Beijing's solution to the free speech problem: Pull the plug on the Internet

The government of the People's Republic of China has a problem on its hands. The top-down approach to controlling the media and the message has broken down, due in large part to the rapid growth of the Internet (162 million as of June 30, 2007, compared to just 620,000 users ten years ago) and the explosion of Chinese blogs, discussion forums, and online news sites. Despite regularly updating and strengthening the rules that govern the press and Internet communications, free-wheeling discussion on a wide range of topics continues to flourish.

Until now. Authorities in China have done something which I previously considered very unlikely: They are actually pulling the plug on the Internet. Or at least parts of it -- the troublesome parts. Data centers are literally being taken offline, because "inappropriate content" has been found on some servers hosted in them. Of course, such actions affect other Websites whose servers are hosted in these facilities, and irritate Chinese users.

Inappropriate content is nothing new to the Chinese Internet. This begs the question: Why are Chinese authorities taking such drastic steps to remove this content from the Internet? The reason is the upcoming Communist Party Congress in Beijing, which, according to China's official news agency, is slated to "mobilize the entire Party and the people of all ethnic groups to emancipate their minds, stick to the reform and opening up, advance scientific development, promote social harmony and strive together for a new victory over the building of a well-off society in an all-round way and the new development of building socialism with Chinese characteristics." Some highlights of the event include electing a new "Central Commission for Discipline Inspection," listening to endless speeches, joining banquets, and doing whatever else senior Party members like to do when they get together. While undoubtedly extremely boring, it's not that much different than what usually happens at these gatherings, which take place every five years.

Except for one thing: The Internet in China is not just an irritant anymore. It's a force to be reckoned with. There are more than 100 million additional Chinese Internet users in 2007 than there were during the last Party congress in 2002, and this population is far more comfortable using blogs, forums, and other tools (ranging from poems delivered by mobile phones to online games) to protest various domestic and international issues.

Beijing is not taking any chances. The government has the authority and the will to pull the plug on the Internet, even if it means angering their own people and upsetting 'Net businesses across China.

And this time they can take such drastic steps to pre-empt unwanted 'Net debate about the activities of China's senior leaders -- and get away with it. The next Party congress may not be so lucky.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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