By R. S. Kalha
As China’s leaders watched the developments following the Arab Spring, a not very comforting thought would probably have crossed their minds—can it happen in China also? As long-entrenched Arab leaders fell by the wayside, the methods adopted by the agitating populace were indeed unique. Extensive use was made of the social media by utilising Facebook, Twitter, You Tube and the cell phone to mobilise thousands of people to gather on the streets to demand the overthrow of their autocratic rulers. Such efforts were aided by the new cyber warfare techniques developed by the US that immobilised the communication systems of Gaddafi’s army. A similar effort was made in India by ‘Team Anna’, which utilised the social media for the mobilization of crowds. It is quite possible that, judging by the steps taken by the Chinese leadership, the lessons of the recent past have been well understood.
The Chinese leaders moved swiftly. Their first step was to create a new office appropriately named as the ‘State Internet Information Office’, which was authorized to ‘direct, co-ordinate and supervise’ on-line content management. This office would also manage Chinese government on-line publicity work as well ‘punish’ those websites that violated the laws and regulations of the state as the ‘registration of domain names, distribution of IP addresses and registration of web-sites’ was also included within its purview. To give it an additional punch, the Vice Minister of Public Security, Zhang Xinfeng was made its Vice-Director.
The Chinese have always been very stringent in controlling access to the internet for their people. This is primarily done by what is euphemistically called ‘filtering’. Thus, when the authorities decide to block access to one website on a given physical server, then all other sites on that physical server including the IP addresses are also blocked. Even if a person somehow manages to reach the web server, that person’s computer cannot convert the server’s domain name into the numeric IP address. Thus, when the website’s DNS is blocked, such a conversion is impossible. Another method is to give incorrect answers to the IP addresses of certain domain names. This is called DNS ‘re-direction’ as Chinese border routers often block the IP addresses. The key however is that certain phrases that are likely to cause ‘trouble’ for the authorities, at a given period of time, such as for example ‘Tibet’, ‘Jasmine Revolution’ or ‘Xinjiang- Uighars’ automatically trigger a blockage. Much of the above is done in such a sophisticated way that a foreigner using the internet in China would probably mistake it for a failure of a website due to ‘technical’ reasons rather than on censorship! Content on a website not found suitable by the authorities often disappears within minutes.
At the same time it must be remembered that there are now more internet users in China than there are in the US and that China has now surpassed the US to become the largest mobile market in the world. The Chinese also have had to be careful not to completely suppress and close down websites as the Egyptians attempted, for China is a major economic power and cannot let its people be totally ignorant of the developments that are taking place in the outside world. China’s economic and commercial success to a significant extent depends upon the knowledge its people have of the world market. In any case China censors web content only for its own people and not for foreigners.
Having ensured that its people are only able to access ‘filtered’ news and that too which the authorities found palatable, the Chinese leadership also decided to refurbish its image abroad. This was the second part of their strategy. In a major expansion of its public relations effort with the outside world, the Chinese decided to vastly expand the services of China Central Television [CCTV], which is headquartered in central Beijing in a massive 234 metre-high 44 storey building. At present there are about 49 CCTV staff members posted outside China and by next year  their number is expected to go up to 280 and by 2016 to about 500 in about 80 bureaus spread across the world. Also planned are six major hubs. The Chinese are presently on a major recruiting mission abroad with Jim Lurie formerly of the ABC and NBC slated to be the new director for overseas services. Apart from English language services the Chinese also plan services in Arabic, Spanish and Russian. It is expected that Washington may be a major new hub for CCTV for they have hired about 3300 square metres of new space in Washington at a cost of US $ 1.5 million to accommodate their new offices! In the future CCTV expects to compete with major US networks as well as with rising stars such as RT and Al- Jazeera both for reach and influence.
Nevertheless, a major hurdle facing any effort that CCTV might put in would be the content of such transmissions. At present Chinese authorities insist that the content must reflect ‘traditional virtues and core socialist values’. Not much of the viewing public abroad is likely to be interested in such a showing, for given the present content that most Chinese TV shows have there is little to commend them for their entertainment value. Thus such a massive investment might just be wasted, unless the Chinese agree to change the content of such shows and introduce more entertainment value. It is quite possible that CCTV might decide to have different content value for transmissions for audiences abroad. However that remains to be seen given the rigidity in the socialist system that prevails in China.
It is interesting to note that two bills have been presented to the US Congress, ‘The Protect IP Act’ and the ‘Stop On–Line Piracy Act’ [SOPA], which, if enacted, would authorize the US Administration to act against any website that hosts illegally copyrighted content. It would mean that the US Administration could ‘filter’ the Domain Name System [DNS] as also block financial transfers via financial intermediaries and sanitise search engine results. Unlike the Chinese effort these steps would have a world- wide effect. Many organizations in the US such as Facebook, Twitter etc. have denounced such efforts as censorship, but many influential content providers facing the threats of piracy have supported these moves in the US Congress. Such efforts have been dubbed as the ‘Chinese method’.
Thus as the world watches, the US and China are gearing up to fight the battle for cyber space.
RS Kalha is a former Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs and can be contacted at [email protected]
Originally published by Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (www.idsa.in) at http://www.idsa.in/idsacomments/Chinasnewgreatfirewallandpublicityoffensive_rskalha_191211