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Fear of Losing Control: Why China Is Implementing an Internet Security Law

By Mo Zhixu, published: October 4, 2015

“[T]he existence of a relatively free, relaxed, and anonymous Internet for the regime is ‘the root of all evil.'”


August 5 was the last day that opinions were solicited by the government for its new Internet Security Law, meaning that in the near future the legislation will be formally unveiled. In draft form, many of its clauses have already attracted scrutiny: for example, the draft stresses that Internet sovereignty is the extension of state sovereignty into cyberspace; it also takes as its objective “protecting the sovereignty of cyberspace and national security,” granting almost unlimited powers to the administrative organs in charge of the Internet. Many think that the Chinese government is setting up a “national Intranet.”

The draft law holds website operators primarily responsible for the content on their websites, with detailed and comprehensive rules, particularly on cyber security. For instance, website operators have a duty to deal with illegal information (Article 40), they must prevent the transmission or publication on their platforms or software information that violates regulations (Article 41), and they’re required to provide all necessary support to investigatory organs (Article 23), and so on. The draft law also gives the relevant departments the power to punish those transmitting information found to be in violation, as well as to block such information (Article 43), and even to “shut down the Internet according to the law” (Article 50).

But what has attracted the most attention from regular Internet users is the real name registration system, which ensures that all information posted to the Internet can be traced to its origin (Article 20). With all this—granting state agencies extraordinary powers, forcing website operators to take total responsibility and dutifully follow the law, and funneling Internet users into a monitored real-name system—a cyberspace is created in which strict control is exercised, and from which there is no escape.

That the “Internet Security Law” would be such should come as no surprise. For the last several years, Beijing has upped its control of the Internet; the purge of two years ago [in which famous users of Sina Weibo who were critical of the government were publicly humiliated and in some cases jailed] is still in the memory of many. In the eyes of the authorities, control of the Internet is not just a matter of regular social management; it involves the so-called “national security,” or in other words, the stability of the regime. Control of the Internet has enormous strategic significance.

In my view, Internet control is of supreme importance for a totalitarian regime because of the social consequences of marketization and modernization: the regime on the one hand needed to introduce markets in order to keep the country running, but on the other hand, the social fallout of this process could also be subversive. Since the Internet is the most likely space in which this subversive effect would begin, it has become something that the Chinese rulers must control with utter thoroughness.

Before market reforms, the totalitarian system in China had no civil society to speak of, and the movement of resources, information, and people were all under its absolute control. The work unit (单位) and People’s Communes (人民公社) were the basic social structures, and every individual was integrated into a system of direct management and even personal control. Through this, the system gained extraordinary stability. Of course, such a system also lost its vitality, falling into stagnation and want which not only exemplified the differences with the free world in terms of economic, scientific, and military development, but also brought general dissatisfaction, including inside the the ruling group itself.

This apparatus saps the energy from the system, and in extreme cases can become another threat to it. The massive changes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe to a large degree demonstrated this. In this regard, mainland China’s limited introduction of market economy can be seen as a need for self-repair to overcome its own systemic deficiencies, narrow the gap between it and the rest of the world in the development of its economy, science and military, and boost the vigor and lifespan of the dictatorship.

Over the last 30 years the market reforms in China have to a very large degree achieved those goals: markets have brought economic development, they’ve overcome general stagnation and underdevelopment, and have indeed lessened the gap between China and the rest of the world on the economic, scientific, and military fronts. This is the basis of the so-called “Three Self-Confidences.” It’s also clear that reforms have since the beginning all been about preserving the dictatorship, not what some wishful observers think — a step in the transformation of China’s polity toward a democracy.

However, while the regime gained all these benefits, markets have indeed brought new challenges for the maintenance of dictatorship.

First, market reform requires the free movement of capital, information, and people, so members of society need to be granted personal rights, economic rights, and cultural (and consumption) rights. This also inevitably brings about the dissolution of the work unit and commune system, and removes the vast majority of the people from direct, personal control by the state.

Secondly, marketization has brought about new constellation of interests and resulted in new social groups, who each have their own interests and demands, one after another. For instance, statistics from varying sources all indicate that mass incidents [protests involving between dozens and tens of thousands of people] have gone straight up in recent years.

Finally, marketization and opening up have the inevitable effect of stimulating demands for rights from newly emerged classes, spreading liberal ideas, and expanding the social base of people who harbor fundamental suspicions about the status quo.

