By Mo Zhixu, published: March 14, 2014
After 1992, as the old planned economy disintegrated in China, and as the USSR and the Eastern European bloc collapsed rapidly, the Chinese communist regime adopted market-oriented economic policies to further open up to the west, making economic development its foundation for maintaining power. “Joining tracks with the world” became a mainstream slogan of that era.
It was a hard-to-reject temptation for the Chinese regime that was eager to overcome economic stagnation and political animosity in the aftermath of the Tian’anmen massacre in 1989. In the west, also in early 1990s, the emerging information highway was fermenting considerable excitement. On April 20, 1994, the National Computing and Networking Facility of China (NCFC) was connected to the National Science Foundation Network (NSFNET), marking the beginning of internet in China, although online service wasn’t made available to the Chinese public until May 17, 1995, on World Telecommunications Day. In any case, Internet has been in China for 20 years.
From the very beginning, the regime was both expectant, and vigilant, toward the Internet. It worried that the Internet would bring capitalist ideas to China. Also, for a totalitarian regime, any uncontrolled realm was unacceptable.
In 1999, I personally learned from the official in the Ministry of Information Industry (信息产业部) in charge of drafting regulations that the Ministry of Public Security once required that every individual computer must correspond to a unique IP address to access the Internet, and that the requirement was shelved only because it was not technically viable (there weren’t sufficient IP addresses).
This in a way illustrates the regime’s wariness of, and its guard against, the internet. The regime did not impose too many regulations in the early years only because, in China, the development of the Internet was not that rapid at first: by the end of 1996, there were a mere 100,000 Internet users in China and it made no immediate impact. As a result, the Internet was the freest during that period, leaving many early Internet users with wonderful memories, and setting a liberal tone for cyberspace in China.
Two or Three Years of Freedom
Email groups and BBS in the early days gave a taste of freedom to the oppressed people living under totalitarianism for a long time. I still vividly remember the first time I was on a BBS, and how I felt electrified when words emerged on screen when I made a few clicks and typed on the keyboard. In May 8, 1999, when NATO bombed the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia, it also initiated the first online opinion storm among the already sizeable Chinese netizens. On some popular BBS, such as the Qiangguo Forum (强国论坛) of the People’s Daily website, public opinion had already shown diversity. Patriotic leftists and liberal rightists represented the two main camps of the argument.
In the few years that followed, BBS made big strides, and stimulating forums emerged one after another. Take myself for example, I had been active in the “Freelancers’ Forum” (自由撰稿人论坛), “Youth Topics” (青年话题), “Deepwater Zone of the Qiangguo Forum” (强国论坛深水区), “Forum for the Hot and Spicy Young and Middle-aged” (中青麻辣烫), “Century Salon” (世纪沙龙), “Ideas and Reviews” (思想评论), “The Economist Club” (经济人俱乐部), “Guangtian Teahouse” (关天茶社), “On Sword from the Wilderness” (江湖论剑), and more. I also made infrequent excursions into some other well-known forums, such as “Sharp Ideas and Reviews” of Sici Hutong (锐思评论) and “Tianya Miscellania” (天涯杂谈). Apart from these current affairs forums, platforms on other topics such as literature, life, relationships, and regions also flourished.
During that period, the government also imposed restrictions and taboos, but they were relatively relaxed. Some sensitive content might be barred as a main post but could often be posted in the comment section.
However, as the Internet expanded, the strength of censorship escalated too. Take Guantian Teahouse (关天茶社) for example: as censorship mounted and the mediator changed several times, its popularity quickly cooled, and active authors either left, laid low, or reduced their expressions.
But given the inherently open nature of the Internet, the fall of one platform did not mean netizens would withdraw from it altogether. Instead, as someone put it jokingly, they were like swarms of locusts in search of an oasis to settle.
So the pattern went like this: before control and censorship caught up and strangled them, Internet platforms of expression would each enjoy “two or three years of freedom” in China. It was the case with BBS and later, with the blogs. The popular blog portal bullog.com was the epitome of this pattern. A liberal-thinking blog portal, it was shut down and reopened several times. But thanks to the relatively relaxed atmosphere before and right after the Beijing Olympics, it survived from 2006 to early 2009 and became one of the most active and influential blog hosts during that period. But eventually, it too succumbed to the fate of permanent elimination.
The latest example of the pattern was the Weibo, China’s domestic version of Twitter. Before the advent of Weibo, there had been shutdowns of small social media websites like Fanfou (饭否), where free-thinking people socialized in the pre-Twitter and pre-Weibo era. Despite the closure, when Sina Weibo first arrived, it was relatively free-spirited. Encouraged by the explosive growth of Weibo and its relative freedom, someone even proclaimed, with premature optimism, “Weibo changes China” (Kai-fu Lee).
But the control mechanism stalked it as it quickly became a platform for active and diverse expression and also a mobilization ground and information dissemination center. During the Internet rumor crackdown in August 2013, the authorities arrested Xue Manzi (薛蛮子) and some other big Weibo account holders. From 2009 to 2013, after experiencing a few years of relative freedom, Weibo started its decline, following in the footsteps of BBS and blog sphere.
