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China in Cyberspace


It is not widely known that the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan are now at war. The battles are not being fought on land, however, or at sea, or even, strictly speaking, in the air; they take place in cyberspace, where nobody so far has ever died. The soldiers in this war are invisible figures buried deep inside government offices, “hacking” their way into computers on enemy territory. As soon as the Taiwanese president, Lee Teng-hui, announced, on July 9, that his country should be treated as a separate state, the battle was joined.

The technology is quite new, of course, but the use of it can be touchingly old-fashioned: a picture of the PRC flag was planted by Beijing’s official hackers on the website of the Taiwanese intelligence agency, as though it were conquered territory. Then, in August alone, 72,000 cyberspace attacks were launched from mainland computers, 165 times with success. Success can be an invasion of secret websites, as in the example of the planted flag. Another form of attack—also used against US government agencies after the Chinese embassy bombing in Belgrade—is to swamp websites with so much e-mail, or “e-mail bombs,” that they are overloaded and knocked out of use. On their side, the Ministry of Public Security in Beijing set up a special unit to combat enemy hackers, or, as it was officially put, “to prevent an invasion of hostile forces.”1

Planting flags or slogans on the enemy’s websites is a technically more sophisticated variation of a crude tactic used for many years in the propaganda war between the Republic of China and the People’s Republic of China: balloons filled with propaganda material were floated across the Taiwan Strait. Perhaps things have changed now, but visitors to the ROC military base in Quemoy, just off the Chinese mainland, used to be handed colorful balloons, usually after a copious lunch, and before they knew it, they would be photographed as allies in the war with the “Communist bandits.” I once did my unsuspecting duty in that war myself, looking like a drunk at a children’s party.

The question is whether the current conflict in cyberspace should be called a civil war. Since Washington only recognizes one China, the official US position must be that it is. If one’s sympathies are with Taiwan, a democracy that would like to be recognized as a separate state, things are more complicated. It all rather depends on what one means by “China,” a question that is almost as complex as the “Jewish problem,” and has been given a new twist by the arrival of the Internet. Is China a state, a nation, a geographical area, a culture, or just a myth? Or is it perhaps an ethnic idea? Officially, the Beijing government denies this. Minorities such as Tibetans, Mongols, and Uighurs are citizens of China. However, they do not think of themselves as Chinese, whereas thousands of citizens of Britain, Australia, Malaysia, and the US still do, purely on the somewhat shaky basis of their bloodlines.

The “Chinese problem” is not new. During the long history of the Chinese people, China has often been divided into separate states. And the Chinese people, even those commonly defined as Han Chinese, were made up of various ethnic groups. Even the Chinese spoken language, the one thing all Chinese might be thought to have in common, consists of many dialects which are distinct enough to be classified as separate languages. And yet the myth of One China has been tenacious. It is an idealized China, a cosmological idea rather than a nation-state, in which all Chinese live in harmony, ruled by a semidivine emperor who acts, like the Catholic pope (but with far greater worldly powers), as a kind of middleman between heaven and earth. In the ideal Confucian society, de-fined by generation after generation of scholar-officials, every Chinese knows his or her place under heaven. In this world, unity is bliss, and diversity spells disorder. The old empire is now gone, of course, but the ideal is exploited to this day by the government of the People’s Republic to enforce obedience. To question the rulers of “China” is to be unpatriotic, even “anti-Chinese.”

China also exists as a sentimental notion, celebrated in kung fu movies and pop songs, mostly made in Hong Kong. All Chinese, from Canton to Vancouver, felt the warm glow of pride when they saw Bruce Lee—a native of San Francisco—beat up large white men, preferably colonial Englishmen, or, perhaps even more gratifyingly, Japanese, in the movies. And the song that brought tears to the eyes of all the students on Tiananmen Square in 1989, and by extension to the eyes of all Chinese who watched television, was composed by a Taiwanese singer, and entitled “Descendants of the Dragon.” It went:

In the ancient East there is a dragon;
China is its name.
In the ancient East there lives a people,
The dragon’s heirs every one.

When the Communist government launched a campaign in the 1980s to solicit money from overseas Chinese, billboards appeared in coastal cities welcoming donations to the “motherland” from the “Children of the Yellow Emperor.”

But sentiment alone does not make for a political community. A nation, in the modern political sense, not only needs common institutions of government but common mass media, where issues of shared interest are reported and discussed, freely in a democracy, or as a form of indoctrination in a dictatorship.