All these changes on the one hand bring endless pressure for the authorities to engage in “stability maintenance,” and on the other become a primordial fear they will never be able to shake: The vast masses, who are not under direct administrative control and who are free to move, have a natural desire for rights and interests that stand in opposition to the system; they have a natural affinity for freedom. As soon as the social and economic conditions appear—that is to say, once a crisis descends—this vast group is entirely capable of turning around, questioning the fundamental legitimacy of the system, and setting off a subversive social movement.

This fear has stalked China’s marketization, and the result of it is the increasing rigidity of the stability maintenance system and the covering-all grid of  social management. 

A relatively free, relaxed, and anonymous Internet has offered just such a suitable platform for such a possibility, and has thus become a thorn in Beijing’s eye. On the one hand, the mainland does not have freedom of speech; all media are still owned and controlled by the government, making the Internet the most important platform for the spreading of liberal thought. On the other hand, China has no freedom of association, and no formal opposition group can form, so cyberspace offers the tools for all kinds of informal associations and opposition networks, and facilitates protest actions. For the authorities, the Internet is the most important, or even only, platform for people under no direct control to assemble together. Not only that, but as soon as the right social conditions arise, and doubts about the system bubble up widely in society, the Internet is the only place it could converge, potentially becoming a platform for revolutionary mobilization. Because of all this, the existence of the Internet for the regime is “the root of all evil.”

Over the last few years, Beijing has launched wave after wave of attacks against the spread of all manner of ideas and protests on the Internet. These attacks have first of all targeted activists that are known to the authorities: through implementing the grid of stability maintenance system, and through a continuous purge from the Internet [through account deletion or censorship], activists have been put under thorough control and pressure. This is evident in the recent mass arrest of lawyers since July 10. After years of continuous repression, they have already eliminated the possibility of any organized resistance developing; and because of this, in the eyes of the authorities, they have already reduced to the utmost the possibility of an organized and subversive movement.

But just eliminating the threat of organized resistance doesn’t mean Beijing can sleep peacefully; there’s still the possibility that under certain economic and social conditions, mass incidents could take place, forming a social movement that topples the regime. If such a movement were to happen, cyberspace and Internet tools again become crucial—their immediacy and scope give them explosive and revolutionary possibilities. For the authorities, getting rid of this is like buying the ultimate insurance policy; or put another way, like finding the final puzzle piece for regime security. This is precisely the base reason for the “Internet Security Law,” and the draft version completely displays Beijing’s intent.

The regime’s claims about Internet sovereignty being the enbodiment and extension of state sovereignty are just a means to block information inflow from the world, and eliminate the voices of support for China’s civil resistance and social movement. Pushing the responsibility onto Internet operators is to thoroughly purge the voices that call the legitimacy of the regime into question, and to get rid of all manner of dissent and protest. And finally, the real name registration system is a means for ridding the Internet of anonymity, allowing the authorities to identify the activists and dissenters, driving them completely out of cyberspace.

After the roll-out of the “Internet Security Law,” the Internet will never have the same freedom, tolerance, and anonymity which have been steadily diminishing anyway. As a result, mainland China’s voices for liberalization and opposition will gradually lose their only platform. And then, even if there are the right social and economic conditions, Beijing will still be able to prevent the Internet from becoming a platform for people and ideas to coalesce, thus lowering the possibility of sudden large-scale gatherings, and stopping the Internet from acting as a source of revolutionary mobilization. The so-called “shut down the Internet according to law” article in the new legislation makes clear this intent.

There is no suspense or uncertainty about the goal of the “Internet Security Law”: it is to keep the dictatorial system in power. Since its entry to China, the Internet has been heralded as the agent of “change in China,” but as the “Internet Security Law” is enacted, this virtual space will fall under the same strict control as real space, and all the romance will depart like a dying breath.

After losing this important, or even sole platform, what form will China’s civil resistance take? Without the Internet as a meeting place for people and ideas, what form will sudden, mass protests take? None of these questions have ready-made answers, but there is no doubt that the “Internet Security Law” will bring the gradual silencing of the Internet, the herald of an unendurable ice age. This will profoundly influence, and even transform, the development of Chinese society.


Mo Zhixu (莫之许)

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, known for his incisive views on Chinese politics and opposition. 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 on China Change:

The Coming Information Totalitarianism in China, April 2013

Internet Freedom in China: A Menace that Must Be Removed, March 2014.

The Advent of a National LAN in China, July 2014.


Urban Grid Management and Police State in China: A Brief Overview, by Wu Qiang, China Change, August 2013.


中文原文《莫之许:中国为何要推网络安全法》, translated by China Change.


