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Caught in the Web

A new Amnesty International report reveals that China's Internet police force is brutally efficient--and becoming more so every day.

12:45 AM, Dec 19, 2002 • By KATHERINE MANGU-WARD
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NO ONE CAN BE SURE of the exact size of China's Internet police force, but estimates hover between 30,000 and 40,000 officers. And their back-up is impressive--China has just spent $200 million on new firewall technology as well. But for those who still try to access forbidden material, China's punishment is swift and severe.

Amnesty International recently released a report compiling records of 33 "prisoners of conscience who have been detained for using the Internet to circulate or download information."

One of the cases Amnesty highlights is the story of Chen Shaowen, charged with "subverting state power." He was caught "browsing repeatedly reactionary web sites" as well as "sending in numerous articles of all sorts, fabricating, distorting and exaggerating relevant facts, and vilifying the Chinese Communist party and socialist system."

Chen's most recent article was about a group of workers in his hometown of Lianyuan who lost their jobs and now drive three-wheeled motor-cabs for hire. In July, the city government banned the cabs, and the workers retaliated by saying they would set up a self-help association to protect their interests: "We would prefer to suffer hardship than to give up hope." This stirring tale of self-reliance and entrepreneurship would command several column inches in some decent American papers, but in China it has earned Chen a spot in the clink.

Other notable cases chronicled in the Amnesty report:

"--Wang Youcai, founder of the China Democracy Party (CDP), was sentenced to 11 years' imprisonment for subversion in December 1999. Two of the accusations against Wang involved sending e-mail to Chinese dissidents abroad and accepting overseas funds to buy a computer."

--"Lin Hai, a computer engineer from Shanghai, was arrested in March 1998 and is considered to be the first person to have been sentenced for Internet use in China. He was accused of providing 30,000 e-mail addresses to VIP Reference, a U.S.-based online pro-democracy magazine, and charged with subversion and sentenced to two years in prison in June 1999."

--"Huang Qi was arrested in June 2000 after he had set up his own website, www.6-4tianweg.com, which called for political reforms and helped dissidents trace missing relatives following the crackdown on the 1989 pro-democracy protests. Huang was charged with subversion and tried in secret in August 2001. Over two and a half years after his arrest, Huang Qi is still detained without a verdict having been announced. "

--"Members of the Falun Gong spiritual movement, which was banned in July 1999 as a 'heretical organization,' have used the Internet and e-mail to circulate information about repression against the group. Some have been arrested as a result. The Chinese authorities have now shut down the group's websites and blocked overseas websites. At least 14 Falun Gong practitioners have been detained and imprisoned for Internet-related offenses; several reportedly have died in custody as a result of torture."

(For more examples, see the complete report here.)

MEANWHILE, the Chinese Internet police keep getting smarter and more efficient. In September, access to Google, a wildly popular search engine, was blocked for over a week. When the block was lifted, Chinese users discovered they could no longer access cached pages through Google. This feature was particularly popular since it often allowed web pages blocked by other means to be accessed through Google.

And the number of pages known to be blocked keeps on growing. According to a study out from Harvard University earlier this month, as much as one-tenth of the content on the Internet may be inaccessible to China's 45 million Internet users. More than 50,000 of some 200,000 websites Harvard tested were "inaccessible from at least one point in China on at least one occasion." Narrowing the definition of a blocked site, the study still found that 18,931 websites were obscured for Chinese users. The researchers found that among sites with keywords like "Tibet", "Taiwan China," or "democracy China," 100 percent of the top 10 sites were blocked.

Ben Edelman, a Harvard researcher and co-author of the report, says it's probable that a similar proportion applies to the Internet as a whole. "I do think it's highly likely that in the order of one-tenth of the Internet is filtered by China, or recently has been," he says.