BROOKE GLADSTONE: This week a Chinese court found Internet entrepreneur Huang Qi guilty of subversion for posting articles on his web site promoting democracy and human rights. According to a watchdog group called the Digital Freedom Network, roughly 10 people in China have become political prisoners because of their actions on the net! In 3 years China's Internet users have climbed from 2 million to 23 million. China responds with new filtering and monitoring software and crackdowns that have closed some 8,000 Internet cafes this year.
Not long ago, President Clinton observed that China's effort to control the Internet was like trying to nail jello to the wall. But so far it seems the jello is staying put. Several news studies reported recently in the Christian Science Monitor suggest that rather than flooding China with Western ideas, the Internet is actually expanding the control of the Chinese authorities.
We're joined now by author and China specialist Orville Schell. Mr. Schell, we've always been told that it's impossible to regulate political expression on the Internet -- that it can't be done! Is China doing it?
ORVILLE SCHELL: Well China's really on the horns of quite a dilemma. On the one hand it, it has recognized that it desperately needs the Internet for business purposes, but at the same time it's very circumspect about the political consequences of an unfettered Internet so that -- and what it's tried to do as in so much of the rest of the reform agenda is to separate what it views as the good from the bad and it wants economic reform but not political reform.
And on the Internet it wants the facility the Internet provides for business and commerce but it doesn't want the facility it also provides for political expression and interchange.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Isn't the toothpaste out of the tube for China? I've read that the number of Internet users in the country doubled in the first 8 months of this year to roughly 17 million and that the Chinese are buying PCs at a faster rate than anywhere else in Asia!
ORVILLE SCHELL: I think it, it is true, but at the same time more and more people are going on line. There is also a very concerted effort to both block web sites abroad that are considered unfavorable to the Chinese Communist Party but also in some measure as well to, to oversee and regulate e-mail traffic by looking for key words, by making people register to get on line, even if they go into one of China's many Internet cafes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you happen to know what any of those key words might be?
ORVILLE SCHELL: Well I think [LAUGHS] there are many obvious ones. You know, words such as--
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Falun Gong might be one.
ORVILLE SCHELL:-- [LAUGHS] Falun Gong would be one; democracy, you know, dissidents, human rights, Tibet, Taiwan - any of these words might be ones on the list. And it's very common that you'll be looking at a chat room and you'll see some rather outrageous statements pop up and then a few minutes later they're gone.
I mean in a certain sense this is really the experiment of all experiments and well worth watching. Is it inherently so democratic that it can't be controlled?
Now the other, of course, aspect of control that's worth watching is the commercial one, because you have to also acknowledge that it does not behoove a commercial enterprise to make trouble by having disturbing political sites or messages coming through that venue.
So-- you know, AOL moving into China. They're not going to cram down the throats of the Communist Party web sites of human rights groups. Murdoch got rid of the BBC. So there is a self-censoring mechanism also at work which tends to aid the party's efforts to delete cites and information that they consider dangerous.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:That's fascinating because it seems to contradict the conventional wisdom that if you open up the markets, then you're bound to let the principles of democracy trickle through along with it.
ORVILLE SCHELL: Well I think that's a somewhat spurious and incomplete notion. I think free markets can certainly aid and abet free expression, but they do not ipso facto lead to free expression. There are examples of authoritarian regimes which are not democratic but have very robust and very dynamic free market systems. One would look at Germany during the war. Italy. Chile with - under Pinochet. I mean there, there have been a lot of notable examples of successful markets that do not highly esteem or allow self-expression or a very high degree of democracy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Orville Schell, thank you very much!
ORVILLE SCHELL: Pleasure!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Orville Schell is a professor of Far Eastern History and dean of the Graduate school of Journalism at UC Berkeley.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Two years ago a Shanghai computer company owner named Lin Hai became China's first Internet-related political prisoner when he gave 30,000 e-mail addresses to a pro-democracy group based in the United States. He never saw himself as especially political, but his perspective was shaped, he says, when he was a college student in 1989, present at the bloody uprising in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.
LIN HAI: On June 4, at that day, I see a 8 year old boy was dead, and his mother crying in our campus, so this is really -- hit my heart.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: At one time you hoped to be the next Bill Gates, you've said. Do you still feel that way?
LIN HAI: It's a common dream for Chinese students learning IT, computer science; but I think right now it's impossible.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What is your dream now?
LIN HAI: First dream, I think I want living peacefully; and the second dream I want to see all, all people in China living peacefully.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And do you think the Internet can help get them there?
LIN HAI: Sure. Cause the network is turning to the new media and it will push China to more freedom.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Lin Hai, do you regret what happened to you?
LIN HAI: No.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why not?
LIN HAI: I think everybody - cannot come true - it's his own fate. I am just a network engineer, and I have never -- think about to be speaking here, right now [LAUGHS]. But some, something choosed me. I think it's the fate of me.