Urban Grid Management and Police State in China: A Brief Overview

By Wu Qiang, published: August 12, 2014

A model for a contemporary police state.

Urban grid system is nothing new. In ancient Rome, the grid was the standard layout of military camps. Urban grid planning, from the very beginning, bore the marks of militarized management. In Beijing, the grid-like streets and alleys (hutongs) have a lot of to do with the layout of military installations in imperial China. To a great extent, today’s urban neighborhoods of Beijing have geographically inherited this traditional grid layout, although structurally the grid has been based on a social system of “work units” that was formed in the 1960s and 1970s and have served the purpose of social control as part of the country’s social system. In brief, this is the background for understanding how and why China has been implementing grid management for, among other things, social control.

As GIS (Geographic Information Systems) and data grid technology have made big strides, the US government began to invest in grid technology research in the 1990s, established lab models and projects such as Globus, Globe, NetSolve, and Javalin, and planned to build the Global Information Grid, led by the Department of Defense, by 2020. China launched its gird plan somewhat in October, 2002 under the “863 Program,” or the National High-Technology Research and Development Program. In December, 2005, China Grid Computing Center was officially formed to lead the China National Grid project (CNGrid) and conduct grid research.

China carried out its first urban grid management experiment in Dongcheng District, Beijing (北京市东城区) in October 2004. It took a page from the grid management of Westminster, London, and can be regarded as a tentative application of the aforementioned large grid research project. Based on the municipal government‘s digital administration network and the city’s basic geographic information system, the model uses 3S technology (RS, GIS, GPS), geographic coding technology and mobile information technology to divide 25.38 square kilometers into 1,652 geographic grid cells, with each cell 100 by 100 meters (lawns and vacant lots larger than 10,000 square meters were marked as a single cell). Combined with the geographic information system, each cell was given a unique 14-digit code, and public properties within the cell, such as buildings, lampposts, sewage covers, benches, and etc., were catalogued, coded, located and saved in databases.

Subsequently, Dongcheng District made the following changes to its urban management:

  1. Equip urban management enforcers (Chengguan, 城管) with multi-purpose “Chengguan Tong” (城管通), a device for both information collection and mobile communication. It can make phone calls, send group text messages, take photos, fill out forms, position, record audio and video, and browse map and data, making each Chengguan an on-site end collector of information.
  2. Create more layers, as well as the overlapping of layers, in urban management, and implement more refined management according to the grid. On the one hand, the original three-tier responsibility system was increased to a four-tier responsibility system, that is, the district government, 10 neighborhood offices, 137 community committees, and each organization’s “three-responsibility” (门前三包) person in charge. As a result, a total of 589 social management grid cells were created. Each community consisted of an average of 2-5 grid cells. On the other hand, each grid cell is equipped with “seven forces.” They were: grid cell managers, grid cell assistants, grid cell police officers, grid cell supervisors, grid cell communist party secretary, grid cell legal judiciary workers, and grid cell firefighters. Each social management grid cell was equipped with at least one full-time assistant, and police officers were assigned to take charge of areas based on grid cells. In a small number of communities, each grid cell was assigned a police officer, and each Chengguan was responsible for patrolling averagely 12 grid cells.
  3. The social management was indeed improved. Government functions at top levels could receive precise information about a specific location in real time through the grid information system, and they could monitor lower functions’ handling of matters. This concluded the so-called “circuit” of information and implementation involving what’s believed to be 27 government functions and the aforementioned 4-tier responsibility system.

This grid management system, once in operation, was highly praised by Jia Qinglin (贾庆林), Wang Qishan (王岐山) and other top Chinese leaders. Integrating high-speed internet, high-capacity computers, large databases, sensors and remote equipment, the grid improved the performance of public governance and expedited electronic administration. But more important was its improvement of government’s response to contingencies, a capacity most valued by the Chinese authorities. In any given grid cell, not only were all fixed objects coded and positioned, but much more than that, any activities or contingencies, including cultural activities, public safety, criminal cases, mass protests, sensitive figures in terms of “stability maintenance” and their activities were all sorted and coded, with information about them being collected and reported all the time. Based on these data, sensors and wireless equipment such as surveillance cameras and wireless routers were deployed.

Grid management center in Yichang, Hubei province.

Grid management center in Yichang, Hubei province.

