Somewhere deep within China's secretive Ministry of State Security, just east of Tiananmen Square, agents are bent over computer screens, monitoring the Web travels of everyone from Chinese dissidents to American diplomats posted here. In the nearby Ministry of Public Security, newly minted software designers at the Computer Surveillance Division track the electronic correspondence of suspected Falun Gong members or would-be hackers, says a Western official who closely tracks China's "cybercops."
Internet use is exploding here, with current estimates of China's "Netizens" ranging from 4 million to 10 million. Some reform-minded leaders see this as an opportunity to transform China into a superpower in the global information-based economy.
But conservatives in the Communist Party and police "argue that ever-greater [Internet] controls are necessary to ensure the state's security," says Ken Farrall, publisher of China Matrix, a Web site on Internet use in China.
State Security agents, who monitor "threats" to party rule posed by antigovernment activists or Western envoys, scored their latest victory on Nov. 9, when they helped convict four leaders of the fledgling China Democracy Party of "attempting to subvert the government." The case against Wu Yilong, who received an 11-year sentence, included "evidence that he used the Internet to publish articles on the China Democracy Party and used e-mail to contact overseas pro-democracy organizations," says Frank Lu, a human rights monitor based in Hong Kong.
Western officials and rights monitors say that during searches of any political suspect's home or office, the first thing Chinese security agents seize these days is the computer.
The Chinese parliament in 1998 amended criminal law to outline a spectrum of computer crimes and to prohibit contact with pro-democracy groups abroad. Together, these rules can mean imprisonment for anyone who sends or receives a single e-mail from one of the thousands of Chinese activists now exiled in the United States.
Mr. Lu, who heads the Information Center of Human Rights and Democratic Movement in China, says that surreptitious surveillance of Web surfing and Net communication is helping police track an ever-widening circle of religious, political, and minority activists.
The US State Department's most recent rights report on China says Chinese "authorities often monitor telephone conversations, fax transmissions, electronic mail, and Internet communications of foreign ... diplomats and journalists, as well as Chinese dissidents, activists, and others." It adds, "The government has created special Internet police units to increase control over Internet content and access."
Beijing periodically closes Web bulletin boards or chat rooms if speech becomes political, and it "is now trying to develop a filter system to block antigovernment messages," says the Western official. "The government knows that its control of information is one of its most powerful tools of control over the people."
Mao Wei, who heads the official China Internet Network Information Center in Beijing, says, "Internet use is doubling every year ... and China will have one of the world's top three Internet markets within the next five years." Mr. Mao says about 90 percent of Web surfers here are males under 35 years old and are part of the educated elite.
Those characteristics may inspire fear among some party officials that China's Net population is demographically ripe for bucking Communist controls. And there are growing signs that groups as diverse as underground rights activists to the persecuted spiritual movement Falun Gong are turning to the Web to spread their messages.
"The Chinese government was furious and terrified when, in the middle of a nationwide crackdown on Falun Gong last month, the group used e-mail to set up a secret press conference in Beijing to tell the world about police beatings of detained Falun Gong members," says rights activist Lu.
Lu adds that the group had earlier used electronic messages and Web sites to orchestrate the biggest demonstration to hit China in a decade.
Since the April protest, when 10,000 Falun Gong followers surrounded the party's headquarters in Beijing, at least two of the group's Web-savvy promoters have been charged with "using the Internet to spread reactionary propaganda," he says.
In response to stepped-up use of the Internet by China's disaffected, "public security bureaus around the country are being ordered to expand their computer-security divisions," says Lu.
He says that "last year alone, Shanghai's security organs recruited 300 more computer graduates to engage in cyber-surveillance." Adds Mike Jendrzejczyk, who heads the Washington-based office of Human Rights Watch - Asia Division: "Beijing appears to be worried about cyberspace being used to fuel political and worker unrest ... but I frankly doubt that the genie can be put back into the bottle."
Many computer-industry specialists and political activists here say the rapid-fire growth of Net use, along with increasingly sophisticated means of averting police surveillance, will trigger a high-tech game of cat and mouse for the foreseeable future.
One pro-democracy activist brags that "with my high-speed Internet connection and new software, I can send 1 million e-mails throughout China within 10 hours." Richard Long, who regularly sends the pro-democracy VIP Reference into tens of thousands of Chinese e-mail boxes, including those of top party and police officials, says Beijing will never be able to stop the cyber-bombardment.
"The Internet is a revolutionary tool for people's freedom," he says. "China alone can't stop this global trend."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society