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China in Cyberspace

1.

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.”

All nations contain a great deal of politics that is too parochial to be of general interest. Few Taiwanese Internet surfers would take a deep interest in the feuds among political refugees from mainland China. And the internal politics of Taiwan or Hong Kong are mostly of interest to the people living there. But there are a few things that hold Cyberspace China together as an imagined community, certain symbols and historical events that speak to the heart of all “descendants of the dragon.” And these are precisely the kind of things that drove nineteenth-century nationalism and much of twentieth-century politics, in China as well as in Europe: tragic defeats, heroic rebellions, and permanent enemies. Two events stand out on the Internet: the Nanjing Massacre of 1937, when Japanese troops killed and raped thousands of unarmed citizens, and the Beijing Massacre of 1989. One turns shared feelings of outrage outward, against Japan, for its “refusal” to apologize, compensate, and atone for its crimes; the other focuses on the crimes of the Chinese government itself, but also on hopes for a freer, more dignified, more open China in which all Chinese can take pride.

Modern Chinese nationalism was ever thus, switching back and forth between rage against foreign aggression and against home-grown tyranny. Indeed, the two are linked, for patriots are quick to criticize their government for not “loving China” enough. The language used in both cases, by writers from all parts of Cyberspace China, is similar. Phrases like “wipe out the shame” and “blood for blood” crop up frequently. And readers are sometimes addressed as “brothers and sisters,” as though all Chinese were family. At least one website is called The Family of the Chinese People (Huajen Yijia). It is certainly the case that when Japanese do anything to stir up Chinese emotions—a conservative politician justifying the war, or right-wing zealots occupying a disputed little island in the South China Sea—the Internet starts to hum with Chinese voices who can agree at least on the point of Japan’s eternal iniquity. The same kind of patriotic solidarity is expressed when rebellion brews in China. In 1989, Chinese from all over joined in, by sending money to the students in Beijing and linking them to the world by fax. The next time something like that happens, the Internet should be an even more effective tool than the fax machine for organizing worldwide Chinese support.

Even though many websites on Tiananmen or the Nanjing Massacre are in English, foreign meddling in these family discussions is not always welcome. This summer, I visited an Internet café in Shanghai. It was a well-lit place, decorated with plastic flowers and posters of Hollywood movie stars. Rows of young people sat at long tables, working the computers. There was no sound except for the whirring and screeching noises of machines going on-line. I sat down with a young Chinese woman who was highly educated, had taken part in the student demonstrations of 1989, and was not a supporter of the Communist government. Surfing the Net together, we hit on a website called China News Digest which featured a BBC story on the Beijing Massacre.4 My friend’s only comment was that foreigners always tried to find bad things to say about China. In the presence of an outsider, the government’s shame had become her shame too.

2.

Since the different Chinas, with their own mass media, are so far apart, it takes an energetic editor to pull them all together in cyberspace. One of the most interesting Chinese-language websites is edited by one man in a room near Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C. It is called VIP Reference News, or Dacankao.5 The name is a witty borrowing of the official Communist term for uncensored “internal” information, often foreign news, circulated only among privileged Party cadres; the People must make do with propaganda. A year ago, the young man in question, named Li Hongkuan, decided to change that by making the news available to all. He now provides a daily newsletter that includes most of the papers and magazines from China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, Chinese émigré dissident journals, and, of course, information about Tiananmen and the Nanjing Massacre. There are also links to bulletin boards for people to post their opinions, which function like an electronic Democracy Wall, plastered with e-mails instead of wall posters. All this is financed by Li’s own savings.

Li came to the US in 1989, after witnessing the Beijing Massacre. A lecturer in biochemistry at the time, he was not one of the student leaders, but he hung around the square until the night of June 3, when the shooting began, and helped to get wounded students to the hospital. Soon after, he came to the US, on a scholarship to Yeshiva University in New York. There he became active in Internet discussion groups. But his interest in high-tech politics began earlier, when he was a college student in Nanjing. He was particularly inspired by a “restricted” (to cadres) book entitled Megatrends, written by John Naisbitt, the futurist guru of global networking. This book, he told me, “really blew my mind.” Before that he had been an avid reader of Jane Eyre and other Victorian classics. But it was only in the US that Li was able to follow Naisbitt’s ideas and use the Internet to carry on—as he puts it—“the unfinished revolution” of 1989.

