The Great Online Wall  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    THE ONLINE FRONTIER    
From AJR,   November 2001

The Great Online Wall   

China tries to regulate Internet news content from within and outside its borders.

By Barb Palser
Barb Palser (bpalser@gmail.com), AJR's new-media columnist, is vice president, account management, with Internet Broadcasting.     


In a spacious room colonized by cubicles, a crew of young editors is publishing online news in half a dozen languages while monitoring several lively bulletin boards. They could be working for any big American news site, but they're in Beijing. And the Web site they're feeding belongs to People's Daily, the biggest newspaper in China.

Standing in the middle of this scene, two things strike me. The first is the jarring absence of headphones, Mountain Dew cans and Nerf projectiles. The second is the realization that these young people are publishing the news deemed fit to print by the Communist Party. My visit to People's Daily was part of a two-week tour through Beijing, Shanghai, Xiamen and Hong Kong. The trip was sponsored by the National Committee on United States-China Relations and the University of Hong Kong; the mission of our small delegation was to build bridges with new-media professionals and students in China.

It shouldn't have been shocking to find the Chinese government is up to its elbows in the Internet, since it owns and controls all other media in the country. Still, I think I expected to catch a glimpse of the Web as it exists in other parts of the world; an alternative medium where independent journalists find voice and power beyond the reach of outwitted authorities.

In reality, China's Internet media are as mainstream as traditional news organizations. Although the number of online news sites topped 2,000 at the end of last year, all are associated with government-owned traditional newsrooms. No one can publish hard news inside China without the government's permission (at least, not for long), and many sites are legally limited to electronic versions of print or broadcast reports. Renegade publishers who set up independent news sites invariably find themselves in hot water.

Only traditional reporters can earn official accreditation, which leaves little room for true Web journalism.

China's phenomenally popular bulletin board services are worth noting here, for their unusual openness and anonymity. Today, the BBS at People's Daily is buzzing with opinions about the September 11 terrorist attacks; a few months ago it seethed at the collision of an American spy plane with a Chinese fighter jet. Although monitored by site editors and officials, these forums still feel like a safety valve.

While the government is arguably successful at controlling information published in China, its crusade to keep foreign content out is another story.

Using technology that blocks access to certain Web addresses, the government discourages domestic access to various foreign news, human rights and adult sites deemed inappropriate or destructive to socialist principles. The blocks aren't completely effective; they can be defeated by mirror sites and proxy servers set up outside China that disguise the identity of the banned sites. Even the CIA has been working with California-based SafeWeb Inc. to circumvent virtual blockades against sites such as Voice of America's Chinese edition. And content sharing and syndication mean that an article on a blocked site can often be found on another.

Despite these cracks in the wall, the psychological point is that Chinese authorities expect to have the Internet on their own terms.

The most startling revelation to me was that many of the media professionals and students we met seemed quite comfortable with that arrangement. They trust domestic news first but enjoy access to foreign news when they want it. They agree that online information should be regulated but know how to break the barricades when they wish.

I believe all of that, but I also feel there must be more to the story, in conversations that didn't happen and people we didn't meet.

The fact that anti-government Web sites occasionally appear is a reminder that control and consensus are incomplete. And China's admission to the World Trade Organization at the end of this year can only accelerate the infiltration of global ideas as well as goods.

When pressured, the government occasionally lifts the virtual curtain. This summer the New York Times site was opened after reporters confronted President Jiang Zemin. Shortly after September's U.S. terrorist attacks, a batch of sites, including the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times, were quietly unblocked--and reblocked less than a week later.

The Chinese have a history of building walls and controlling communication; the Internet is no exception. Yet I left the country with a sense that the Web and other new technologies are building a consciousness that won't be contained, that the people who embrace this medium will ultimately determine its messages.

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