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The Internet Is a Natural Enemy to Authoritarian China

July 14, 2010
Translation by HRIC

In China today, the Internet has become a territory of strategic importance. All contenders are abundantly aware of this point and have launched an intense struggle over its control. The Chinese authorities have recently taken multiple steps toward this end. First, they revised the State Secrets Law to explicitly stipulate Internet contents and other public information as targets of control. Following that, in a special report to the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC), Wang Chen (王晨), the vice director of the Department of Propaganda of the Communist Party of China (CPC), who is in charge of guiding public opinion on the Internet to conform with Party ideology, was barely able to conceal his anxiety over losing control of the Internet.1 He pressed for the formulation and promulgation, as soon as possible, of a series of regulations, including the Detailed Rules for the Implementation of the Decision of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress on Safeguarding Internet Security (《全国人大常委会关于维护互联网安全的决定》实施细则), so as to establish a legal framework for the control of public information on the Internet.

There are two reasons why the Chinese authorities are deploying such a massive amount of weaponry to assure control of the Internet: one, to maintain the inherent character of a totalitarian system; two, the authorities are compelled by the circumstances—the Internet has already become a serious threat that challenges the one-party dictatorship. The CPC, in its own words, gained and consolidated power by means of “two sticks”—the pens and the guns. Before the emergence of the Internet, the state completely monopolized the right to public speech, controlling all news media, broadcast and cultural and publishing organizations. The emergence of the Internet has undermined the unification of China maintained by official hegemony. Although the Golden Shield Project (金盾工程)2 was established to strictly monitor and control the Internet when it was first opened to public use, the attributes of the Internet—the huge volume of information, high speed of transmission, transmission, great power of interactivity, and the ability to transcend boundaries—have made it impossible for the authorities to cope with and guard themselves against it.

More importantly, Chinese civil society emerged by using the Internet platform, and all kinds of civil society organizations have proliferated like bamboo after a spring rain to engage in public interest and rights defense activities. Many of the activists are masters in using the Internet, whose capability they skillfully exploit to launch appeals for vulnerable groups. The contention that has taken shape between public opinion on the Internet and official discourse has played an increasingly important role in public life. The Chinese authorities have always had an unaccommodating attitude towards opposing opinions, regarding civil society NGOs as tools used by hostile Western forces to machinate another color revolution. The Chinese authorities are worried that such NGOs would use social discontent to mobilize popular will, and accumulate strength to challenge the Communists’ one-party rule.

For this reason, Chinese authorities have racked their brains, and invested heavily to continuously improve the Golden Shield Project in order to increase the level of control over the Internet. The government also employs a large number of Internet police agents and “commentators” (the Fifty-Cent Party [五毛党]3) to delete Internet postings and mislead public opinion, weaving an enormous and omnipresent censorship net, encircling everything from e-mails to online forums, from text messages to social networking services, and from Internet chat rooms to personal blogs. Since last year, after running into a snag in requiring the mandatory installation of the Green Dam4 filtering software on all new computers, the Chinese authorities have not given up, and are continuing to push for implementing a “real-name system” (实名制), on the Internet and mobile phones, and have already eliminated the option for anonymous postings on major news websites. The goal of the authorities is to let in the good and get rid of the harm of the Internet, namely, to develop the economy while eliminating any threat posed to the one-party rule. This line of thinking was fully reflected in Wang’s report.

But the Internet is a natural enemy to autocracy. In the words of Chinese netizens, “If there is a God, then the Internet is the best gift God gave the Chinese people.”5 The Internet marks human society’s entry into the Information Age, and its fundamental attributes are openness and interaction; it has completely destroyed past conceptions of time and space, linking the entire world into a closely interrelated, indivisible global village. Unless the Chinese government resolves to cut off contact with the outside world, turning all of China into a local area network—and to do this would be to deliver a death-blow to China’s economy—the Chinese authorities are doomed to labor in vain, becoming the losers in this Net battle. The Chinese authorities’ approach—opposing civilization, opposing reason, and being hostile to the era—is just hopelessly stupid, and the greatest mockery of its own claim to “represent the advanced productive force.”

