In a renewed effort to crack down on the information access and activities of China's 100 million Internet users, the Chinese government is imposing new regulations that will attempt to centralize all China-based Web news and opinion under a state regulator.
The laws would prohibit content that "goes against state security and public interest," and is likely to affect Chinese bloggers, bulletin boards on popular portal sites and other independent Chinese-news Web sites.
The announcement of the new laws follows a broader Chinese crackdown on television and other media. The move appears aimed at imposing order over news that Beijing does not like. In part, that is a response to the rapid development of a vibrant media scene rife with sensationalist, and sometimes inaccurate, news, but it also grants authorities more power to stifle nascent pro-democracy movements.
The government maintains theoretical control over all Chinese media, including the Internet. But the new laws, which update regulations issued in 2000, have drawn a line in the sand for China's online population, imposing fines of up to $3,700 and the threat of complete closure of Web sites that provide news without government authorization. The laws also change the legal definition of Internet "news," vaguely defined in the past as "news published and republished," to include "reports and comments on political, economic, military, foreign policy and other social public affairs."
Such an online crackdown challenges China's emerging sphere of personal opinion blogs, or online diaries, as well as Nasdaq-listed Chinese Web portals such as Sina.com and Sohu.com, which have become centers of free-ranging discussion among China's urban elite.
Online debates on everything from China's diplomatic relationship with Japan to the formaldehyde content of Chinese beer often stray far beyond the editorial constraints that Beijing's officials impose on the country's newspapers, television stations and radio programs.
However, China's ability to control the Internet remains in question. Already, the government blocks access to some Web sites, such as those of foreign newspapers, which contain information it deems subversive or pornographic.
Beijing also has arrested dissidents who blatantly post essays questioning the government. According to the French organization Reporters Without Borders, the number of Chinese imprisoned as a result of Internet activities has jumped to 62 at present from three in 2001, while the number of imprisoned reporters from traditional media has generally held steady.
Earlier this month, the Chinese arm of Web portal Yahoo Inc. provided information to the government that led to the conviction of a Chinese journalist who had written about media restrictions.
But many Chinese Internet users find ways around censorship. The government requires users of cyber-cafes to register with their state-issued ID cards on each visit, but some users avoid registration by paying off owners. In response, the government has installed video cameras in some cafes and shut down others.
Bloggers, who are now also required to register with the government, have found ways to host their sites on overseas servers, such as the Shanghai-based blog Chinaherald.net, which is hosted in Santa Monica, Calif. And while certain words such as "democracy" are banned in online chat rooms, China's Web users sometimes transmit sensitive information as images, or speak in code, inserting special characters such as underscoring.
They also tried using Skype, the free Internet voice-calling service, although state-owned phone company China Telecom Corp. this month placed some restrictions on the service.
One scholar of Chinese media, who declined to be named out of fear of retribution, says the new rules are just a tougher revision of existing regulations. "The so-called new rules, it isn't new, because most of the contents have actually been published in different areas before," he said. "It doesn't work -- a lot of people know how to break through the restrictions."
Insiders who work for the big portal sites say they are already in regular contact with authorities about forbidden topics, such as the government-outlawed Falun Gong religious group, which their teams of Web editors pull off of bulletin boards.
But the new regulations appear to extend coverage to a much wider set of online content, including the sorts of links and commentary offered by bloggers or the portals and news sites themselves -- services that they currently use to offer a competitive edge over other Web sites.
Sina and Sohu did not allow discussion of the new rules on their bulletin boards yesterday. But Chinese Internet users elsewhere expressed concern about the crackdown. On Yahoo's Chinese site Cn.yahoo.com, one wrote: "An extremely ridiculous rule, a rule trampling human rights, a rule against people's will and a rule leading to the darkness."