Internet police" and pursue those responsible for
"hostile magazines."

"The water that carries the boat can also tip it over. The Internet is also
like this," the People's Daily, the most authoritative voice of China's
Communist Party, wrote on Oct. 12. "Going online is inevitable, but
tremendous economic benefit requires an assurance of safety."

China's leaders are not alone in their concern. New York-based Human
Rights Watch is looking into reports that governments in Malaysia, Turkey
and Bahrain have persecuted their citizens for distributing political
information online.

"It is precisely because of the Internet's potential for increasing the civil
and political participation of the disenfranchised that regulators are seeking
to control it," said Jagdish Parikh, online researcher for Human Rights

But China's government, which relied heavily on underground propaganda
to build support for taking power in 1949, is especially sensitive about
keeping its own censorship structures in place. Authorities boast that
China was the first country to require Internet users to register with the
government, and police are institutionalizing the monitoring of the country's

In Shanghai, for instance, Officer Qing has trained more than 200
employees from government work units to be the eyes and ears of the
police on local networks. In three-day seminars, Qing describes the
dangers of "black guests," the Chinese term for hackers, and explains
Internet security. He also explains China's stringent Internet regulations,
which went into effect last January.

"No one is allowed to release harmful information on the Internet," Qing
said. "You cannot send out harmful information which attacks our nation's
territorial integrity, attacks our nation's independence, or attacks our
socialist system."

Qing would not say how many Internet cases are being prosecuted in
China, nor how many police are surfing China's networks. But in
interviews, Chinese Internet users who have had run-ins with security
forces say the pressure is growing.

Lin Hai, a computer entrepreneur in Shanghai, was arrested in March for
allegedly providing his database of 30,000 e-mail addresses to VIP
Reference. Although Lin had not been active in politics, and had openly
sold and exchanged e-mail addresses as part of his online headhunting
business, he has been charged with "inciting the overthrow of national

Xu Hong, Lin's wife, said trading e-mail addresses is considered as
sinister as trafficking in postage stamps, and she believes authorities are
using her husband to send a message. "It's 'killing a chicken to scare the
monkeys,'" she said, using an old Chinese expression.

Feng Donghai, a co-founder of VIP Reference who works as a
telecommunications researcher at Columbia University, said his parents
and friends in China have been visited by state security agents four times in
the past several months to investigate him. "I also received a lot of reader
messages that they were visited by national security police because they
received our magazine," Feng said. But, like Officer Qing, many have an
alibi. "When police question our readers, they can claim they never
subscribed," Feng said.

The magazine has editors and contributors around the United States and in
China, and is part news source and part network. Democracy
campaigners in China have used it as a forum for discussing reform, and to
locate the e-mail addresses and phone numbers of fellow travelers. VIP
sends copies of its magazine not only to police officers but also to Chinese
lawmakers and government officials, as well as thousands of citizens. VIP
also e-mails a smaller-circulation daily update on dissident activities.

Readers e-mail the magazine 500 times each day. About 30 of those are
requests to be removed from the mailing list, but many others write to talk

The Chinese government has set up e-mail filters to block distribution, but
editors send the magazine from different addresses each time and have an
elaborate system within China to ensure the messages reach their
destination. Feng said he gets several dozen e-mail threats a day and has
also been hit by e-mail "bombings," which fill up his in box with large files.
Several of VIP's other key editors are trying to keep their identities secret
to escape similar trouble and to avoid being blacklisted.

The chief editor of "Public Opinion," an electronic journal edited in China
that focuses on government abuses of power, said he went into hiding
after police investigated his company.

"I was scared. Many people like me, who say things they shouldn't, have
been struck," said the editor, who gave his name as Li Yongming in an
e-mail interview from an undisclosed location in southern China. But Li
has continued working on the magazine. "I will not let others cover my
mouth," he said.

 © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company
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Robert A. Hettinga <mailto: rah at philodox.com>
Philodox Financial Technology Evangelism <http://www.philodox.com/>
44 Farquhar Street, Boston, MA 02131 USA
"... however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity,
[predicting the end of the world] has not been found agreeable to
experience." -- Edward Gibbon, 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'

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