Mickey Spiegel, human rights consultant, Human Rights Watch
Jagdish Parikh, on-line researcher, Human Rights Watch
This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.
MICKEY SPIEGEL: China is caught in the sense that they need the Internet, they need e-mail, they need all of that technology to expand, in terms of their own technology, in terms of their own business connections, etc. On the other hand they want to block out what they don’t want in.
KEITH PORTER: This week on Common Ground, China vs. the Internet.
SPIEGEL: One of the things that this Chinese government has done when they have freed dissidents is exiled them. And felt that when they were exiled they were in a sense silenced, sidelined, they were no longer a part of the problem in a way that they had been before. I think the rise of the Internet has changed that a little bit because dissidents in China, dissidents outside of China, have a means of communicating.
KRISTIN MC HUGH: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It is produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Kristin MCHUGH.
PORTER: And I’m Keith Porter. Chinese government officials face a dilemma. They recognize the need to increase China’s connection and access to digital communication, including the Internet and World Wide Web. China needs this to attract employers and foreign investment and to open up foreign markets to Chinese goods. But government officials are very concerned that wider access to these communications tools will break the government’s grip on information and allow government critics and opponents to better organize and seek outside support.
For more background on this dilemma and its implications for the Chinese people I spoke with two experts at Human Rights Watch headquarters in New York. Mickey Spiegel is a human rights consultant and Jagdish Parikh is an on-line researcher. In one recent crackdown on the Internet, a Chinese businessman named Lin Hai was sent to prison for two years.
JADISH PARIKH: Lin Hai is an owner of a computer company based in Shanghai. He used to do a variety of computer services, mostly software-related services, for many multinational companies. One of them was providing a job searches for the multinational companies. And one of the things which he used to do in the job searches was to provide e-mail contacts, because many companies—like one of the primary ways that e-commerce works is to use e-mail contacts for marketing purposes.
PORTER: And so he collected these e-mail addresses?
PARIKH: Yeah. There are many ways people can get e-mail addresses from the public places. Like bulletin boards, news groups, and other places, you know. So he was compiling, like many US companies or many other places around the world, electronic addresses, and fairly available in public spaces.
SPIEGEL: In fact that’s one of the things his wife said when he was first charged, that, why should sending e-mail addresses be any different than supplying somebody with a telephone book?
PORTER: Right, right.
PARIKH: So it was basically like compiling an e-mail directory, for the business purpose. That’s what his, that was his primary business.
PORTER: And then what did he do with those e-mail addresses that got him into trouble?
PARIKH: Well, he used to, as I said, that he used to deal with many multinational companies in providing e-mail directories and contacts. He got into trouble when apparently he provided 30,000 e-mail contacts to a US-based group which runs an on-line magazine, VIP References.
PORTER: Chinese VIP Reference. That’s the name of the magazine?
PARIKH: Yeah. That’s the name of the magazine. And then he was charged with incitement to subvert the state.
SPIEGEL: One of the problems with that was that it is considered a dissident magazine. In other words it puts out information that the Chinese government is not interested in having out there. And that was why there was this major attempt to shut it down. For…
PORTER: And they delivered the magazine via e-mail?
SPIEGEL: They delivered the magazine via e-mail, and maybe you can explain the technology of how they delivered it so that they, people wouldn’t get, other people wouldn’t get caught up in this.
PARIKH: See, in China the main pipeline for the international connectivity is controlled by the government. Because it’s still, the backbone is owned by the government. So the government has control over what goes through those pipelines, in terms of electronic data. And they have been attempting to control that by putting what is called blocking services or filtering services on those pipelines. Through that they have managed to control some of the web site access by the ordinary users.
PORTER: The web site access?
PARIKH: Access, yes. The point is that the e-mail, the traffic on the e-mail pipeline, of course they use the same pipeline, but the way in which the e-mail services work it’s much harder to control it because you have to do it at every individual user level. And the volume of it could be enormous and even overwhelming.
PORTER: So while the can stop access to individual web sites that they might identify as ones they don’t want it, it’s much, a more difficult job to stop each individual e-mail.
