China's Pledge of Allegiance

Internet companies in the country are making public proclamations to restrict content on the Web and support the Communist government's stance. How far will they go?

The public proclamations began just over two weeks ago. On Apr. 9, a group of 14 Internet companies operating in China, including the local site for Yahoo! (YHOO), issued a joint statement that they would fight "indecent" and "unhealthy" content on the Web. Among the other signers were the country's top portals Sina (SINA) and Sohu (SOHU) as well as its largest search engine, Baidu (BIDU).

On Apr. 13, dozens of Web site operators in the Shandong province endorsed a "Public Pledge of Self-Regulation" from the Internet Society of China (ISOC), an organization backed by the government's Ministry of Information Industry. A few days later, a government news agency reported that more than 20 blog-hosting companies in the country had signed a "Go Online in a Civilized Way Self-Discipline Agreement" from the ISOC.

Net companies are even beginning to launch purges of the content on their Web sites. Tom Online (TOMO), a Beijing company that operates a Chinese-language Web portal, has deleted 40% of the postings on its site put up by the company's users, according to Rico Ngai, senior manager for corporate communications at Tom Online. Ngai adds that the company has zapped 20% of the photos, largely because they were too sexually suggestive.


  Tom Online is controlled by Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing, known for his good relations with China's leaders, and it has always monitored its Web site closely. But recently the company has become even more cautious. "We always have people who monitor the content on our Web site," explains Ngai. But "it's a matter of how we set the threshold. Now it seems the threshold has to be higher, so we have to do things accordingly."

The flurry of public pledges and more aggressive censorship policies is the latest evidence that China is in the midst of a major propaganda campaign. The companies, either directly or indirectly, have been voicing support for President Hu Jintao's new program of "Eight Glories and Eight Shames," an effort launched early this year by Hu to counter the liberalizing influences of China's booming economy. The Internet companies are pledging to support the Communist Party, accept its censorship, and work harder to clean up the content on their own sites.

The statement signed by Yahoo, Baidu, and others said, "We absolutely oppose to [sic] indecent on-line messages that are against social virtues and Chinese people's good culture and traditions," according to a translation from the official Xinhua news agency.


  Some China watchers fear that the loyalty pledges signal a more serious crackdown ahead. Rep. Christopher Smith (R- N.J.) led hearings earlier this year into the role of U. S. tech companies in Chinese censorship. "You see this sort of thing from repressive regimes every once in a while," says Brad Dayspring, communications director for Smith, "especially when they feel they're losing control."

Of course, some of this is just for show. China's Communist rulers have a long history of launching intensive propaganda campaigns. Still, even though few Chinese today take such blitzes as seriously as they did back in the days of Mao Tse Tung, people know the importance of playing along. "Everybody is kind of getting up on stage and saying that we are going to toe the line here," says William Bao Bean, an Internet analyst with Deutsche Bank in Hong Kong. The pledge regarding online content is an example of "the guys in the Internet companies getting together and saying [to the government], 'Don't worry about us, we're the good guys.' "

The question is why Internet companies are being targeted so intensely in the current campaign. One theory is that the authorities are taking action because of the proliferation of new types of Internet content that's not easily censored. The Chinese government already has a sprawling censorship machine that limits online discussion of controversial topics (see BW Online, 1/12/06, "The Great Firewall of China").


  It blocks citizens from seeing certain Web sites outside the country and scans words for hot-button topics, such as the banned religious group Falun Gong and the Tiananmen Square massacre. It also employs more than 30,000 people to poke through Web sites and chat rooms.

But, as the current anxiety among China's leaders shows, there remain plenty of holes in the Chinese firewall. The government may have tens of thousands of Internet cops, but China has over 110 million Internet users. While the regime enlists companies to do their own censorship, sometimes even that is not enough. "The government needs the help of industry," says Duncan Clark, managing director of BDA China, a Beijing consultancy and research firm. "But the reality is companies will balance that against their own commercial interest in a very competitive market." And, in a competitive market, sexually provocative content sells.

Most of what passes for sexually provocative content in China is quite tame by American standards. But even China has its share of shocking Net images. For example, one online video in which a young Chinese woman with shoulder-length hair dressed in a leopard-spotted halter top and black skirt cuddles a kitten, gently places it on the sidewalk -- and then stomps on its head with her stiletto heels. The incident sparked an outcry, with the Shanghai Daily reporting on Mar. 3, "Cyber sadists have figured out a way to profit from cruelty to small creatures." According to the paper (which, like all newspapers in China, is government-controlled), "a Shanghai Daily investigation turned up several such sites" offering animal snuff videos for less than $2 a piece.


  The scandalous snuff videos have been getting a lot of attention from the Chinese media, as examples of Internet freedom run amok. The new campaign "I think partly is because of this online video clip," says Tom Online's Ngai. "The government wants all Web site operators to be more vigilant about the things that go onto the Web site."

Still, the role that private companies, including U. S. companies, play in Chinese censorship is extremely controversial (see BW Online, 1/13/06, "How China Controls The Internet"). Under the government's regulations, companies are required to cooperate with the censorship effort -- or be banned from doing business in the country. That means that companies must have their own employees take down controversial postings and block sensitive words.

Among American companies, Yahoo has come in for the harshest criticism, because materials it has supplied to the government have been used in the prosecution of several dissidents. The other American Net giants haven't escaped without criticism, however. Microsoft (MSFT) recently shut down the blog of a Chinese dissident, Zhao Jing. And Google (GOOG), which had long resisted Chinese control, launched search and news services in China earlier this year that screen out controversial material. The American companies say that in China, like in any other country, they need to comply with local laws.


  In the latest round of loyalty pledges, neither Google nor Microsoft has participated. Though some have interpreted this as the American companies taking a principled stand, that's probably not the case. Though Google does now have server computers in China to provide search results within the country, it has a limited amount of other services that it offers there. So it doesn't fall under the parameters of the most recent pledge.

Microsoft's MSN doesn't operate its own portal in China, either. The local version of MSN is in a joint venture (the only one of the big U.S. companies to have gotten a JV partner in China) and its partner is Shanghai Alliance Investment Ltd. As the name suggests, SAIL is based in Shanghai, not Beijing, and the original group of 14 is comprised entirely of Beijing-based companies.

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