China can log on if it stays on message

October 28, 2005

The Times Higher examines how some countries restrict freedom on the internet

Academics and students in China are facing increasingly sophisticated attempts to rein in the web.

Rules brought into force last month severely restrict the spread of information online. Individuals or groups must now register as news organisations before they can distribute news or commentary via e-mail.

The regulations state: "The foremost responsibility of news sites on the internet is to serve the people, serve socialism, guide public opinion in the right direction and uphold the interests of the country and the public good."

Service providers, chatroom hosts and universities are responsible for anything published on their sites. Measures against staff who step out of line are generally a compelling deterrent.

"I am as careful online as elsewhere," said one Beijing anthropology professor. "It is OK to discuss alternatives in your field as long as you do not contradict government policy. They do not often throw people in jail these days but there is your career to think about." Peking University, for example, has a standing policy summarily to fire any academic deemed to be anti-Communist.

Sites hosted on university servers are more closely monitored than others.

But students were until recently allowed to get away with more online than the average citizen. Political discourse was common in student chatrooms but curtailed elsewhere. University chatrooms were the site of pointed criticism of the Government. That has changed. Many discussion sites have become intranet-only, excluding people outside the university.

For university staff, the same restrictions apply to online activities as anywhere else, so their participation is more limited and circumspect than that of their students. As of 2005, website owners must register their names and identification with the authorities to prevent anyone from spreading seditious material without repercussion. Last month, authorities started to apply the policy to users of instant-messaging services.

Chinese-language sites are the most closely monitored, followed by those in English. Other foreign languages, being less widely spoken by Chinese internet users, receive a lower level of censorship. "Reading English is very useful to get news," said one Shanghai undergraduate. "Sometimes even Xinhua (the state press agency) will put information on their English pages that they cut out from the Chinese pages."

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