Cyberphobia: China simply has no choice but to get over it

China's leaders have been struggling to control cyberspace ever since the first e-mail landed in a Middle Kingdom in-box. In the latest chapter of this story, the government has put a 30-year-old Shanghai Netpreneur on trial. He's charged with "inciting the overthrow of state power" by providing e-mail addresses to a dissident e-magazine, even though he may not have realized the customer's identity.

Several months earlier, the government arrested a number of people associated with "Tunnel," a dissident e-zine. And for more than two years, the government has filtered out "subversive" Web sites, which usually means The New York Times, CNN, and anything associated with Taiwanese or Tibetan independence.

These efforts may seem intimidating, but Beijing's campaign to corral cyberspace has become an increasingly quixotic quest. Due in part to the government's modernization efforts, mainland China now boasts more than 1.2 million Internet subscriptions, many shared by multiple users. Chinese language Web sites now number at least in the tens of thousands, and communication with free Chinese societies in Hong Kong and Taiwan has become infinitely easier. The government simply can't catch everything. One Chinese student in Beijing told me he regularly researches the Taiwanese independence movement and elite mainland politics by surfing the multitudes of US-based Web sites that have escaped filtration.

The question isn't when this will begin to affect China - it already is. Internet-delivered news, for example, upset China's political scene in an unprecedented way last summer. In May, hundreds of ethnic Chinese were killed and many raped in Indonesia during a racist outburst against the Chinese business community. The Chinese government suppressed news of the violence, fearing it could provoke demonstrations and disrupt ties with Indonesia, but the Internet was soon swamped with news of the anti-Chinese brutality. Many educated Chinese were appalled by the grisly details, and in August the first off-campus student demonstrations since the 1989 Tiananmen movement were held outside the Indonesian embassy in Beijing. Faced with such pressure, the Chinese government eventually took a harder line with Indonesia.

To be sure, the Internet's capacity for shocking the Chinese people and inciting unrest is limited by the public's already deep-seated cynicism about official corruption and nepotism. But not all of the government's dark secrets are common knowledge. Imagine that Net-based financial analysts disseminated the closely held details of the Chinese banking system's fragility. According to one Chinese economist, few Chinese savers understand that state-run banks squandered nearly half the country's savings - about $240 billion - in unrecoverable loans to money-losing state enterprises by the end of 1997. Bad loans are now officially estimated around 20 percent of the total, but a more realistic figure is probably closer to 50 percent. Such weakness recently prompted one foreign financial expert in Beijing to wonder whether, given five minutes on Chinese television, he could cause a run on the banks. Were such a financial panic to materialize, the repercussions would be felt far beyond China.

Little wonder, then, that Beijing struggles so hard to keep a grip on cyber-dissent. But so far these efforts are going nowhere, and tuning out the Internet completely is not a realistic option. Officials at China's ministry of posts and telecommunications told US diplomats last year that most Internet users would be limited to China's domestic network in the future, with only those with special needs allowed to surf foreign sites. Ask any Netpreneur in Beijing today, though, and such plans are dismissed as "impossible." If China is to shed its status as a technological backwater, the Internet will have to be open to more than a handful of approved researchers.

Ultimately, China's government will have to become more comfortable exercising less control over information flows. Clumsy censorship attempts aren't a solution, and merely provide dissidents with more ammunition. But because abandoning these efforts would require an unfamiliar, more democratic approach to governance, the government's cyberphobia is unlikely to vanish soon.

* Andy Kennedy is a San Francisco and Beijing-based consultant and freelance writer.

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