This is of course bad news in Beijing, where the authorities are doing everything in their power to stop ordinary Chinese from becoming citizens of Cyberspace China. It is indeed a curious paradox of contemporary Chinese politics that Beijing insists on there being only one China, which includes Hong Kong and Taiwan, even as it tries to stop people in the various parts of China from communicating with each other through magazines, newspapers, television, and now the Internet. 6 The Beijing government also faces a peculiar dilemma: it wants China to be “wired,” to help develop the economy, while at the same time wishing to restrict the information that new technology can provide. This problem predates the Internet by at least a hundred years: how to gain knowledge from barbarians without being polluted by their ideas. The phrase used at the end of the last century was ti yong, “essence” and “practice”—that is, Chinese learning for the spirit, and Western learning for practical use. Chinese learning used to mean Confucianism. Now, on the mainland at any rate, it means Socialism with Chinese Characteristics.

So far, only a small part of the Chinese population has access to computers, but it is growing fast. One computer has many users, especially in such places as Internet cafés, so it is impossible to say how many mainland Chinese go on-line. Some say the number is already more than five million now and possibly double that by the end of this year. Since e-commerce is still undeveloped in China, where credit cards barely exist, most Internet users are interested in other types of information. Many are scientists and entrepreneurs looking for technical or business news. This is leavened with the kind of thing mainland newspapers now offer their readers to sweeten the wooden propaganda: movie star gossip, local scandals, lifestyle advice. But there is also a thirst for unbiased news on more sensitive topics: Taiwan, Tibet, Yugoslavia, Chinese dissidents, and so forth. How can the government make sure that millions of people limit themselves only to what it wants them to know? The point of the World Wide Web, after all, is that it is open to everyone. The answer is that the government cannot. But there are various ways it can try.

One method is to make it so expensive and burdensome to get access to an Internet service provider that only a trusted few can afford it. Around 1996, when the Internet began to take off in China, you still had to register your name and present police records to show you were an obedient citizen, even in Internet cafés. You also had to swear not to read, reproduce, or transmit material that was pornographic or damaging to public order or state security. Damage to state security is broadly defined. Anything that might encourage “division of the country,” for example, i.e., Tibetan or Taiwanese independence, is forbidden, as is the spread of “falsehoods.” It is up to the government, of course, to decide what is true or false. Still, it has become possible of late to find free service providers that do not require much paperwork. And the rules on registration in cafés are rarely enforced. Anyone who speaks English and can afford an expensive local call and a cup of coffee can get all the news in the world.

These are limiting factors, to be sure. Many people cannot afford the call, and even more cannot read English. But contrary to what some people fear, the Internet does not necessarily exclude the relatively uneducated, or widen the gap between rich and poor countries. Anyone who is not illiterate can use a computer. And new technology has a way of jumping over stages of development. You now see many Chinese who never had a telephone at home walking around with cell phones. I am in regular e-mail contact with a friend whose education ended at a village school in a remote area of Sichuan.

A more serious threat to freedom of information is the so-called fire wall. By making it illegal to log on to the global Internet through other than official Chinese “portals,” the government tries to block unwelcome websites. The official networks connect with the Internet through one “gateway,” which is controlled by the Ministry of Information Industry. What the government would really like is to have an insulated Chinese Internet, which has all the advantages of speedy communications (good for business, as well as the security agencies), but protects the purity of the Chinese spirit behind an electronic wall. China Internet Corporation, which is part of the official news agency, Xinhua, is setting up a China Wide Web to this purpose with the help of American companies such as America Online, Yahoo, and Microsoft. Chinese in the People’s Republic can now log onto the China Wide Web and find links with the Chinese version of Yahoo, but without the freedom to connect with sites the government does not wish them to see.7

There are, however, fairly simple ways to penetrate the Chinese wall. One is to get access to forbidden sites through so-called proxy servers, that is, overseas servers that can bypass the Chinese gateway. A proxy server allows many different computers to connect to the Internet through a single address that cannot be identified with those computers. Any number of computers can have invisible access to the Internet behind the proxy server’s address. Proxy server addresses are passed around discreetly among friends, or can be found through websites such as www.anonymizer.com. Even though the police have teams of technicians who go around searching for and blocking proxy servers, there are too many to be able to block all of them all the time. In the experience of the Chi-nese journalist Zhang Weiguo, who launched a website from the US called New Century Net, a proxy server has an average life of two months before it is snuffed out by government censors.8

Then there is “spamming,” or sending e-mails to a vast number of people at the same time. This is how Li Hongkuan transmits his VIP References. He claims to have about 250,000 e-mail addresses in China, collected more or less at random. This method is not popular with everyone. VIP References actually has a bulletin board, named “Down with VIP References,” where disgruntled people explain, not always politely, why they don’t want to be bothered with uninvited dissident views. There are great advantages to spamming, however. E-mails can be intercepted, and even read, but most of them get through, and Li makes things harder for the censors by changing the address from which he transmits almost daily. Also, e-mails between individuals can be made illegible to third parties by something called encryption. Simple software, illegal but available in China, can be installed to encode and decode messages, thereby ensuring privacy. All the government can really do about subversive e-mail is to intimidate all potential readers by making examples of a few.