In fact, the Chinese authorities have already sunk into the vast ocean of a netizen war, unable to extricate themselves, and have gotten themselves into a terrible fix. According to the latest statistics, the number of Chinese netizens in 2010 has already passed 400 million, more than any other country in the world. Enlightened by the Net, the vast numbers of netizens have experienced an unprecedented awakening of civic consciousness, actively joining in discussions of social issues, and leaders of opinion have emerged, exemplified by author Han Han (韩寒), artist Ai Weiwei (艾未未), and others. They criticize the ills of the day, seek out the facts, and speak out for justice for vulnerable populations; they have shaped one hot topic after another online, and drawn nationwide attention to these incidents. Powerful opinion among netizens coalesced around episodes such as last year’s “hide-and-seek incident,”6 the Deng Yuqiao (邓玉娇) case,7 and Green Dam, swaying public opinion and forcing the authorities to make certain concessions. At the same time, faced with the world’s largest, strictest Net-censorship machine, Chinese netizens have shown no fear, fighting a battle of wits and courage against the authorities, defending their right to know and their right to expression. The netizens are like the eight immortals crossing the sea in legend, each using their own talents, communicating and sharing techniques for circumvention and breaking through the net [of censorship]. To dodge the authorities’ filtering checks, they have invented such methods as inserting spaces between parts of words or phrases, using homophones, separating components of a word, and using pinyin Romanization. They have also given the other side a taste of its own medicine, using the Sixteen-Character Formula invented by Mao Zedong (毛泽东) (“the enemy advances, we retreat; the enemy camps, we harass; the enemy tires, we attack; the enemy retreats, we pursue”) to fight nimbly with the censors, causing them to lose control of one thing in trying to contend with another, and leaving them at a loss for what to do next.

Last year, the authorities—in the name of “wiping out pornography,” and under the pretense of “building a harmonious society”—shut down a large number of websites including the China's own well-known Bullog (牛博网), a gathering place of free intellectuals. To protest the authorities’ suppression of freedom of expression, netizens made spoofs. They created the video Cao Ni Ma (“Grass Mud Horse[s],” which sounds like, “f-ck your mother”), in which the mythical animals battle river crabs (hexie [河蟹], a homophone for hexie [和谐], “to harmonize”—that is, to censor). They also composed the “Song of the Grass Mud Horse,” which was popular online for a time. Their creation won a special jury prize at Austria’s Ars Electronica Festival. This incident was a huge loss of face for the authorities, but they couldn’t rightly kick up a fuss over it; they could only keep their grievance to themselves, order the postings deleted, and warn domestic websites they were forbidden to play up the matter. But once something is online, it easily spreads everywhere; one can delete endlessly, but there will always be a fish that escapes the net. To this day, Grass Mud Horse is still prominent online. To protest the authorities’ intensifying control of the Internet, Chinese netizens successively released the 2009 Declaration of the Anonymous Netizens (匿名网民宣言), the Internet Human Rights Declaration (网路人权宣言), and the Internet Revolution Declaration (网路革命宣言), protesting the authorities’ attempts to go against the times, calling for the destruction of China’s “Berlin Wall,” and openly declaring war on the authorities: “We are going to mark you as the First Enemy of the Internet. This is not a single battle; it is but the beginning of a war. Play with your artificial public opinion to your heart’s content, for you will soon be submerged in the sea of warring netizens. You cannot evade us, for we are everywhere.”8

Recently a high-ranking Yunnan Provincial Committee Propaganda Department official went to give a speech at Renmin University’s School of Journalism, and someone threw a pile of five-mao bills at him “in tribute,” trapping the official in an extremely embarrassing position.

Not long ago, Chinese netizens took a conspicuous action: hundreds of netizens from all over the country formed netizens’ monitoring delegations and made their way to Mawei in Fujian Province to express their support for three netizens, Fan Yanqiong (范燕琼), You Jingyou (游精佑), and Wu Huaying (吴华英). The three had been charged by the authorities with “defamation and slander” because they had expressed outrage over the gang-rape and murder of Yan Xiaoling (严晓玲)9 and posted messages of support online. The netizen delegations created a model of “Joyful Rights Defense”: they sang the “Song of the Grass Mud Horse”; shouted, “The three netizens are not guilty!” and faced off against the police who were prepared for a formidable enemy; they also connected with netizens across the country through phone calls, QQ instant messaging, Skype, Twitter, and various major websites, and drew thousands of local onlookers. Through the Internet, netizens from everywhere moved in sync and interacted with protests in the street; the slogan “Onlookers make history” instantly spread across the nation.

On May Fourth this year, netizens also launched a “freedom of expression” flash-mob activity. It was initiated by a netizen with the handle “Beijing Old Zhang” (北京老张); his proposal to Twitter users on every large, well-known website in the country, to “write only four characters: ‘Freedom of Expression’” (言论自由), was enthusiastically received. Many netizens changed their status messages to “Freedom of Expression,” and the words “Freedom of Expression” simultaneously appeared in vast numbers on every major website. In a real-time Google search, nearly every second brought a new item in response. Even though they met with immediate deletion—in some, the word “freedom” was automatically filtered out, leaving only the word “expression”—netizens matched wits with the network administrator’s automatic filter; one netizen with the handle “Happy Prince” passed the censorship check with the words, “expression is not free.”

