The Crumbling Information Curtain: Examining the Internet's Impact in China, Vietnam and MalaysiaSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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Roger Kang is a 27-year-old manager at a travel agency in Guangzhou, the booming Chinese city near Hong Kong. He earns just $150 a month, but that hasn‘t stopped him from assembling a dazzling array of software to take advantage of the Internet. Every day while he‘s at work, his computer automatically connects to the Internet and accesses the web sites of his favorite American newspapers, including the Washington Post, USA Today, and the Christian Science Monitor. Using keywords that he has programmed, the computer pulls out articles that might interest him, and he scans these articles when he gets home. Then he transfers the most informative articles onto his home page, so that his friends, others who have happened upon his web site, can read them.
China and Vietnam, the two largest countries in Asia with rigorous government-imposed censorship, have undergone a remarkable transformation with the coming of the Internet. To witness this transformation is to view two societies in a seemingly schizophrenic state. On the one hand, both the Vietnamese and Chinese governments continue to censor the media, which remains government controlled. Television news highlights every pronouncement of government officials, every handshake with a visiting dignitary. Newspapers in both countries have been freed a bit in recent years and allowed to explore corruption but only corruption by low-levels provincial officials or those out of favor with the ruling party. When Bill Clinton came to China this summer, Beijing made a major concession in allowing him to address the Chinese people live on television. But to minimize the audience, no newspaper was allowed to print the news that the speech would take place, and none the next day could print what he actually said.
Tourists in both countries can find a few Western publications, such as the International Herald Tribune, Time and Newsweek, but only in five-star hotels. And in Vietnam, censors rely on the low-tech solution of blocking out with a felt-tip pen offending passages in every copy of these publications. Yet on the other side of the coin are people like Roger Kang, working on their home computers with the whole world at their fingertips, with access to all sorts of news that was previously forbidden. Simply entering "Tibet" and "Dalai Lama" into a search engine would bring an entire history of the dispute over Chinese control of Tibet, a dispute previously kept hidden from the Chinese people.
And news like this isn‘t obtainable only in the private homes of people wealthy enough and sophisticated enough to own computers. Internet cafes are sprouting up in major cities all over China and Vietnam. Consider, for instance, the Emotion Café in downtown Hanoi, just a couple of blocks from the site of the "Hanoi Hilton," the jail where American prisoners of war were confined. The ground floor consists of a trendy wooden bar in front and a karaoke area in the rear. The top floor has a pool table and eight computers to access the Internet. Business is so good that the manager, Nguyen Van Thanh, says he‘ll soon expand to 20 computers. Open 24 hours a day, Emotion Café charges the equivalent of one U.S. dollar for about 20 minutes of access time. That‘s a lot to come up with in Vietnam, but in repeated visits I saw Vietnamese of all ages doing e-mail and research, or just playing computer games.
Both China and Vietnam impose restrictions on the Internet, but the restrictions seem more designed to pacify hardliners in the government than to discourage use. Both countries block out web sites of dissident groups. China in addition blocks the New York Times, CNN and few other news sites. But one wonders how serious the governments are in their censorship efforts. China, for instance, allows access to the Washington Post and ABC News, whose web sites are two very close substitutes for the Times and CNN.
In addition, the blockage can be easily circumvented. One method is to contact a web site such as www.anonymizer.com. Through these sites, a user can contact any other web site anonymously. All the Internet service provider knows is that the person has contacted the initial site. The second method is to set the Netscape or Microsoft Explorer browser to a "proxy server," a computer outside of Asia that will then connect the user to web sites. Again, all the service provider knows is that the user is talking to an innocuous address; there‘s no way to tell that the proxy is connecting to forbidden sites.
Are China and Vietnam not seriously concerned about the effectiveness of their blocking efforts? In Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, I went to a modern, new Internet café run by China Telecom, a unit of the Chinese government. To my amazement, I discovered my computer was already set to a proxy server, so that all the blocked web sites were available. I tried two other computers, and they were also set to the same proxy.
China and Vietnam both have strict regulations to make sure Internet users know that they‘re under the watchful eye of the State. But the regulations seem to be spottily enforced, if in fact they‘re enforced at all. China requires anyone who wants to subscribe to an Internet service provider to first register with the Public Security Bureau, and to sign a sort of "loyalty oath" pledging not to use the Internet against the interests of the state. But in a big shopping mall in Guangzhou, I saw an ISP signing up customers in the atrium, telling them they could be on-line that very afternoon. And in Kunming, I met a young entrepreneur who had bought a computer, rented a tiny storefront, and gone into the Internet café business. She said she started up without any sort of government registration or permission. Three months later, she continued, a Public Security Bureau agent stopped in. When he learned she had no official permission, he didn‘t put her out of business or arrest her; instead, he simply asked her to sign some boilerplate forms.