In March 1998, a thirty-year-old computer company owner in Shanghai named Lin Hai was arrested in his apartment by twenty plainclothes police officers. His computers, phones, printers, business cards, and books were confiscated, and his wife, Xu Hong, was briefly detained as well. After sitting in jail for almost a year, Lin was sentenced last January to two more years in prison. His alleged crime was “incitement to undermine the government.” What he had done, in fact, was to collect 30,000 e-mail addresses for VIP References. Not a dissident himself, he did it because he was paid. His wife made the reasonable observation that “e-mail addresses are public information, just like telephone numbers.” But that was to miss the point. Lin’s case was an example of what Chinese call “killing a chicken to scare the monkeys.”

This last September an economist named Qi Yanchen was arrested at his house in a small city in Hebei province. No one is quite sure what prompted the arrest. But printouts were found in his office of VIP References, and he is said to have been working on the publication of a political book through the Internet. He might also have been involved with an electronic magazine linked to a banned nongovernmental organization in Hong Kong. In any case, Qi has been charged with breaking a law that forbids communication with “foreign individuals or organizations.” If convicted, he would be the second e-mail dissident to be sent to a Chinese jail.

But these are desperate measures which cannot stop thousands of others from surfing in forbidden areas. E-mail is especially important, for not only has it linked many Chinese to the outside world, but cheap and instant communication allows people to organize themselves in ways that were impossible before. Without e-mail, for example, ten thousand followers of the Falun Gong cult could never have appeared suddenly last April for a demonstration in the middle of Beijing. What shocked the government was that so many people had escaped the notice of Big Brother’s prying eyes. But even Big Brother has a problem seeing e-mail. And so Falun Gong was banned.

Many followers, mostly middle-aged people who believe that the breathing exercises and meditation techniques prescribed by Master Li Hongzhi, their guru in New York, will give them a healthier life, have been arrested and made to recant. As soon as people come out to do their exercises in public, they are taken away by the police. As an open organization, then, Falun Gong in China is defunct. But despite thousands of e-mail bombing raids from Beijing, Falun Gong is still very much alive on the Net. Through dozens of websites, set up all over the world, Falun Gong disciples stay in touch with their guru, and, what is perhaps more important, with one another. This means that the cult in China could revive instantly, as soon as the moment is ripe.

The same thing is true of more serious political threats to Communist autocracy, such as political opposition parties. A year ago, the government was shocked by the speed with which a new party emerged in many parts of China. There was nothing revolutionary about the China Democracy Party; it simply wanted to take part in local elections. But that was provocative enough for the party to get banned, and its leaders landed in prison. Like the Falun Gong, the CDP has been driven underground, but that underground is wired. CDP supporters everywhere, in China and outside, are in constant touch and could get organized again at short notice.

I know of one well-known dissident in Beijing who set up a highly respected independent think tank for political and economic reform in the 1980s. Arrested in 1989, as a so-called “black hand” behind the Tiananmen demonstrations, he was jailed for almost ten years. He now lives at home, under permanent house arrest. He cannot speak to people on the telephone, receive visitors, or even go out for a walk. All he can do is get through piles of books, talk to his wife, watch television, work out on an exercise machine, and use his computer. Cut off physically, he is still linked to the world electronically. E-mail is his lifeline. Stuck in a small apartment in Beijing, he is about as well-informed about the world as he would be if he led an active life in New York City.

Of course, knowledge of facts or electronic links alone will not bring democracy to China. New technology can be used to good or bad purpose. Computers have made public surveillance a great deal easier. But still, an authoritarian system based on secrecy and national isolation becomes vulnerable once the walls of secrecy come down. To say the least, the myth of one China, where people live in harmony and dissent is seen as “anti-Chinese,” has been shattered. For the democratic cacophony of voices posted on the Internet shows clearly that China already exists as a pluralist society, not only in Taiwan, and in Hong Kong, but in cyberspace. And however hard Beijing is trying to stop it, mainland Chinese are members of that society now too. All that remains is to bring it down to earth.

  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.

  4. 4

    See www.cnd.org.

  5. 5

    See www.come.to/dck.

  6. 6

    Chinese walls are not just built in cyberspace. Hong Kong is still divided from the “motherland” by one of the most heavily fortified borders in the world.

  7. 7

    For this information as well as other facts quoted in this article, I am indebted to Zhang Weiguo’s piece in China Rights Forum (Fall 1998).

  8. 8

    See www.ncn.org.

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