Following the example of Dongcheng District, Beijing, from 2004 to April 2007, China carried out trials of the urban grid management project in 51 areas in three batches. Among the first batch of cities and districts participating in the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development’s digital urban management trials were Shenzhen, Chengdu, Hangzhou, Wuhan, Yangzhou, Yantai, Beijing Chaoyang District, Shanghai Changning District and Luwan District, and Nanjing Gulou District. Urumqi in Xinjiang became a trial city in the third batch in April 2007, but before it was completed, large-scale ethnic violence broke out in 2008. By July 2010, 40,000 surveillance cameras had been installed in Urumqi, covering 3,400 buses, 200 key public transportation stops, 4,400 streets and alleyways, 270 schools and preschools, and 100 large shopping centers and supermarkets. During the same period, a staggering 200,000 surveillance cameras had been installed in Bo Xilai’s Chongqing, one indication of the nature of the “crackdown on black” campaign led by its former police chief Wang Lijun.

A grid management training session in Xinzheng municipality, Henan province.

A grid management training session in Xinzheng municipality, Henan province.

While in urban China grid management depends more on technology, equipment, Chengguan and the police force, the development of grid management in rural China is different and worth our thoughts. In the trial run in Xintai county, Shandong province (山东新泰), apart from surveillance cameras, landline telephones and roadside lamps were installed, and all of the cab drivers and sanitation workers in the county seat were “hired” as grid management “information reporters.” In Wuxi, Chongqing (重庆巫溪), the supplementation of human resources took another form: upon dividing the county into 117 grid cells, each cell was paired with a government unit with the latter providing one-to-one support for the cell. These units would also provide funding to help the grid cell community, or village, improve public management with an emphasis on solving the petitioning issues. In some cases, some long-time petitioners themselves were hired as grid cell social workers.

From the limited cases discussed here, we conclude that, as China implements grid management for social management with the aid of the latest technology, geographic information systems and super computers, it has most likely tightened social control over the last ten years or so in the name of “stability maintenance.” In particular, following the breakout of the Jasmine Revolution in North Africa in 2011, the Chinese government responded with the so-called “innovative social management,” multiplying the grid management trial in Dongcheng District, Beijing, across the entire country as the core of this “innovation in social management.” The Party-state’s authoritarian control over cities and the society as a whole has thus been made more refined, more precise, more high-tech, and more systematic. Moreover, after comparing the cost and quality of grid management between cities and rural areas, the Chinese government has recognized the high efficiency of using urban grid management for social control. This in part lends confidence to Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang’s plan of urbanization. Down the road, if China remains devoid of real democratic checks and balances, there is little doubt that the continued development of grid management will only lead to a model of a contemporary police state.


Dr. Wu Qiang (吴强) of Tsinghua University

Dr. Wu Qiang (吴强) is a political science professor at Tsinghua University. The article is written specifically for  


Related reading:

The Coming Information Totalitarianism in China by Mo Zhixu


Chinese original, translated by China Change.


The Coming Information Totalitarianism in China

“A longer, more pessimistic outlook [than the Economist’s special report on China’s internet]. – the author

By Mo Zhixu, published: April 6, 2013


Leading dissident intellectual Mo Zhixu (莫之许)

Beijing-based dissident intellectual Mo Zhixu (莫之许)

On March 28, the General Office of the State Council issued a “Notice about the Division of Labor in Implementing ‘the Plan for the State Council’s Institutional Reform and Function Change’” (国务院办公厅关于实施《国务院机构改革和职能转变方案》任务分工的通知) which lays out, among other things, the time table for implementing the information network real-name registration system (“The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology and State Internet Information Office, along with the Ministry of Public Security, will be in charge of it. It shall be completed by the end of June, 2014”); and for establishing a unified credit information platform and a unified social credit coding system based on citizens’ identification numbers (implementation will start in 2015 and be completed in 2017).

Few people would realize the connection between the two, and fewer people would think, as I do, that the gradual implementation of the online real-name system, a unified credit information platform, and a unified social credit code will mark the arrival of an unprecedented information totalitarianism.

The attempt to apply the online real-name system is nothing new. As early as the mid-1990s, when the state was drafting regulations on residential access to the Internet, the Ministry of Public Security wanted each computer to have a fixed, singular IP to access the Internet. It was a form of a real-name system since information such as a unique address and identification must be provided to apply for access. But due to technical reasons, such as the limited number of IVP4 addresses, what was then called the Ministry of Information Industry opposed that requirement. Arguments between the two ministries, according to a direct government source of mine at the time, went all the way to the then-top leader of China who made the decision to solve the issue with a simpler approach, perhaps to expedite China’s WTO entrance.

