When it comes to controlling the Internet, China is trying to learn from a little neighbor.
In June, Beijing sent Zeng Jianhui, a top official, to Singapore to pick up tips on expanding the use of the Internet within strict limits. Singapore, a critic of unfettered dissent and Western culture, is trying to become the network's model censor.
"China has a lot to learn from Singapore's experience," says a Chinese government official studying Internet restrictions.
China seeks to enjoy the benefits of the Internet without surrendering its fiercely held control over information. The government's intent is to establish, with the assistance of foreign technology suppliers, a national offshoot of the Internet that gives the country a link to the outside world but still allows for government censorship.
The Chinese computer market is growing by leaps and bounds. About 4.5 million personal computers are in use in China, and that number is projected to reach 8 million by the turn of the century. Twenty percent are owned privately, the government estimates.
Worried that the new electronic communications medium is spinning out of its control and could undermine Communist propaganda, the Chinese leadership decided in February to put teeth into Internet regulations and prevent computer-disseminated pornography and antigovernment material.
The government is uneasy about cyberspace connections between overseas democracy activists and Chinese dissidents, which blossomed during political protests on the streets of Beijing and other major cities during the spring of 1989. The few Chinese activists who are not imprisoned or under detention are closely watched amid a government crackdown on crime and political unrest.
In a step that went beyond the scale of Singapore's restrictions, the Chinese government required the country's estimated 50,000 Internet users to channel their communications through "ports" or "filters" monitored by the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunication and other agencies.
Keeping an eye on users
All domestic users were required to register with the police, and companies and individuals connected to the Internet were "forbidden to produce, retrieve, duplicate, and spread information that may hinder public order."
The new regulations are contributing to the "healthy development of China's information industry," says Yang Zhihui, a police computer-regulation official, as quoted in the official Chinese press. "The aim is to assure China's high-technology development, raise the quality of China's information links with the outside world, prevent criminal behavior, and halt the flow of harmful information."
"This is not having any negative effect on the Internet's development in China," says Wang Jun, an official in the telecommunications ministry's data communication bureau. "It's just a precautionary procedure."
China's fledgling Internet businesses say they are not alarmed by the impact several months after the new regulations took effect. "It's not having a big effect on our business," says Zhang Shuxin, founder of the Beijing Information Highway Technology Company, a Chinese-language network for the country's growing ranks of Internet users. "The number of people who can read what's available in English is still small."
However, Western experts question whether China can completely censor the network and prevent users from visiting certain sites on the Internet. By changing Internet addresses, Chinese users "can stay one step ahead," says a Beijing university student who uses the Internet regularly.
Cornering the market
In May, China launched a nationwide computer network that allows only limited access to the Internet. The venture aims to avoid breaking China's censorship laws by creating its own content and making available only information useful for businesses.
The new edited network, which is 60 percent owned by the official New China News Agency and was launched in conjunction with the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications, does not face a censorship problem because "there is nothing illegal on the network," says Joyce Wong, an executive with the Hong Kong-based China Internet Corp.
The clampdown on information networks in China comes as the government is trying to impose curbs on financial data flows. Last January, Beijing announced it would put foreign economic news services under the supervision of the New China News Agency, the state-run news and propaganda agency, which at one time monopolized the business of electronically transmitted information in China.
The decision, growing out of what Chinese officials say were national security concerns, was aimed at foreign news services such as Reuters and Dow Jones. The Chinese agency would have control over the content of news reports and marketing to Chinese customers.
Industry observers say Beijing's main motive in introducing the rules isn't regulation but capturing part of the booming electronic financial information sector in China. Annual revenues are estimated at about $60 million.
The United States has protested against the rules, which it regards as anticompetitive and which it blames for creating trade friction between the two countries. During a visit to China in June, US Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky met with officials of the New China News Agency to lodge American objections.
However, foreign industry executives say the issue is currently stalemated until Chinese officials clarify how the rules will be implemented.