The Chinese government is succeeding in broadly censoring what its citizens can read on the Internet, surprising many experts and denting U.S. government hopes that online access would be a quick catalyst for democratic political reform.
Internet users in the world's most populous country are routinely blocked from sites featuring information on subjects such as Taiwanese independence, the Falun Gong movement, the Dalai Lama and the Tiananmen Square uprising in 1989, according to a study to be released today by a consortium of researchers from Harvard University, the University of Toronto and Cambridge University in England.
The study, which evaluated China's Internet practices over the past year, found the government employed an aggressive array of tactics, including blocking certain keyword searches and whole Web sites, and forcing cyber-cafes to keep records of users and the Web pages they visit.
"China operates the most extensive, technologically sophisticated and broad-reaching system of Internet filtering in the world," the study said.
Researchers said they worry that China's censorship system could become a model for other countries looking to keep the lid on Internet use.
China's success at censorship is even more remarkable to researchers because the country is promoting economic growth using technology. An estimated 100 million Chinese use the Internet, nearly half of whom who have high-speed connections.
"The Chinese are successfully developing a market economy at the same time they are continuing to accomplish control over the Internet and the media," said C. Richard D'Amato, chairman of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, which monitors and promotes economic progress in China.
D'Amato said the jury "is not only out, it's way out" on whether the Internet is playing the democratizing role the United States had hoped.
The study also undermines the popular notion that the Internet is an organism that is difficult to tame.
"The Internet is wildly misunderstood," said Rafal Rohozinski, director of the Advanced Network Research Group at Cambridge, who participated in the study. "It is built around very specific chokepoints" that can be controlled.