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Editor: Chan Tran
Address: PO Box 7826, San Jose, CA 95150, USA
Phone: (408) 363-6892
Message-ID: <199806291623.JAA08589@shell3.ba.best.com>
Date: Mon, 29 Jun 1998 09:23:29 -0700
Sender: Southeast Asia Discussion List <SEASIA-L@LIST.MSU.EDU>
From: Vietnam Insight <vinsight@BEST.COM>
Organization: Vietnam Insight
Subject: VI:Dissidence in cyberspace worries Beijing(&Hanoi)

Dissidence in cyberspace worries Beijing

By William J. Dobson, San Jose Mercury News, Sunday 28 June 1998

IN NOVEMBER 1978, thousands of Chinese began flocking to a stretch of wall in the center of Beijing to post essays and poems, proclaiming their grievances and calling for new freedoms. Among these was a tract by today's most famous dissident, Wei Jingsheng, in which he called for a democratic China. It proved to be a short spring for freedom. By April, China's leaders had had enough: The essays and poems were torn down from what had by then been dubbed Democracy Wall. All further postings were banned.

Today, Chinese dissidents are at it again. Defying Beijing, they are posting calls for democracy as sophisticated and provocative as anything published on Democracy Wall. Only this time they've chosen a less vulnerable, more powerful venue: the Internet.

Some of the best-crafted works come from Tunnel (http://www.geocities.com/ CollegePark/Union/1761/tunnel.html), a Chinese-language journal of dissent. This computerized samizdat made its

debut June 4 of last year to commemorate the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, declaring it would break through the present lock on information and controls on expression.

Since then, Tunnel has explored such taboo topics as the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and the U.S.-made documentary Gate of Heavenly Peace. While Tunnel is managed and edited in China, once it is ready to go online it is secretly delivered to the United States, then e-mailed back to China from the anonymous nobody@usa.net. Thus, its staff remains safely hidden in cyberspace. Its contributors, both in China and abroad, write under pseudonyms. Tunnel represents the next plateau in the technological evolution of dissent. Chinese intellectuals and dissidents relied on pen and paper during the 1915 New Culture Movement, turned to printing presses during the Democracy Wall movement, and used faxes and photocopiers during the Tiananmen Square uprising.

For the editors of Tunnel, the Internet was the next logical step, and perhaps the most ambitious challenge to Beijing's control of information. The computer network . . . disseminates technology onto the desks of each and every one of us, they explained in their inaugural editorial. It can undermine the two pillars of an autocratic society: monopoly and suppression.

Tunnel is not alone. The exile government of the Dalai Lama in Dharmshala, India, uses the Internet to press its case against China's occupation of Tibet. Last month an international group of dissidents, the Digital Freedom Network, launched a Web site (http://www.dfn.org/) that posts banned and censored documents. And Wei Jingsheng, the hero of Democracy Wall now exiled from China, has said he will use the Internet to reach those cut off by China's Great Wall around information.

Sedition by e-mail

China's leadership has not been slow to respond to the threat posed by dissidents in cyberspace. Last year, the government beefed up a 1996 law restricting access to the Internet, expanding the definition of computer crime to include spreading rumors, promoting feudal superstitions and injuring the reputation of state organs. Everyone who signs up with an Internet service provider must register with the police and promise not to commit crimes against the state. Penalties range from prison to confiscation of your computer.

But if China's rulers fear the cyber threat, they also appear incapable of effectively countering it. In 1996 China began blocking Web sites as varied as Human Rights Watch, the New York Times and Playboy. Yet somehow, on any given day, it is often possible to access a number of these from China. And savvy Chinese surfers slip past electronic barriers by linking to computers outside the country.

Thus, despite the Chinese authorities, a number of blocked sites—including Human Rights in China and China News Digest—report getting dozens to hundreds of hits each week from within China. Chances are those numbers will keep growing. That's because the only thing authoritarian Asian countries need to fear more than freedom of expression is further economic trouble; Beijing surely must be aware that the countries that have best weathered the Asian financial crisis are those with real-time access to news and financial data.

A status symbol

So China has designated information technology a national pillar industry, spending large sums to build Internet hubs across the country. According to the Chinese government, in the past five years the number of Chinese citizens online skyrocketed from 20,000 to 1 million. And it projects that by the end of 1998, the number will be closer to 1.5 million. Internet cafes are springing up all around Beijing. Being wired is becoming as big a status symbol in China as owning a television was in the 1980s.

This means big business for the personal-computer market in China, now the second-largest in Asia. In 1991 there were only a few thousand PCs in China, according to Marcia Kunstel and Joseph Albright of Cox News Service; today, 4,000 new PCs are sold every day, half of which are equipped to reach the Internet.

It also means big business for Silicon Valley. After meeting with President Jiang Zemin last month, Intel's chairman, Andrew Grove, announced the creation of the Intel China Research Center. Grove and company believe the $50 million Beijing-based research center will help them keep a competitive edge in China's computer market. Chinese authorities believe it will help train a generation of homegrown engineers and computer scientists.

As for Bill Gates, whom much of China's educated youth considers a demigod, he gets a better reception there than do most heads of state. In December, in his fifth trip to China since 1994, thousands of students came to hear Gates speak about the future of computing in China. At Qinghua University, China's MIT, Gates' autobiography is constantly checked out from the library. And for good reason: Qinghua has graduated many of Microsoft's 330 mainland employees.

China Wide Web?

So far, the Chinese government refuses to recognize the impossibility of encouraging further economic growth while keeping the screws on the free flow of information.

While hard-liners fearful of Western spiritual pollution preach the dangers of cyberspace, a growing faction seems to believe China can meet the world halfway. They dream of an intranet that would allow access to domestic Web sites but nothing else. Likewise, a company called China Internet Corp. is trying to build a China Wide Web, a networking system modeled on the World Wide Web—minus the world. The marketplace of ideas, however, probably will doom both ventures.

The big question is whether dissidents could eventually use the Internet to incite a massive grass-roots effort to change China's politics. Perhaps not.

But Chinese authorities probably took more than a little notice of how Indonesian students used the Internet to bolster their calls for Suharto's resignation last month. There, student-activists used e-mail to compare notes and bombard journalists with stories of Suharto's corruption. When it was rumored that a prominent Indonesian dissident was to be arrested, they sent urgent e-mails to U.S. human rights groups, who contacted prominent members of Congress, who put in calls to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Whereas it might usually take a massive letter-writing campaign and weeks of lobbying to reach a senior Cabinet official, the Internet makes it possible before the end of the business day. Whether they realize it or not, Beijing's bureaucrats are going to find it hard to build a firewall against democracy.