PARIKH: Right. It’s like you have a million telephones and you don’t know which telephone line is used by somebody. You can’t tap all the telephone lines. Because then it basically makes your entire communication, it slows down your entire communication. Basically it becomes ineffective to use the electronic medium in that case. Now in case of this magazine, the dissident magazine, their claim is that they keep using even more modern technology to reach out to users in China. And that’s one of the reasons for additional frustration from the Chinese authorities. That it is not that they reach out these 30,000 plus users in China. They cannot block out the senders from the US end, because they keep using, a kind of a moving target. And this was something which frustrated the Chinese authorities. And because Lin Hai got involved in terms of passing on this addresses it became a good example to create a chilling effect.
PORTER: A chilling effect. So, go ahead Mickey.
SPIEGEL: One of the major concerns for the Chinese government is for Chinese language information to get into China. They’re not as concerned with English language information getting in. But when Chinese language information gets in that can be disseminated in a much, to many more people. And that’s a major concern. And that’s one of the concerns with this particular….
PORTER: And this publication was distributed in Chinese?
PORTER: Okay. I see. So now what has happened to Lin Hai?
SPIEGEL: Lin Hai received a two-year sentence. And that’s very interesting. He was arrested in March of 1998 and didn’t go on trial ‘til December of 1998. Which in and of itself isn’t so unusual. What was unusual was that there was a time lag between the trial and the sentencing. Very often, for instance in some of the trials recently, the court recesses for 15 minutes or 20 minutes or an hour, and them comes back with very, very long verdict. In this particular case it took close to a month. So that he wasn’t sentenced until January. And then received a relatively short term. Not that he should have been sentenced at all. But a two-year term was a surprise. And all we can do is speculate. And there are several speculations. One or course is that China is caught in the sense that they need the Internet, they need e-mail, they need all of that technology to expand, in terms of their own technology, in terms of their own business connections, etc. On the other hand they want to block out what they don’t want in. And our guess is that those considerations created a situation where the term was short and there might have been some argument about whether he should have been sentenced and for how long. But nevertheless the sentence was for this incitement to subvert the government. And…
PARIKH: Also, another aspect of this trial is that, first time the businessman who has no, apparently no political connection…
PARIKH: …or no political background. He is not raising any political demand. So, to get somebody who is in a business and has not done apparently whatever is perceived as illegal activities…
PARIKH: …’cause passing on e-mail address is like a telephone directory. It’s not normally been perceived as an illegal activity. So to convince even the general public, or even international community, on that, was a bit of a challenge for Chinese authorities.
PORTER: I see.
PARIKH: In a sense that it’s not very useful when China is kind of an opening of foreign investment on one end and on the other end they are trying to convince somebody, very crucial aspect of the information economy, is to be able to do the business in China, without fear of reprisal.
PARIKH: So that was one. Second one was like one of the significance of this is that first court trial in where somebody who doesn’t have a political background or dissident background is being tried for using the Internet and being charged with saying that the Internet is challenging the state authority.
SPIEGEL: One of the problems with this subversion charge is that the state security regulations are written in such a broad term that anything the Chinese government decides is subversion is, ipso facto, subversion. And that’s a major, major problem. And here too. And so it was, the charge was used here.
PORTER: I want to make sure that for our audience that we, let’s strip away the technology part of this.
PORTER: You know, the fact that it’s an interesting case because it has this technology angle to it. But the very act of either sharing those e-mail addresses or receiving Chinese VIP Reference, as an e-mail magazine, in your e-mail in-box, is a, should be a protected right.
SPIEGEL: It is a protected right under Article XIX of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which talks about freedom of freedom across borders. But obviously the Chinese government does not adhere to that particular reading of Article XIX.
PORTER: And even though we’re in the, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that, Article XIX can still apply, even though we’re talking about a different, a communication system that did not exist 50 years ago.
SPIEGEL: Well, we certainly think it can.