So if we define China as a political community there are two Chinas, and perhaps, if we include Hong Kong, even three. The millions of people outside these three places who still think of themselves as Chinese have diverse political loyalties, or don’t care about politics at all. They are, at any rate, not a political community. But the Internet may have changed all this. One might argue that China, as an imagined political community in which all Chinese can take part, albeit without common institutions, only exists in cyberspace. There, for the first time, Taiwanese, mainland Chinese, Hong Kong Chinese, and overseas Chinese read the same papers, follow the same debates, and talk about politics on a daily basis. The Internet has become a forum of worldwide Chinese public opinion. Geographical borders no longer count. Even minor barriers to smooth communication, such as the different ways of writing Chinese characters in mainland China and other parts of the Chinese-speaking world, can be overcome with a simple change of font.

Surfing the Chinese websites, many of them set up in North America, is a bit like delving into the conscious, rational mind of a nation as well as the dark unconscious, filled with dreams of delusion and paranoia, sexual impulses and smoldering resentments. One interesting aspect of the Internet is that it lacks a superego that filters the monsters emerging from the lower depths. The Internet was where the wildest conspiracy theories about the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade were aired. It is also where people are denounced as spies, whores, gangsters, Communist agents, ass-licking dogs of the American imperialists, and much, much worse. Feuds between different factions of the overseas Chinese democracy movement go on and on, often expressed in terms more commonly used on the walls of public lavatories. The Internet has the effect of making the private public; malicious gossip is instantly shared by millions. Since much of this is posted on the Net anonymously or under false names, and some of it is planted by government agencies, you never really know who is saying what and for what reason. A well-known human rights promoter recently came across bizarre and damaging opinions posted under his own name. Entering some websites therefore is a surreal experience, like visiting a mental institution with thousands of insanely chattering voices.

The question of Taiwanese relations with mainland China is a case in point. On one level, there is a great deal of interesting debate on the Internet about the meaning of popular sovereignty, the relative importance of history and culture on political affairs, and the nature of the Communist Party compared to the Nationalists. Opinions tend to follow the origins of those who ex-press them, that is, native Taiwanese, whether they are living in Taiwan, the US, or elsewhere, favor Taiwanese independence more than those with a background in mainland China. But not always. Wei Jingsheng, the most famous democratic activist, and a much abused figure on Chinese websites, has stated that sovereignty should be a matter of popular choice. He doesn’t advocate it, indeed he warns against it, but if most Taiwanese wish to be independent, it should be up to them to decide. Others argue that this would only encourage ethnic resentments and demagogues with secessionist fantasies. Nations united by language and culture should not be torn apart lightly. I would be on Wei’s side, in this case, but not all counterarguments are reprehensible, or easily dismissed.

However, if you were to click on other opinions posted on the Internet, you would plunge straight into the subsoil where more primitive weeds flourish. I found the following argument on Taiwanese independence expressed in broken English on a website called Free Talk: “Fuck UR mother. I fucked 17 mainland whores.” Whereupon another debater on the same issue responded: “Fuck you! Fuck you! Fuck UR Taiwanese mother. Taiwan is China province.”2 The use of English in this exchange is puzzling. Is it because English has become the lingua franca of the Internet to such an extent that, like airline pilots, habitual Internet users now favor English over their native languages? Is it because the people concerned lack Chinese writing software? Or is it because this kind of language, like rap music, is an American cultural export? This is certainly possible. On a recent trip to China, I found similar English phrases in denunciations of the Belgrade embassy bombing in places where very few foreigners could be expected to see them.

It is not always easy to combat Internet abuse without resorting to the kind of censorship Chinese dissidents are trying to fight against. Wang Dan, one of the former student leaders on Tiananmen Square, and now a student at Harvard, is leading a signature campaign through the Internet to press Beijing to revise its verdict on Tiananmen.3 His website was quickly filled with obscene messages and insults, some, perhaps, sent from sources operating under the aegis of the Public Security Ministry in Beijing. But out of deference to the principles of free speech, Wang was reluctant at first to do anything about it. Nonetheless, like hecklers at a meeting, this cyberspace graffiti became such a menace that a warning had to be issued. Profanities and incitements to violence and hatred would no longer be tolerated: “We have a responsibility to remove your posting, if you do not follow these simple rules, and we will.”

  1. 1

    These figures were reported in the Volkskrant (Amsterdam), August 17, 1999.

  2. 2

    See www.nacb.com/bbs/freetalk.

  3. 3

    See www.june4.org.

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