But Zheng also shared his thoughts on overseas Chinese-language websites. China's one-party system is "the root of all evil," he wrote in an essay that was one of 63 signed articles he posted on dajiyuan.com, a website popular among Chinese intellectuals. Even though Web surfers in China can't normally access dajiyuan.com$#8212;it's among a long list of sites blacklisted by government censors$#8212;police arrested Zheng last December on charges of inciting subversion. On Sept. 22, he was sentenced to seven years in prison. Beijing had once again sent a stern message to Chinese who dared to use the Internet to express their political opinions. "Zheng's arrest served as a warning to people like me," said Yang Chunguang, another Dalian-based writer critical of Beijing, shortly before Zheng's sentencing. "I e-mailed dajiyuan.com asking it to take down the things I had posted."
A decade ago, the Internet was hailed as a breakthrough technology for promoting freedom and democracy because its pervasive reach would make it impossible for repressive regimes to control free speech and the flow of information within their borders. The Chinese government has proven this to be wishful thinking. Employing much of the same information-screening and filtering technology used worldwide to combat pornography and spammers, Beijing has built a Great Firewall of China that restricts viewing of scores of foreign websites (such as those for Amnesty International and numerous news sites); the government has also deployed tens of thousands of Internet police to investigate online crimes, including political offenses. While some tech-savvy surfers can find ways through the firewall and past Web police monitors, the vast majority of China's 100-million online population will search in vain for Mandarin equivalents of the Drudge Report, blog screeds and independent journalism that define free online speech in most of the world. A recent study by Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet & Society concluded that "China's Internet filtering regime is the most sophisticated effort of its kind in the world."
But as Zheng's arrest shows, China's taming of the Internet depends more on old-fashioned muscle than on new technology. Above all, Beijing maintains control by instilling the fear in Web scribes and online businesses that they are being watched—and that, if they cross the line, they are risking their investment, their business, even their freedom. The threat is real: Human Rights Watch estimates that 60 Chinese are serving prison sentences for Internet-based political crimes, and Beijing frequently closes down websites operating on Chinese soil whose owners allow controversial postings.
Indeed, far from loosening up, Beijing is intensifying its scrutiny of the Web. Last week, the State Council released even more stringent regulations—aimed at online forums, blogs and wireless SMS messaging—that bar postings of news that goes against "national security and the public interest." The latest clampdown continues a campaign that started almost 10 years ago when China began building its own version of the World Wide Web. It was relatively simple to keep tabs, with authorities quickly learning to program off-the-shelf network routers—the switches that zip data around the Internet—to block offending Web addresses. Then, in 2000, Beijing spelled out its strict Internet philosophy: State Council Order No. 292 barred nine types of content from websites, online bulletin boards and chat rooms, including anything that might "harm the dignity and interests of the state" or "disturb social order." The government has also made it difficult to maintain anonymity. The majority of Chinese go online at cybercafés, and in order to rent computer time users must register with their national ID numbers. Cybercafé employees watch what their customers are viewing, keep logs of sites visited and share that information with local Internet police departments, which have been set up in more than 700 cities and provinces.
Perhaps most important, the 2000 decree held content providers responsible for information published on their sites. The result: knowing they were being watched, all but the bravest Web users played it safe. "The best censorship is self-censorship, and China relies on solid work by the secret police to make people censor themselves and keep the Internet under control," says Xiao Qiang, director of the China Internet Project at the University of California, Berkeley journalism school.
Beijing's control of the Internet is bolstered by its success at enlisting the aid of foreign companies such as Microsoft, Google and Yahoo!, all of which run online operations on the mainland. The fast- growing China market is key to their global strategies, and they are loath to antagonize their host nation. Yahoo!'s China operation was widely criticized last month for turning over information to the police that helped send journalist Shi Tao to prison for 10 years (Shi had posted a list of topics that Chinese newspapers were forbidden to cover, including the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre). Yahoo! officials said they had no choice but to abide by the "laws, regulations and customs" of countries where it does business. It isn't alone in its sensitivity to local customs: Microsoft's MSN portal blocks the Chinese words for "democracy" and "freedom" from the blogs it hosts, while Google omits banned websites from its search results.
Likewise, mainland Internet companies have become virtual appendages of the government censorship apparatus, employing their own human monitors to ensure their sites remain free of banned content. China's leading blog host, Bokee, which just received $10 million in foreign investment, employs 10 full-time inspectors to keep an eye on postings and to delete those that might anger Beijing. "You have to know where the pressure lines are," says a monitor at Xici Hutong, a site where Chinese journalists share ideas. He says he removes pornography, which is illegal in China, as well as personal slander and "political things." One of China's two biggest portals, Sohu.com, routinely talks with government regulators about what topics to add to the forbidden list. "China is undergoing a huge experiment in its transition to a free society," explains Charles Zhang, Sohu's CEO. "We need to be responsible to see that reforms go steady and stable."
Beijing deals harshly with those who test the rules. One site run by students at China's top school, Peking University, was "the epicenter of political sensitivity," says a former manager there. Its name, Yitahutu, meant "a big fat mess," and its 300,000 registered users often posted critiques of China's one-party system. In July 2004, someone posted an article by a Hong Kong researcher claiming that the Communist Party's approval rating was lower than 20%. Officials from the Party's Central Discipline Inspection Commission arrived at the website's office to remove the article. In its place, they substituted dozens of comments written by party propagandists masquerading as ordinary web users critical of Yitahutu. "Without the Communist Party," read one, "the good times would end." Two months later, the site was shut down. The closure order said it had "disseminated political rumors." Since then, cities around China have created teams of Internet propagandists to pose as citizens and post comments supporting the party.
Still, determined Chinese web surfers manage to tunnel through today's firewall with the help of software that guides them to overseas "proxy servers," computers that enable them to fetch and view banned content. Activists smuggle proxy software into China and pass it hand-to-hand on flash memory devices. "It's really cat and mouse," says Bill Xia, president of U.S.-based Dynamic Internet Technology, whose product bounces users among many proxy servers, making it hard to track the surfer's identity.
On a recent afternoon, a Chinese reporter in Beijing used one of these programs to watch a video of the Tiananmen massacre on his IBM ThinkPad. "See that boy facing down a line of tanks?" he says. "I'd heard about that." In most countries, this ability to track down elusive information is now little more than a mundane miracle of modern technology. In China, this unconstrained curiosity remains a perilous threat$#8212;to both the browser and Beijing.