PARIKH: Yes. See, because it’s also like, I think Article XIX in the Declaration of Human Rights, is a general principle rather than anything to do with technology. In a sense it perceives the human being’s rights to access information, seek information and share information. And it could be, in a sense of if you want to stand by the human rights then you do not bring that this principle is applicable to technology. Cause technology is a tool to implement those principles. Rather than becoming a block.
SPIEGEL: And one of the problems that we see is the Chinese authorities right now are saying that they are ruling by law, rule of law. Which means that they have put into effect a laws and regulation and then when you break that law or that regulation, you get arrested for a criminal offense. The problem here is that many of those laws and regulations are, do not meet international standards. And this is a particular instance of it. So where you have laws and regulations that, number one, do not meet international standards, and number two, are so vague that they can be used in any way government officials or authorities chose to use them, you’ve got a problem. And that’s part of what’s happening here.
PARIKH: I think it’s also, there’s another angle involved in it too, this case. And it’s a background which led to this kind of sentencing. Is that the government is realizing that the level at which the ordinary people are being exposed to the information which so far was not accessible to them, could create a situation which they may not want it. So basically it’s like access to the information by ordinary people.
PORTER: Do you have any feel for what the level of access is? How many people in China?
PARIKH: In China, like right now, when official acceptance of the estimate is about two million people. Which is from like say, about less than 700,000 people during last year, to, during 1998, to 2 million people. Which is kind of an astonishing growth rate.
PORTER: So maybe nearly three times as many?
PORTER: From one year to the next. Yeah.
PARIKH: And one unofficial estimate says that the number of users—because in China it’s not like the Western countries that one computer is used by one person or one e-mail account is used by one person. So that estimate says like it’s about four million people.
PORTER: For every computer there’s at least two or three people using that. Yeah.
PARIKH: And also like now there are a number of cyber café’s coming up, and the people who go to the cyber café’s gain access to the information. Now, what happens then when you define as a user, is like you have an e-mail account and you become a user, but what happens to the cyber café? You go and pay a few yuan and access the Internet, then you are a user, but you do not have e-mail identity.
PARIKH: So you may not be counted in the official statistics but you are still a user.
PARIKH: So that really kind of can expand the user base to almost double or triple than the official estimates.
SPIEGEL: On the other hand one of the problems is that the use of e-mail is extremely expensive for the average Chinese person. And in fact several months ago, I believe it was October/November, a student who was a user of the Internet put a message on the Internet complaining about the problem of access and the problem of the fees, and asked people, other users, to sign a petition asking for lowering of the fees. That went on for several weeks and then he with—he sent another message withdrawing his petition and saying “You all understand why I’m withdrawing this petition.” So obviously there had been some pressure on him to do so. There had been a report recently, as I recall…
SPIEGEL: that they were lowering their fees. And I’m not quite sure what that’s about, how it fits in. You may know that.
PARIKH: No, they are, and the Chinese government, there are various factors which could have motivated the Chinese authorities or telecommunication authorities, to lower the tariff rates for the access to Internet. One is that they are realizing that if you are bringing an investment into information economics, or information technology, then you need a user base which is a local market. And now if the telecommunication itself is unaffordable then you cannot expand the information technology business itself. So that’s one angle.
Second angle is that so far the one company, a state-owned company, has been the owner of the telecommunication infrastructure. That monopoly, in light of the kind of free market push or pressure which is coming out, is unsustainable.
Second thing is that like the Internet has provided another option of Internet telephone. And in one case in one of the provinces in China, when the users of the Internet telephone were charged with kind of violating the monopoly laws, the court says that no, there are no such laws which will prohibit them from using Internet as a telephone. Now that itself has challenged a monopoly which so far was not feasible for the user or the users. So all this combined factors are pushing them.
Second thing is that in China then they have achieved a kind of an astonishing level of a kind of…. access to the telecommunication. China has today the second highest, largest number of subscribers to the telephone, next to the US. And that itself shows that they have made a lot, I mean they have gone a long way in terms of spreading the telecommunication across China.
PARIKH: And in that sense, maybe even another rule of economics is that the mass pays and production itself goes to kind of reducing the tariffs. So there are multiple factors which could have contributed to the reduction of the tariffs on the communication.
