China welcomes Internet users to its Web site But access is still blocked to pages with words like 'Tibet' and 'CNN'

September 05, 1997|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING -- After trying to beat its ideological opponents by blocking access to certain news and political Internet sites, the Chinese government has joined the fray in cyberspace by putting its own home page on the World Wide Web.

"Welcome to China" is a snappy-looking site with a color photo of the Forbidden City and a red national flag rippling in the wind.

The Web page (www.china.or.cn) offers an eclectic mix of information ranging from scathing attacks on critics of China's human rights policy to advice on how to safely cross the street in Beijing.

"Western nations meticulously fabricated a report that lied about Chinese welfare institute maltreating and killing orphanage [sic], stirring up a Anti-China sinister wave," reads one broadside.

"Take great care while going through the zebra crossing because some drivers in Beijing would rather compete with pedestrians than slow down," the government warns, referring to the capital's free-for-all traffic patterns.

Internet specialists in Beijing see the Web page as a positive sign in China's love-hate relationship with global communications.

"Even the Chinese government is starting to realize how important the Internet is," said Russell Liu, a director of Webleader Computer Systems, a Beijing-based Internet company.

Asked about the Web page, Telecommunications Minister Wu Jichuan said the government was spreading "facts about China through the Internet so that misunderstandings about China can be corrected. The government is always of the view that it must take advantage of the Internet while eliminating its shortcomings."

The government eliminated some of those "shortcomings" late last year when it blocked access to as many as 100 news and political Web sites, including CNN, the Hong Kong Democratic Party and the Dalai Lama/Tibetan Exile Page. In addition, it began requiring Internet users to register with police.

China appears to have loosened its grip a little since then, though, allowing access to some banned Web sites such as the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal. The Sun's site is available online.

Since the Internet first began growing in China in 1993, it has posed a dilemma for the Communist Party's nervous leaders. As the nation rapidly modernizes, the government wants citizens to have access to information and technology but not so much that it threatens the leaders' grip on power.

To block access to politically sensitive sites, the government uses a filtering system that prevents connecting to Web pages with keywords such as "Tibet," "Taiwan," and "CNN."

But "the Great Firewall of China," as it is known, has holes. Skilled denizens of the Internet can slip information past the filters and so too, sometimes, can unskilled ones.

A larger impediment to Internet use in China, though, is money.

Less than 2 percent of the nation's families own a personal computer and the number of Internet accounts is estimated at fewer than 250,000. An Internet bill for an active user can cost as much as $50 a month in Beijing, where most families earn between $160 and $351 a month.

Those who don't own computers in Beijing can visit one of three Internet Cafes, part of a Canadian-Chinese joint venture called Sparkice. There, they can browse the web and send e-mail over hamburgers and Heineken as jazz plays in the background.

The Internet Cafe at China World, a modern office, hotel and retail complex, entertains 100 customers a day, mostly foreigners, says Zhuang Lundi, who works as an engineer there.

Chinese spend their time sending e-mail to friends abroad and browsing Web pages devoted to entertainment and business. If they try to access political sites, "we don't appreciate it, but we don't try to interfere," Zhuang said.

Li Jun, a 28-year-old English teacher at a vocational-technical high school, spent an afternoon last week searching databases for jobs for some of her students.

She says she doesn't try to access news sites because at $3.60 an hour she can't afford it. But she does visit the U.S. Embassy's cultural center, where she can read American newspapers and magazines free.

Despite the Chinese government's best efforts to limit access to the Internet, technology specialists here say it is too big for even the world's most populous country to control.

"They can only stop it for a while, because the technicians and the engineers will find a way around," said an Internet Cafe employee. "The Internet is international. There is no way to stop it."

Pub Date: 9/05/97

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