The attempt for a real-name system was then scrapped, but you can see that the attempt to control the Internet was on the mind of the Chinese government from the very beginning.

As Internet use skyrocketed, the government also became more and more vigilant. The notorious GFW has becoming more capable than ever with “walls” being erected higher and higher. But for the worth of the Internet, enthusiastic users have always found ways to scale the walls, and also to hide their traces under the searching eyes of the government. The large-scale surveillance and detentions during the non-existent Jasmine revolution in the spring of 2011 were largely a result of the government’s sense of crisis about hidden, cross-border information flow and its potential power to mobilize. Furthermore, with the emergence of Weibo and other social media platforms, the government has been alarmed by the fact that sudden events can spread and amplify instantly, and can potentially cause chain reactions. At the same time the government is less and less tolerant of the growing number of activists. As a result, Internet real-name system is becoming inevitable.

The real-name system has two purposes. One is the chilling effect, and it works very well on average netizens but not so much on activists. The other and the main purpose is to be able to locate activists and eliminate them from certain information/opinion platforms, in the same way that opinions of dissident intellectuals are completely eradicated from the traditional media.

The online real-name system has been implemented for some time now and the results are less than remarkable. A casual online search can yield a string of ID numbers which you can use to register online accounts. Because of this, many people have little sense of the Internet real-name grade system that is coming. The Internet real-name system that will be upon us soon enough will leave no hiding place for anyone, and all of the activists will be like fish caught in the net once this system is integrated with a unified credit information platform and a unified social credit coding system.

First of all, once the real-name system is used in website backstage management where one ID card matches one ID number, as Alipay (支付宝) does, those ID numbers culled online will soon become useless for repeated use. Secondly, with regard to activists using ID numbers of relatives and friends, if the conventional deterrence measures don’t work, the government could resort to building control into services by bundling ID card and the correlating social credit code with matters of personal interest. That way, relatives and friends will not want to, nor dare, to lend their ID numbers to anyone else.

Having established “a unified credit information platform with gradual input of information about finance, commercial registration, tax payments, social security contributions, traffic violations and other credit information” and “a unified social credit coding system based on identification number,” personal credit information will necessarily include information about Internet use. Thus, the Internet real-name system will be tied with one’s social credit code, and even with the social welfare system. From there, it’s not unimaginable for the government to use the unified credit code as the exclusive online ID code.

Imagine, when that becomes a reality, who would dare to let others use his or her credit code when so much is at stake? This code is tantamount to issuing you a “driver’s license” for speech: You will be subjected to point deductions for speech violations (which Weibo censorship frequently tells its users); once you have no points left, you will be barred from “going on the road” again, and that is, you will be barred permanently from speaking on information/opinion platforms. (After all, there are already plenty of citizens, such as Ai Weiwei, who have not been able to maintain a Weibo account without being deleted instantly–Yaxue)

You can imagine what it will be like in China’s online opinion platforms. First, the threat of being permanently banished from Internet access will have a much more powerful and chilling effect. Second, online opinion space will become similar to the grid management of stability maintenance in current life (网格化维稳)¹, that is, any activist, once exposed, will be stripped of access permanently, the same way the traditional media shut out  dissenting voices. Consequently, online opinion platforms will be just like the traditional media today where you can never hear the voices of dissent and opposition.  Finally, the chilling effect and the denial of activist users will make online platforms much less active; as a result, even non-sensitive emergency events will not spread explosively, nor are any chain reactions likely, due to the absence of active participation. This, as you can imagine, is a dream come true for the rulers of China.

By scaling the wall, activists perhaps will still be able to receive information, express their opinions, and exchange views with others on overseas platforms, but without reverberation and coordination on China’s domestic opinion platforms, the circles of activists will become small and isolated, making it difficult for them to participate in real-life events. This of course is a grim outlook, but by no means unheard of. After all, this had been the state of opposition activities in China before the rise of Internet. What makes me sad is that, while this brand new information totalitarian system is marching toward us in full gear, I see no realistic force that can stop its arrival. Despite today’s globalized world, a “Great China 1984” will be upon us within a few years of time.

¹ Following this post, Seeing Red in China will publish an exclusive article by Dr. Wu Qiang of Tsinghua University explaining “grid management”(网格管理) to our readers.


The Chinese original is published in the latest issue of iSunAffairs Weekly (No. 49). You can also find it here. Other commentaries by Mo Zhixu (@mozhixu) on this site: The Opposition Path and China’s FuturePerspective on Southern Weekend Incident: Root, Failure and Future.