China did act recently in a case involving the Internet, but it was a response to the most extreme sort of provocation. A Chinese dissident newsletter called VIP Reference, located in the U.S., had in effect been "spamming" China. Somehow they had gotten the e-mail addresses of tens of thousands of Internet users in China, and each month they would e-mail their newsletter automatically to the entire mailing list, which included some of the highest officials in the Chinese government. In December, the government charged a Shanghai computer entrepreneur with providing the mailing lists, and put him on trial.
Except for this one incident, the governments of China and Vietnam, which are usually such vigilant ideological watchdogs, so far seem lax in their supervision of the Internet. Why, when control of information is such a fundamental part of Communist rule, would they allow the opening of the floodgates via the Internet?
Clearly, in both countries, the decision was not an easy one to make. The Chinese government opened up the Internet in fits and starts, giving and taking away in a series of rule making, until a final stamp of approval in December 1996. Vietnam began by allowing only e-mail, then opening up access to the World Wide Web a year ago, on January 1, 1998. Vietnam still blocks other communications ports, which are similar to channels on a television, permitting only the ports for e-mail, the Web, and file transfers, but forbidding such functions as audio, video, and POP3, which is remote e-mail retrieval. The blocked ports, ironically, hamper businesses, not dissidents.
No one in Beijing or Hanoi is talking, but it‘s not hard to speculate on reasons the Internet has been approved. First is the fact that the ministries involved are staffed at the highest levels by bureaucrats, not telecommunications experts, and these men probably have little idea of the potential power of the Internet. Second would be the pressures from business and academia. Students today can‘t get a good education without the Internet, local businesses would find themselves hampered in exporting their products, and multinationals would be less likely to invest.
Third, and most persuasive to me, is the fact that the Internet is a potential gold mine for the government ministries that monopolize telecommunications in both China and Vietnam. Both countries have enormously high long-distance phone rates, and the thought of additional revenue pouring in from Internet functions was probably too great to resist.
There are two important questions to ask in assessing the impact of the Internet on China and Vietnam. First, does the elitist nature of the Internet market negate its influence? After all, the Internet is expensive; even a couple of dollars for some time at an Internet café is beyond the means of most workers in China and Vietnam. It requires some expertise with computers and, even though software exists in both Chinese and Vietnamese, it requires at least some knowledge of English. Wouldn‘t the people affluent enough and skilled enough to use the Internet get lots of information in any case by fax machine, telephone, or general contacts with the outside world? Second, are China and Vietnam permitting the Internet only because at the moment both governments are stable, with little internal threat? What would happen if there were another protest similar to Tiananmen Square? Wouldn‘t the government simply decide to pull the plug on the Internet, no matter what the consequences?
These questions are probably years away from getting definitive answers. But a very interesting insight into both questions comes from recent events in Malaysia. For the past several months, the country has been experiencing its own version of Tiananmen Square, a massive, nationwide protest movement, complete with street demonstrations put down by club-wielding police, aimed at removing a prime minister who has decreed that political opposition can be a passport to jail. In early September, Mahathir bin Mohamad removed his deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim, and ordered him jailed on highly dubious charges of corruption and sodomy.
An opposition sprang up immediately, spurred by and, its supporters say, wholly dependent on, the Internet. What made the Internet so crucial is the fact that the Malaysian government, although ostensibly a democracy, exercises tight control over the media. During his split with Anwar, Mahathir removed the editors of the two largest Malay-language dailies and installed his supporters in their place. The Malaysian press has uniformly distorted its reporting of the anti-Mahathir movement, which is called "reformasi," by talking about tiny crowds at rallies that actually drew tens of thousands of demonstrators, and by twisting testimony at Anwar‘s trial to make the testimony look favorable to the government. As a result, because the reporting can no longer be trusted, newspaper circulation has plummeted. The New Straits Times, the country‘s leading English language paper, reportedly lost one-third of its circulation, dropping from 200,000 to 135,000.
With nowhere else to turn, Malaysians began getting their news from the Internet. Two days after Anwar‘s removal from office, the web site www.anwar.com went online. That first day, September 4, it received 4,000 hits. As word of the web site got around, the server that housed it was so overwhelmed that it couldn‘t function, and anwar.com was no longer available. That increased the paranoia of Malaysians, who wrongly assumed that it was the government who had pulled the plug.
One web site after another sprang up to replace anwar.com. To counteract the distortions of the Malaysian media, some offered news and photographs, both original reporting and transmission of articles and editorials from the foreign press. Others featured discussion groups. Usage of the Internet in Malaysia skyrocketed. The Usenet channel alt.society.malaysia at one point had available a total of 17,000 comments from Internet users, listed under several hundred topics. The most popular of the anwar.com substitutes received 2.5 million hits in just one month. Another site had nothing but graphic designers who turned common logos into reformasi themes, such as a book with the familiar red and yellow cover entitled "Anwar for Dummies" ("What to do when you realized you‘ve stolen too much of the People‘s money explained in plain English"). With the surge in Anwar web sites, one site devoted itself to listing all the others – more than sixty in total.
