Xiao Qiang: The Development and the State Control of the Chinese Internet

The following text is from my oral presentation before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. This Hearing on China’s State Control Mechanisms and Methods was held in Washington D.C. on April 14, 2005. It aims to “examine the techniques employed by the Chinese government to curtail the free exchange of information via the Internet and the press.”

Commissioner June Teufel Dreyer, Commissioner William Reinsch, and Distinguished Commission members,

My name is XIAO Qiang. I am the Director of China Internet Project, of the Graduate School of Journalism of UC Berkeley. The Berkeley China Internet Project was founded in fall, 2003, with the mission to explore the impact of the digital communication technologies on China’s transition and its emerging role in the global community. In the last two years, my research has been focused on state censorship in Chinese cyberspace and the creative use of interactive media to advance the world’s understanding of China. It is an honor to be among my distinguished fellow panelists, in front of this important commission.

I have submitted a written presentation, detailing the development and the state mechanisms of the Chinese Internet. Let me just sum up the following points in front of this panel.

‚Ä¢ Internet is already a fabric of urban Chinese lives. According to Gallup’s latest nationwide poll of China, 12% of all Chinese aged 18 and older — or more than 100 million — say they have used the Internet. Thirteen percent of Chinese households nationwide own at least one computer — a proportion that rises to 47% in the country’s 10 largest cities, and 66% in Beijing. 85% of Chinese Internet users are male, 40% are in the 21‚Äì25 age group, 86% of Chinese Internet users have college degrees, according to the latest Gallup survey.

• Chinese government is the primary driving force for the development of the Internet in China. The authorities see the Internet is a critical instrument to serve its central agenda: economic development to preserve the power status quo of the Chinese Communist Party. Since the Internet first entered China, the government has used an effective multi-layered strategy to control Internet content and monitor online activities at every level of Internet service and content networks.

There are FOUR main approaches of Chinese state control of the Internet: Technology, Law, Self-Censorship and Propaganda.

• 1, TECHNOLOGY: Unlike in the United States and most democratic countries, where the Internet has grown in a distributive, emerging fashion, development of the Internet in China was driven by the government, and its hardware infrastructure remains very centralized, making it easy to implement top-down control mechanisms. Internet users in China connect to the global World Wide Web through six interconnection networks, or gateways, which are tightly controlled by government agencies. Many private Internet Service providers (ISPs) exist, but they can only operate if they connect to the web through the six gateways. In effect, the Internet in China is really a nationwide Intranet, with limited and government-controlled access to the global Internet.

Perhaps the most internationally known component of government control is the “Great Firewall”, which protects the six gateways connecting China to the global Internet. Its main function is to prevent surfers in China from accessing “undesirable” web content in the global cyberspace.

The blocked sites are mainly overseas Chinese-language news websites, such as BBC Chinese, and most news sites originating in and Hong Kong; they also include selected media and topic sites such as Falun Gong and human rights.

Content filtering is not only implemented at the “national gateway” level, but also throughout the public Internet access facilities in China. In 2003, the net police closed almost half of the country’s 200,000 Internet cafes, and installed surveillance and filtering software in the rest.

• 2, LAW: Chinese government has issued bodies of laws and regulations in order to control the Internet. The first regulations covering online activities were passed in 1994, and since then, 37 laws and regulations have been implemented to govern the Internet.

Since 2000 China’s police force has established Internet departments in more than 700 cities and provinces. As in many other countries around the world, these police handle all computer and network security related crimes, but in addition, the Chinese Net police also monitor websites and email for “heretical teachings or feudal superstitions” and information “harmful to the dignity or interests of the state”. Internet police also have access to software which enables them to detect “subversive” key words in emails and downloads as well as to trace messages back to the computers from which they were sent.

‚Ä¢ 3, SELF-CENSORSHIP: In addition to directly controlling Chinese Internet users’ access to the global World Wide Web, the Chinese government mandates that all ISPs and ICPs must bear responsibility for any information distributed through their site. Authorities use licensing regulations and financial penalties to punish any companies that fail to comply.

As a direct consequence of these control policies, all ISPs and ICPs in China must police themselves in order to operate. For example, the most politically active spaces online are online forums like bulletin boards and chat rooms. Because of the government regulations, all web hosting services must hire moderators in order to keep their sites’ content acceptable to the Internet police. In addition to human censors, all website hosting services have also installed keywords filtering software. Posts on politically sensitive topics, such as Falun Gong, human rights, democracy, and Taiwan independence are routinely filtered. A list recently obtained by the China Internet Project in Berkeley found that over 1000 words, including “dictatorship”, “truth”, and “riot police” are automatically banned in China’s online forums.

‚Ä¢ 4, PROPAGANDA: This actually constitutes a critically important component of the Internet control strategy by the Chinese government, though it is less well-known to observers outside of China. In last seven years, Chinese government has put in enormous financial resources and allowed special privileges to set up and support government-sponsored websites, from national level to regional and provincial levels. About 10% of all sites in Chinese cyberspace are directly set up and run by the government. Over 150 mains news sites are established by the central and local government directly, including China’s top five websites: Renmin Ribao, News Agency, China Radio International, China Daily, and the China Internet Information Center.

Because of the increasing influence of online forums, in addition to the technological filtering and human censorship, the government also adopted a more sophisticated propaganda approach to “guide opinions” in those forums. For example, in one of the most popular bulletin board sites, “Strong Country Forum,” whenever there are large news event, the editors always invite “experts” and government officials to directly chat with netizens, and communicate the government point of view. They also designated propaganda agents to work undercover online, pretending to be ordinary netizens, in order to monitor Internet forums as well as “guide” online discussions.


Thus far, the Chinese government has managed to promote the development of the Internet for its economic benefits, while maintaining enough control over online information. However, despite all the state censorship measures I have described above, it is also indisputable that the Internet is expanding the freedom of information and expression in China. Although many of these changes are still incremental, they are nevertheless profound. In the long term, when the Internet penetration in Chinese society continue to grow, and in the time when more radical social, political change emerges in Chinese society, the Internet and other digital communication technologies such as mobile phones will definitely play a powerful role, hopefully to facilitate those changes towards a positive direction: a peaceful transition to a more open and democratic China.

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