MC HUGH: Printed transcripts and audiocassettes of this program are available. Listen at the end of the broadcast for details. Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a non-profit, non-partisan organization that conducts a wide a range of programs meant to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs.
Our conversation continues with Jagdish Parikh and Mickey Spiegel, from Human Rights Watch.
PORTER: I was looking at a publication recently that listed the top ten stories from 1998 as chosen by a number of editors from around the world. And the Asia Week editors had picked the number eight story for their top ten stories of 1998, was the rise of the Internet as a catalyst for political change and economic activity. Would you agree with that? I mean is that the big story?
SPIEGEL: I certainly think it’s a big story in many ways. One of the things—I think—this is again conjecture—one of the things that one of the things that this Chinese government has done when they have freed dissidents is exiled them. And felt that when they were exiled they were in a sense silenced, sidelined, they were no longer a part of the problem in a way that they had been before. I think the rise of the Internet has changed that a little bit because you now—dissidents in China, dissidents outside of China, have a means of communicating.
And one of the things you see almost every time a dissident is arrested, the computers, the fax machines, are confiscated. It used to be that just the telephone lines were cut. Now you can’t just cut the telephone lines, you can take a lot of other equipment away. And that’s been—so there is some concern and some fear about that. And it’s obvious that Chinese dissident groups are using e-mail to a much larger extent than they ever could before, to get information out and get it out quickly. It used to be, there used to be such a time lag between the time something happened and the time you heard about it. And now it’s almost instantaneous.
PARIKH: Apart from like the dissident groups, I think the more, kind of challenging aspect is that mass basis played of the Internet technology around. Like you can just walk into the cyber café and do things in Chinese now. So far it was like, and there is a huge international community of the users of Internet who are purely using Chinese language. Which means that so far the communication with the outside world when something happens or a people need support, was primarily based on English. Now that itself, because of the technology, it has become feasible. Because the Chinese language software is fairly well developed and the expertise of the Chinese language software is internationally available. That has networked or created a possibility for a very wide-scale network of the Chinese-speaking population around the world. And that is a kind of an additional challenge which didn’t exist before the era of Internet.
Second thing is that it’s not only China which is feeling kind of a pressure, of kind of an opening up in terms of free expression and access to media and other things. It’s all other countries also. If you look at the Southeast Asian countries, including Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, all three, whenever the social upheaval came in, the people used the Internet to such an extent that it did create an impact on the local media. Because so far, even though some countries, there may not be a formal censorship of the media, but the government control over the expression was such that there was more like a, it became a norm, to practice self-censorship. And those self-censorship, with arrival of Internet, began cracking down. Because people began getting an access to an alternate media, alternate interpretation. And it’s not necessarily all these things is just a dissident groups or a small minority section of the society which is using Internet and government for its data. But the mass scale user population, mainly of the people who have access to the technology that has created a kind of a pressure on all these governments.
In fact, like China, the Singapore’s ex-Prime Minister Le Kwan Yu, in one of his, in an interview with the BBC, said to all the governments in Southeast Asia, that “now it’s time to open up. You know that. You cannot beat up, or you cannot counter this technology.” We do see that Internet providing tremendous opportunity for people to express themselves, to relate with other people, to look out for solidarity and networking.
Because even on our Human Rights web site, when the, the riots spread out in Indonesia, we saw a tremendous growth of visitors originating from Indonesia. When it happened in Malaysia in terms of social crisis in Malaysia, we witnessed the same number of users. In fact, during those periods of social crisis the numbers of visitors originating from Southeast Asia almost came close to the number of users from US. Which is very astounding for us, in that sense.
SPIEGEL: And for the Chinese this year, there are several anniversaries coming up that are of concern for them. One of course is the tenth anniversary of the events in Tiannamen Square on June 4th, 1989. Another is the 50th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China in October. They’re all sensitive events. And I think part of what’s happening here is the—and possibly because they’ve seen what’s happened in Southeast Asia—is to, is to get some of the blocks in place now. So that should there be any kind of problems the ability for people to communicate with each other within China is quickly, are lessened. And I think that, it’s, in a sense it’s not a firewall in the technical sense, but it is getting up a firewall now.