In November, I visited Kuala Lumpur to contact some of the anti-Mahathir dissidents and find out to what extent they were relying on the Internet. The man who ran anwar.com, and now runs several other Anwar sites, made himself available only on the condition that I didn‘t use his name. I had expected to meet a long-haired student, but instead the taxi took me to a beautiful home in a wealthy suburb, with a Mercedes in the driveway. My host was a middle-aged intellectual. He ushered me into his study, which had three computers, set automatically to broadcast the Muslim call to prayer several times a day. "I took two of these from my office," he said. "After I brought them home, the police raided my office and went through material on the computers. But they could only find stuff done by the secretaries."
I asked the Anwar webmaster whether the movement could have survived without the Internet. "We would be dead," he replied. "It would have been impossible without the Internet. With the Internet, thousands of people can download the material and print it and distribute it wherever they are. I can post something now, and in five minutes time it‘s all over the country. Without it, we wouldn‘t be able to follow events, but with the Internet you can get everything, including articles in foreign newspapers."
Although Malaysia, a country of 22 million people, has just 50,000 Internet subscribers, the other dissidents I spoke with agreed with the Anwar webmaster, saying that the reformasi movement owed its vitality, if not its very existence, to the Internet. "The limited access to the Internet is no problem," says Sabri Zain, whose anti-Mahathir columns and reporting are prominently displayed on the Anwar web sites. "All over the country," he notes, "the Internet material is being printed out, photocopied, and distributed in mosques. I have a relative in the rural north who doesn‘t even have electricity, but he told me he had read one of my articles, which had been passed out in his mosque that morning." Zain states flatly that "without the Internet, there would have been no protest movement."
The Malaysian experience, then, gives a possible answer to one of the two key questions about the impact of the Internet on authoritarian countries. If Malaysia is any guide, the elitist nature of the Internet isn‘t a hindrance to its influence. Any dissident organization, be they Muslims in a mosque, students in a university, or workers in a factory, needs access to only one computer, because once the information comes in, it can easily be printed out and distributed.
As for the other question, whether a government can quell a protest movement by cutting off Internet access, Malaysia provides some clues also. Mahathir has staked the Malaysian economy to the cornerstone of high technology. The new Kuala Lumpur airport is surrounded by miles of vacant land, land that will someday, Mahathir hopes, be the "Multimedia Supercorridor," a high-tech industrial park housing facilities of multinational technology companies. Clearly a move against the Internet in Malaysia would turn these plans into ashes. Pulling the plug on the Internet would send foreign investors fleeing, and result in the layoff of thousands of Malaysian workers. Any such effort to quash dissent would instead create new dissent, as Malaysia‘s economy crumbled.
What about China and Vietnam, which have a lesser (albeit growing) stake in the high-tech world? The appropriate question here is what exactly could be done to pull the plug? Suppose, starting with a relatively modest action, China or Vietnam were to make a few well-publicized arrests of people downloading dissident material from the Web. No doubt the arrests would discourage Internet usage for such purposes. But Chinese employees of Western companies could still continue with relative impunity to download such material from their offices, through computer networks much less subject to police monitoring.
Suppose then that China or Vietnam were to erect a "firewall" around the country, allowing no foreign web sites to be called up except those that had been approved beforehand by the government. Again the action would be futile, because anyone with a computer and modem could simply dial up an Internet service provider in a neighboring country and sign on there.
Even an attempt to monitor e-mail by programming the servers of Internet service providers to pull out all e-mail containing key words such as "Tibet" would be doomed to failure. Today there‘s an alternative to getting your mail from an ISP. You can instead set up an account from a web-based portal site such as Yahoo or Hotmail, and receive and send your e-mail from the security of an Internet web page that requires your password to access.
The simple truth is that once a nation joins the global economy, pulling the plug on the Internet would produce a calamity that no government could afford. It would yank a country‘s economy out of the world market, and relegate it to the status of impoverished Burma, one of the few nations that continues to bar Internet access. Authoritarian governments will henceforth have no choice but to face a challenge from a new sort of opponent: the free flow of information.
Stan Sesser, a former staff writer for The New Yorker covering Southeast Asia, is a senior fellow at the Human Rights Center, University of California, Berkeley. On a grant from the Smith Richardson Coundation, he is researching the impact of the Internet on authoritarian countries in Asia. The following article is based on a lecture he presented at the International Institute on December 1, 1998 in a special double-feature event, "On the Cutting Edge: Asian News Update," that also included New York Times correspondent John F. Burns. The event was sponsored by the Centers for South and Southeast Asian Studies, Chinese Studies, Japanese Studies, Russian and East European Studies, Middle Eastern and North African Studies, and the Department of Communication Studies.