A Human Rights Watch Backgrounder


As the Internet industry continues to expand in China, the government continues to tighten controls on on-line expression. As recently as July 11, 2001, President Jiang Zemin condemned the spread of “pernicious information” on the Net and called existing legislation “inadequate.”1 Since 1995, when Chinese authorities began permitting commercial Internet accounts, at least sixty sets of regulations have been issued aimed at controlling Internet content. The broadly-worded regulations represent a clear violation of the right to freedom of expression, and the government is devoting considerable time and resources to trying to implement them

The China Democracy Party (CDP), a loosely linked group of political activists, operating nationwide, emerged in mid-1998. It was significant because it was the first time since the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949 that an attempt was made to obtain the formal legal registration of an opposition political party. Over the next eighteen months, however, it was systematically crushed. Known members of the CDP were summarily arrested and detained, and though most were held for relatively brief periods, at least thirty-four of them were sentenced to prison terms of up to thirteen years on charges of attempted subversion. At least four others fled into exile abroad. Others, who remain in China but are not in prison, live under close police surveillance and have ceased to be openly active.

As of January 2001, sending “secret” or “reactionary” materials over the Internet became a capital crime. Generally, however, persons convicted for their use of the Internet have received sentences of between two and four years, and we are not aware of anyone having been charged under Internet-specific regulations. Instead, they have all been found guilty of violating provisions of the Criminal Code. The elaborate regulatory framework serves, however, as a statement of policy, a justification for monitoring and surveillance, a set of guidelines for what constitutes “illegal” activity, and a deterrent to Internet users.

The CDP called for multiparty democracy in China and respect for human rights. Chinese leaders saw it as a group that aimed to undermine the basic principles and the monopoly of power of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). CDP members were veteran dissidents, many of them former political prisoners. They were skilled in modern communication techniques and strategic in their timing of statements and actions. They were determined to test the Chinese government's stated commitment to improved respect for human rights and willing to face the consequences of doing so.

The government’s determination to censor on-line content has grown with Internet usage. Improved infrastructure, introduction of mobile phones, and other low-cost methods of connection to the Internet, as well as increased local language content, have fueled that growth. The main contact points connecting China's Internet system with the worldwide system consists of nine so-called Internet Access Providers controlling the physical lines to the outside world. By July 2001 these access providers accommodated some 620 Internet Service Providers (ISPs) who served in turn some 1,600 Internet Content Providers (ICPs) and an estimated 26,000,000 users by the government’s own conservative estimates.3

Three of the group's founders, Wang Youcai, Wang Donghai and Lin Hui, seized the opportunity presented by U.S. President Bill Clinton's state visit to China in June 1998 to announce the formation of the CDP's first local preparatory committee in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province. Then, taking advantage of the relatively relaxed political atmosphere at the time, CDP activists sought to register preparatory committees in other provinces. And as the government announced that China would sign the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), they cited that treaty's provisions on freedom of association and expression as evidence of their right to organize.

This backgrounder examines the development of China’s repressive regulatory framework, its surveillance and closures of Internet cafés, and the detention of Internet users.


Between 1994 and the present, China’s rules and regulations on the Internet became progressively more comprehensive, moving from efforts to regulate Internet business to restrictions on news sites and chat rooms. These regulations give the government wide discretion to arrest and punish any form of expression. For example, “topics that damage the reputation of the State” are banned, but an Internet user has no way of knowing what topics might be considered injurious. As the regulatory framework evolved, the Chinese government shifted primary responsibility for control of the Internet from the Ministry for Public Security to the Internet service providers themselves.

In 1994, one year before the Internet became commercially available for individuals in China, the State Council issued the “PRC Regulations for the Safety Protection of Computer Information Systems”4 which gave the Ministry of Public Security overall responsibility for supervision of the Internet. According to Article 17 of the Regulations, Public Security is entitled to "supervise, inspect and guide the security protection work," "investigate and prosecute illegal criminal cases" and "perform other supervising duties." In February 1996, the State Council issued rules on the connection between China’s domestic network and the international Internet.5 These regulations began to shift some of the responsibility for control of content to the Internet companies themselves. Article 11 of that order reads:

Article 13 continues:

Public Security then issued a decree that all Internet users register with a police bureau in their neighborhood within thirty days of signing up with an ISP. Police stations in provinces and cities followed up on this almost immediately. They also set up computer investigation units. In December 1997, Article 5 of the "Computer Information Network and Internet Security, Protection and Management Regulations," issued by the Ministry of Public Security, states:

Article 8 of the same regulations states: