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Special Report
Last Updated: 05/05/2008
Olympian China: Meet the Largest and Most Censored Pool of Internet Users in the World
Francesca Musiani

As Francesca Musiani writes, the widest mass of Internet end users is now located in an undemocratic country, allowing only a “tamed” version of the Internet, wrapped in state censorship and control. In this special report, Musiani discusses the unique Chinese internet experience and the implications of media regulation on the Olympics and beyond.


“In the name of all the competitors I promise that we shall take part in these Olympic Games, committing ourselves to a sport without doping and without drugs...”

The Olympic Oath, that will inaugurate the 2008 Olympic Games a few months from now, sounds ironic in the light of their host country's political and economic situation. The People's Republic of China, the country of impressive economic development and fast-growing modernization, has recently become the greatest Web market in the world. But doping and drugs, in the form of IP address blocking, Domain Name Server filtering, packet filtering and connection resets – in a word, censorship – are compromising the integrity and fairness of the Chinese Internet “competition”. With implications that go way beyond the Games, and beyond China's national borders.

CNNIC: We're the Largest...

Since March 2008, the Chinese pool of Internet users has been reported as the widest of the globe, outnumbering the record pertaining to the United States.[1] 

The estimate is a result of the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC)'s calculations,[2] according to which Internet users in China were 137 millions (10% of the population) at the end of 2006 and 210 millions at the end of 2007, while the pool of users in the United States remains almost constant around  210-215 millions.[3] Projecting the impressive trend of growth (53% in a year), the predictable foreseeing is that the overtaking has by now taken place. Moreover, the margins of growth are still very large in China, with the 16% of the population online versus a worldwide average of 19%.[4]

This achievement by the country that is about to host the 2008 Olympic Games needs to be given a good amount of reflection not only from technology specialists, but from every free citizen of the world: the widest mass of Internet end users is now located in an undemocratic country, allowing only a “tamed” version of the Internet, wrapped in sophisticated and relatively effective[5] State censorship and control. What effects will this have on international economy and culture of the Net?

...And Growing at a Steady Pace

The development (better qualified as a boom) of the Internet in China is happening at an incredibly fast pace. The above-mentioned impressive progress of 2007 is mostly due to the growth in the number of connections in rural areas, where the highly centralized government has recently, extensively provided telephone and Internet wiring.

In its recent calculations, the CNNIC appears to have been driven at least partly by patriotic pride, as it has taken into account every possible user, including the Internet café users and those who connect via mobile phone;[6] however, despite the marginally inflated data coming from the Chinese body, there is no doubt that the structural set of conditions for China taking over the USA in terms of the number of Internet users is currently in place. Two reason among all: China has become in a relatively short time the fourth economy in the world, and is the most populated country in the world.

A World of Its Own

The Chinese Internet is however, despite its being increasingly “crowded”, a world of its own, within heavily enforced borders and barriers. The Web information company Alexa reports that the most visited websites in China have very little to do with the Internet protagonists in the rest of the world: there is no eBay, Yahoo! or Microsoft, and the Chinese version of the most diffused search engine in the world Google, Google.cn, only occupies the fourth position.[7]

The first is held by Baidu.com, a national search engine providing a widespread Chinese language support and several functions to look for and download music and movies. Pirated, of course. American majors have been fighting Baidu for years. The second place is for QQ.com, a chat service relished by the Chinese population, and the third for the news site Sina.com.cn. The analogous of eBay for China, Taobao, is also found among the first positions.[8]

Of course, the fact of being relegated in supporting roles – an issue that is likely to increase just as the Chinese population does – is not appreciated at all by the American Internet giants. This is likely to be the main drive behind the repeated compromises that such corporations have recently yielded to, as the only way to penetrate the Chinese market. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, along with many other human rights organizations, have not spared Yahoo!, Microsoft, Google and Skype accusations of surrendering to laws that kill fundamental freedoms, and of being “complicit in the Chinese government’s censorship of political and religious information and/or the monitoring of peaceful speech.”[9]

The “Great Firewall of China”
The Internet in China is very different with respect to the one that is accessible and known in the West as of today. China's Ministry of Public Security has created in 1998 a nationwide firewall, the Golden Shield Project (sometimes referred to ironically as the Great Firewall of China), a big filtering mechanism for the web sites considered threatening or inappropriate, on which about thirty thousand agents work. Among the banned sites are those containing news considered as potentially subversive for and by the regime, explicit content, or just opinions that are unaligned with the Party's principles.[10]
Since the end of 2007, in order to own a blog, Chinese end users need to follow a tight self-regulating protocol according to which they commit not to diffuse “wrong and illegal” messages. The recent law also forbids anonymity on blogs, what has led Reporters Without Borders to speak about the end of free blogs as far as China is concerned.[11] According to CNNIC, this has however not prevented more than 72 million Chinese citizens to own a blog as of December 2007.[12]

The beginning of 2008 witnessed the establishment of State censorship on online videos as well. While YouTube is becoming one of the most widely used sites worldwide, from now on the diffusion of videos via websites on Chinese national territory will be subject to prior Governmental authorization, and the videos considered inappropriate need to be withdrawn retroactively.

Not Just China

Will China's seemingly unstoppable march towards its conception of a “safe” country involve a further yielding of Google, or YouTube, or Yahoo! - a further self-restriction as the only way to maintain their place in the Chinese market?
The stakes are incredibly high, and not only for present and future Chinese citizens. Especially after September 11th, 2001, the so-called “democratic Western world” have witnessed in turn several attempts to impose restrictions on the ideally decentralized, free universe represented by the Net.[13]

The way in which international Internet corporations have adapted their business practices to Chinese governmental requests is a very dangerous precedent. As Human Rights Watch, followed by many, points out, every human rights defender worldwide needs to worry: if Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft and the other giants are willing to collaborate with political censorship in China, it will be very difficult for them not to agree to eventual similar requests in the future, made by Governments willing to put their citizens under control for whatever reason.[14]

Lights, Camera, Olympic Games

The boom in the number of Internet users; censorship; human rights claims; the interests of the Western Internet giants in the country; the combination of all these elements make the Chinese Internet one of the huge contradictions of today's global market and politics. The time for the unveiling of such contradictions seems to have arrived, not only because of the symbolic taking over of the US in terms of the number of users, but first and foremost due to the high profile that the upcoming Olympic Games  are enjoying in international media. Only a month ago, the International Olympic Committee has warned China to ensure open access to the Web for international journalists during the Games, and the IOC's pressure has also led the government to unblock access to previously filtered content, including a number of pages from the English version of Wikipedia.[15]

The “phenomenon” China is in the spotlight; as HRW argues, its evolution is not only in the hands of the governmental police or the Western MNCs, but also of “concerned citizens around the world”[16], in their capacities of investors, voters, and consumers – and users of the Internet.


[1]    IT News (2008) Internet, la Cina supera gli USA come numero di utenti, http://www.itnews.it/news/2008/0313203207854/internet-la-cina-supera-gli-usa-come-numero-di-utenti.html

[2]    Data are derived from China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC), http://www.cnnic.net.cn  

[3]    Data are derived from Nielsen NetRatings, http://www.nielsen-netratings.com/

[4]    Modine, Austin (2008) China Has World's Largest Online Population, The Register, available at URL http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/03/15/china_largest_online_population/

[5]    Internet filtering is often argued to be of a limited effectiveness from a technical point of view, due to the very nature and structure of the Net. However, it is argued that the notion of the Chinese nationwide, huge firewall reaches its objective anyways, by encouraging self-censorship through the perception that users are being watched; see e.g. the debate at http://www.scienceblog.com/cms/chinas-eye-internet-fraud-14190.html

[6]    Respectively one third and one fifth of the total number of users. The number of Chinese with a broadband connection is roughly 80 million.

[7]    Data are derived from Alexa, the Web Information Company, http://www.alexa.com

[8]    Longo, Alessandro (2008) Internauti, Cina supera USA ma la censura è al governo, La Repubblica.

[9]    Human Rights Watch (2006) “Race to the Bottom”: Corporate Complicity in Chinese Internet Censorship, August 2006 Volume 18, No. 8(C), available at URL http://www.hrw.org/reports/2006/china0806/index.htm

[10]  Watts, Jonathan (2005) China's Secret Internet Police Target Critics With Web of Propaganda, The Guardian, available at URL http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2005/jun/14/newmedia.china#article_continue

[11]  Reporters Without Borders and  Chinese Human Rights Defenders (2007) China: Journey to the Heart of Internet Censorship, An Investigative Report, available at URL www.rsf.org/IMG/pdf/Voyage_au_coeur_de_la_censure_GB.pdf

[12]  Supra note 2.

[13]  Riley, Duncan (2007) Australia Joins China In Censoring the Internet, TechCrunch, available at URL http://www.techcrunch.com/2007/12/30/australia-joins-china-in-censoring-the-internet/

[14]  Supra note 9.

[15]  BBC News (2008) IOC Warns China Over Web Access, available at URL http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/7324155.stm

[16]  Supra note 9.


Francesca Musiani is a Master's degree condidate at the UN University for Peace.
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