The Narrow Crevice between Utility and Restriction
Many would ask, with each Internet platform, since the authorities have always tightened the grip “after two to three years of relative freedom,” why didn’t they restrict new Internet applications from the beginning?
My own understanding is there are two reasons. First, as I said before, opening up with a market-oriented economy is the foundation for the regime to subsist and develop, and it is not possible without the existence and development of the Internet. The Internet’s contribution to China’s economic development cannot possibly be overstated. For Internet to facilitate economic development, all sorts of new applications must exist and develop. This is precisely the logic behind the Internet’s cycles of development followed by restrictions.
Under this logic, the Internet in China is like a continuously expanding cage with an increasingly finer and denser mesh. Overall, it has been, and will be, expanding, but it has been, and will be, pressed under increasingly tight control. From inside, one has the illusion that freedom is growing, but given the growing density of the mesh, freedom is fundamentally non-existent.
In addition, reform in China has always been accompanied by giving more power, and more shares of interest, to ministries and local governments. With the advantage in information gathering and a variety of means at their disposal, local governments and different ministries have increasingly been able to resist certain policies from the central government, gaining more and more levy, including engaging in ever more outrageous corruption. As far as curbing the regional governments and ministries, their interests, bad governance and corruption, it plays into the hands of the central power to allow some degree of Internet elbowroom for it to be used to curb the local and ministerial power and to contain bad governance and corruption to some extent. As long as Internet opinion is not threatening the regime’s ideological baseline and undermining the stability maintenance system, spontaneous whistleblowing and criticism can be used by central power as a sort of Internet Letter and Call (petitioning).
The degree of China’s Internet freedom, in a way, is a result of the regime’s double play: using it for one set of purposes and restricting it for another set of purposes.
The Fundamental Concern of the Regime
The mechanism of utility and restriction notwithstanding, the regime has more deep-seated concerns about the existence of cyberspace expressions.
China’s opening up and market reforms have brought two inevitable social consequences: first, people have been released from the work units or communes of the past, enjoying free migration and self-development. Unlike the first 30 years, the system has lost its direct control over the majority of the population. Second, due to the movement of people as well as information, and also due to the emergence of new social classes under the market-oriented economy, rights awareness and liberal political ideas also began to emerge and spread.
As the economy develops, these two social trends will grow only more prominent. The regime fears that, the coalescence of the two — ideas and people – under certain circumstances will lead to a replay of 1989.
Since the color revolution in countries in 2004, the regime has become more and more vigilant about mass gatherings. In response, the regime took a multi-faceted approach to prevent them. On the one hand, it has strengthened the stability maintenance mechanism, implementing heavy-handed grid management to rein in the migrant population, which is under no direct control. On the other, it has stemmed the sources of liberal ideas, also known as “universal values,” and their dissemination. Among the measures taken last year, higher education institutions were given the “7 no-mentions” order, and journalists are required to pass a party ideology test.
Keep in mind though that higher education and media organizations in China are structurally under the party’s control, with all sorts of monitoring mechanisms in place, and it is not hard at all to clutch liberal ideas and stamp out their dissemination. But to do so in cyberspace is not so easy. Over the open, porous Internet, the dissemination of liberal ideas has inherent advantages. Weibo at their height is the best example.
For the dictatorial Chinese regime that commnads control over every resource and every means there is, the Internet is probably the only realm where it cannot exert absolute control. Because of this, it has become a core issue, and a haunting one, for the regime as how to prevent the Internet from becoming its Achilles’ heel, a platform where people converge and ideas meet and explode.
You may still remember that the Jasmine Revolution in early 2011 was also known as the Twitter Revolution. Stung by it, the Chinese government came down with a heavy-handed crackdown, focusing on dissidents and activists in Twitter’s Chinese community. Many were disappeared for months on end and badly tortured. The traumatized Chinese Twitter community gradually lost its role as the hub for action planning and information dissemination. The rising Weibo took its place right around that time. Independent candidates in people’s representative elections and activists of the Free Chen Guangcheng movement all used Weibo as their platform.
The convergence of ideas and people on the new social media sowed the seeds of the Internet cleansing in 2013. Behind the so-called “rumor crackdown” was the government’s high vigilance toward the Internet’s subversiveness, and it is determined to wipe out what it perceives as the most dangerous menace.
As the social and economic dynamics evolve in China, the regime is bound to become more wary of the coalescing nature of the Internet, and will implement ever more stringent control over it. China is far from having a free Internet, and what awaits us in the foreseeable future will be an even darker period of time.
Mo Zhixu (莫之许), pen name of Zhao Hui (赵晖), is a Beijing-based Chinese dissident intellectual and a frequent contributor to Chinese-language publications. He is the co-author of “China at the Tipping Point? Authoritarianism and Contestation” in the January, 2013, issue of Journal of Democracy.
Also by Mo Zhixu:
(Translation by China Change)