PORTER: That’s what they want.
SPIEGEL: In case.
PARIKH: It’s also, but they are also faced with a tremendous dilemma. Because they know that today the most, or the fastest expanding area of economy is information technology.
PORTER: Well, that’s what I was going to ask you, because this thing from Asia Week, from the editors, said that the rise of the Internet as an agent of political change and economic activity. Is it possible for the Chinese to take advantage of the benefits of the Internet for economic activity but to limit it’s potential for political change.
PARIKH: I would be open on—I wouldn’t be willing to commit either way. It looks like today the playing field has become somewhat level compared to what it used to be in the, earlier. But at the same time we have seen in history that technology can be manipulated and can be truncated to make the level playing field unequal again. But today it is, it is somewhat in the favor of ordinary people. Ordinary people have been able to gain some more, much more leverage in terms of free expression, other things. But there is no guarantee. The social experiment, how it kind of happened in past, in history, that they may be able to succeed. Not necessarily just because of the technology but overall culture and overall environment, in which the technology operates. That the technology might be there, but the access to that could have been a more truncated that what we would like to.
SPIEGEL: It’s interesting in Chinese history itself it’s always been a balance that the Chinese government has been trying to achieve. Take what you want from Western civilization—science, technology—but keep the political, keep the cultural out. And this is another recycling basically of the same attempts that have gone on for centuries now. Really.
PARIKH: Also, apart from like, see, when people say about the political impact, of this technology, we always limit it in terms of saying anything against government or saying anything about how government is run. But if you look at it in terms of access to this technology by ordinary people, there is also an economic freedom issue involved in it. And which governments, or which part of the economy is willing to take care of that. There is no guarantee that the situation will be clear, where the access to this technology will be somebody credible.
When the television came we were given a hope or a promise that illiteracy will disappear from the scale. Because this technology will give us a tremendous tools for communication, education, and other things. And we still are tired of the illiteracy around the world. So there is no guarantee that the Internet, the kind of promises which we are given, will always be met. But of course there is no harm in trying out. Because today the openings are great. And in fact today is a chance for us to shape the future direction of the technology.
PORTER: Let me give you one last thing to chew over here. We’re just about out of time. But before I came to do this interview there was a woman I was talking to who follows China. She’s very closely. And I told her what I was going to be talking about. And she said, “Oh, why are you doing that? Why is the media so interested in the Lin Hai case? And in the Chinese Internet access? When there are so many other human rights violations in China? And there are so many other things going on?” Do you have an answer for that? Why?
SPIEGEL: I think one of the reasons has to do with how important the issue of freedom of expression is. And how basic it is to many other freedoms. For instance—as I said before—I’ve done a lot of work on religious freedom in China. And religious freedom is not simply an issue of religious freedom. It’s an issue of freedom of expression, it’s an issue of freedom of association. It’s all tied together. But this whole freedom of expression is so basic to everything else. I think that’s one of the interesting—one of the reasons that there’s been such interest in it.
Obviously the other interest in it is that it’s something new, it’s something different, it’s groundbreaking. And I think that’s another way.
PARIKH: I think another thing which it, the Lin Hai case symbolizes something in a sense that the first time the authorities are willing to take on to a technology which has a tremendous economic potential for the country. But if, as long as that technology remains under their control they are willing to take on it. But if it is creating a situation when it creates a challenge to them, then they don’t mind even risking, the jeopardizing the economic interests by even kind of clamping down on the use of the technology.
Second thing is that all other violations are fairly well known. In a sense of, to the world. Okay. And the people know that the government doesn’t allow media to express themselves freely. The government controls the print media, television, and other things. This was the media who gave us a promise in terms of people being able to express and access much more freely. And if that right is going away, then what we see is a culmination of the tendency, which has, been consolidating. And that’s why for many people it became an issue.
PORTER: That is Jagdish Parikh, an on-line researcher for Human Rights Watch. Our other guest, also from Human Rights Watch, was Mickey Spiegel. For Common Ground, I’m Keith Porter.
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