- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 12, 2000

The Internet seemed to be one frontier the Chinese people could walk without their government authorities there as thought police. The medium is notoriously hard to control, and efforts to do so will surely strain the inventiveness of the Chinese censors. But they are trying. Last week, just four months after the country launched its first public, pro-democracy Web site run by political dissidents, authorities closed the New Culture Forum down and went on a search for its sponsors. There are now Internet police in 20 provinces and cities in China, to make sure the 16.9 million Chinese Internet users stay in the right sphere of cyberspace. But Chinese authorities who have been trying to take advantage of the Web's popularity there for their own economic purposes can't have it both ways. An economy cannot flourish in the long run without freedom of information in every medium, particularly on the Internet.

International markets accustomed to the free flow of information that allows for competitive enterprise to flourish will turn to other markets if they do not readily have access to figures, or worse, information that has been censored by the government. As China strives to take advantage of its prospective membership of the World Trade Organization, it will have to cope with businesses' concerns. Consider the Economist's report of a warning filed by Sohu.com, one of China's three largest Internet portals listed on the U.S. Nasdaq market this year: "It is possible that the relevant People's Republic of China (PRC) authorities could, at any time, assert that any portion or all of our existing or future ownership structure and businesses, or this offering, violate existing or future PRC laws and regulations." And that's supposed to make the investor drool?

If anyone doubts the Chinese government's seriousness, they need only look as far as the string of Internet site closures and blocks over the past few months. Consider the case of China Finance Information Network, which was temporarily shut down in May after sites of several state-run publications ran stories on a financial scandal in the Fujian province. To deal with such dangers to national unity, the Economist reported, the Chinese authorities responded with a State Secrecy Bureau that monitors chat rooms, bulletin boards and news groups for anything they consider a "state secret."

These "secrets" could be anything part of a book, for instance, they deem unhealthy for the general viewing audience such as journalist Qi Yanchen's posting of excerpts of "The Collapse of China." A recounting of the Tiananmen Square massacre and a call to challenge the government's response to the student movement was enough to get Huang Qi arrested on June 3. The secrets could be unauthorized general news, which includes anything that has not been previously published by a state-run news agency, according to new Communist Party rules. CNN, The Washington Post and the BBC's Internet sites are regularly blocked, as are human rights organizations' sites.

It should be said that censorship does come in many shapes and sizes. Some of them can be valid. The French cannot be criticized for trying to block access to their citizens who attempted to buy illegal Nazi memorabilia on Yahoo's auction site this week, nor should U.S. public libraries be criticized for blocking minors from viewing child pornography sites. What China's Internet policies are creating, however, is a kind of "cyberprison" where censorship is not the exception but the rule; where the most basic expressions of self, whether in politics, economics or religion are denied; where information from the outside world or any bad news from the inside is considered a threat.

China must be careful in asking its people and the international community to keep their thoughts to themselves. It is paving the way for both to go to other forums and markets where freedom is the rule, and where they will be more kindly received.

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