A Safety Net for China's Rulers

By Steven Mufson
Sunday, April 16, 2006

They're known as Internet evangelists -- the people who have unwavering faith in the democratizing power of the Internet. It's a term coined by James Mulvenon, deputy director at the Center for Intelligence Research and Analysis, to describe those who cling to the belief that the Internet "leads to 'tulip' and 'orange' and every other possible color and flower of revolutions around the world."

Then there's China.

The Chinese Communist Party, long expected to be a victim of economic modernization and the transformative powers of technology, has instead been learning how to use those powers to its own ends. This isn't merely a matter of the widely publicized blocking of the Internet; the CCP has been learning how to use the Internet as a tool for surveillance.

"China is a clear example of how an authoritarian state can use modern information technologies to sustain itself in power," says Mulvenon, an expert on China and on information technology. They have been using technology to "create both low-tech Leninism -- seizures, arrests, informers -- and an environment of self-censorship and self-deterrence so they don't have to actively enforce."

This helps to explain why, nearly 17 years after the bloody crackdown in Tiananmen Square, there is still no person or movement strong enough to challenge Communist rule. When Chinese President Hu Jintao arrives in Washington this week, he will come as the leader of a party that has defied predictions of its demise because it has always been effective at disrupting its critics. An element of grumbling is accepted, but get together and form a group, whether to conduct soul-soothing exercises in the park or talk political reform, and the party is apt to pay some unwanted attention.

How can China's security apparatus keep track of people in a country as vast as China? By using much the same methods that the United States uses to track terrorist cells. Although the National Security Agency's eavesdropping program has attracted a lot of attention here, in China listening-in is an old habit. It's the way the NSA most likely identified the thousands of people it chose to listen in on -- through a program called Novel Intelligence from Massive Data -- that is the source of real hope for China's communist mandarins.

And that's a story about sifting through data, picking out potential threats by finding unusual patterns in apparently normal behavior. The more modern the economy becomes, the more data people leave behind. As my colleague Robert O'Harrow puts it in his recent book, we are all like comets, leaving bright trails of credit card charges, Web sites we view, traffic cameras we pass, telephone calls we make. For anyone looking for a pattern -- or changes in the pattern -- the more data the better.

So, far from threatening party control, the modern technological economy in China can make traditional surveillance more efficient. People's University in Beijing has a "data mining center" that says it "helps businesses improve the profitability of financial, telecom, biological and medical areas." A joint meeting of the Chinese Society of Probability and Statistics and the Institute of Mathematical Statistics in 2005 had several sessions on data mining, including one on "mining massive text data and developing robust tracking statistics." Delivered by a Rutgers University researcher, the presentation discussed techniques used by the Federal Aviation Administration for tracking performance or detecting risk indicators. The abstract noted that the framework "applies to many other domains, including, for example, mining freestyle medical reports for tracking possible disease outbreaks."

Conversations with American military officers and policymakers suggest that U.S. intelligence still has a long way to go before it becomes good at mining data to find bad guys, and there's no reason to think that China is any better at it. But China has already been surprisingly adept at finding people who use the Internet to criticize the government. Xiao Qiang, director of the China Internet Project at the University of California at Berkeley, says China has set up Internet surveillance teams in 700 Chinese cities and provinces. They search for subversive key words in e-mails and Web sites, and have arrested dozens of people in connection with Internet-related subversion.

The Chinese police are updating their technology, holding purchasing fairs where Western companies hawk their wares. Ethan Gutmann, an author and consultant, has alleged that China's police use software that Cisco Systems developed for its routers called "Policenet," which he says keeps track of "work history, family background, political tendencies, imaging, surfing history and e-mail for at least 60 days." And police can access the information, Gutmann says, through handheld devices that scan magnetic strips on new identity cards.

The CCP's tight control on politics seems anachronistic in a society that is rapidly becoming more modern and permissive. "On the surface, we see a pluralism that's very obvious on topics like commerce, entertainment, fashion, sports, romance," says Perry Link, a Princeton University professor of East Asian studies. "This can lead the casual observer to the conclusion that a kind of liberalism has set in, and that's a serious mistake."

Some American businessmen say that technology and capitalism will change Chinese politics. Despite censorship battles, Google last week opened an engineering center in Beijing and adopted a new Chinese name, Gu Ge or "Valley Song." "The trend line is toward more openness over time," John Frisbie, president of the U.S.-China Business Council, told a recent meeting at the American Enterprise Institute. Mulvenon says it could still take 30 years, though -- a lot slower than Internet evangelists would predict.

So far the party has defied the odds. The irony is that modern technology may help it to do so for a little bit longer.


Steven Mufson was The Washington Post's Beijing bureau chief from 1994 to 1998.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company