At present, China has already entered troubled times. All kinds of social conflicts that have accumulated in the 30 years since Reform and Opening Up are nearing the brink of total eruption; with social injustice and seething popular discontent, the whole of China is like a powder keg. Recently, China experienced a series of six cases of child-massacre, all within a period of less than two months; the bloody scenes, too wretched to behold, are in themselves a portrayal of the current state of affairs. For a time everyone panicked, and parents especially were in a state of dread; an atmosphere of horror filled the whole society.

People cannot help but ask, “What on earth is wrong with China?” Even though the causes of the six recent cases of child-massacre were all different, on a deeper level, the reason was severe social injustice—which the government authorities have single-handedly created. It is for this very reason that following the murder cases, parents hung up banners at the entrances to elementary schools that read, “There’s a source for each injustice, a lender for every debt; walk ahead, take a right, and there you’ll find the government.” For a long time, the severe imbalance in distribution of benefits in Chinese society, with the strong devouring the weak, has caused a great disparity between rich and poor, and set officials and ordinary people on opposing sides. The masses not only lack an effective channel for expressing their grievances, but have also frequently met with violent suppression from the authorities. A violent, tyrannical regime will only produce mobs, and exacerbate the atmosphere of ruthlessness in society. Faced with the power of officials, victims find themselves isolated and helpless, and thus in despair, take revenge against society, venting their anger on people even weaker than they. The authorities are now getting a taste of the bitter fruits of their tyrannical rule.

Free expression is in humanity’s very nature, and the Internet is the best tool for it that modern civilization has yet produced. An ancient Chinese maxim says, “It is more dangerous to block the people’s mouths than to block a river.” The Chinese authorities, vigorously promoting “soft power” to the world and building Confucius Institutes all over the place, ought to have clearly understood this maxim’s logic; but, for a single party’s selfishness, they cling obstinately to their own course, clamping down on channels for expression, strangling Net freedom, and trying to “block out the sky with one hand.” In so doing, they are producing the “dammed lake” of turbulent times: the greater the suppression, the greater the resistance; that which has accumulated for a long time will surely burst forth quickly. The recent series of child-massacres is a bad omen. China’s rulers should engage in profound self-examination, and for the stability of the nation and the well-being of the people, they should reset their course, and should no longer swim against the tide of the era and shoot themselves in the foot with their actions.


1. HRIC has translated Wang Chen’s report in this issue: Concerning the Development and Management of Our Country’s Internet. ^

2. The Golden Shield Project was launched by the Ministry of Public Security in 1998. According to China’s Golden Shield, the project promotes “advanced information and communication technology to strengthen central police control, responsiveness, and crime combating capacity . . . Beijing envisions the Golden Shield as a database-driven remote surveillance system—offering immediate access to records on every citizen in China, while linking to vast networks of cameras designed to increase police efficiency.” See China’s Golden Shield: Corporations and the Development of Surveillance Technology in the People’s Republic of China (International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development, 2001), 6. ^

3. “Fifty Cents Party” (五毛党) refers to online commentators hired by provincial and local authorities in China to manipulate public opinion by posting opinions supportive of the government in various places online. ^

4. Green Dam is a content-control software, which Chinese authorities mandated must be pre-installed on all new computers sold in mainland China from July 1, 2009 onward. However, in August, 2009, under mounting public pressure, the government announced that they would limit installation to computers in public venues. HRIC has provided an English translation of that announcement. ^

5. See 2009 Declaration of the Anonymous Netizens. ^

6. “Hide-and-seek” (躲猫猫) is online slang that originally referred to an official explanation of the death of Li Qiaoming (李荞明), who died of sustained beatings in a Jinning county prison in China’s southeastern Yunnan province, in February 2009. Officials originally told Li’s family that he had died while playing that children’s game blindfolded. ^

7. Deng Yuqiao was a young waitress who fatally stabbed a Communist Party official when he tried to rape her at a hotel in Hubei Province in May 2009. Her case became a cause célèbre, and Deng was later released after a court ruled that she acted in self-defense. ^

8. See 2009 Declaration of the Anonymous Netizens. ^

9. Yan Xiaoling (严晓玲), a 25-year-old woman from Fujian Province’s Minqing County, was found dead in February 2008. Three netizens, Fan Yanqiong (范燕琼), You Jingyou (游精佑), and Wu Huaying (吴华英) posted an online account from Yan’s mother, who believed that she had died after being gang-raped by thugs connected to the local police. The three were later sentenced to 1–2 years in prison for slander. ^

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