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Nervous Beijing Tightens Controls on Internet

by Antoaneta Bezlova

Definition of a state secret is so vague that it can cover anything
(IPS) BEIJING -- Frightened by the potential exploitation of the information industry by dissidents and outlawed cult members, China is clamping down on the Internet and trying to tighten control over the flow of information.

In the course of only one week, Chinese authorities unveiled three sets of new rules, putting more limits on the use of the Internet and hinting that such control would extend to content uploaded on the World Wide Web.

The most serious set of rules, announced Jan. 26 by the Communist Party's flagship The People's Daily, banned the discussion of "state secrets" on the Internet.

In a circular issued by the State Bureau of Secrecy, the new regulations make website owners liable if state secrets are posted on or transmitted through their sites.

The restrictions extend to e-mail account users who are forbidden to transfer or copy state secrets. The circular also said all Internet content and service providers must undergo a "security certification" before they can operate.

In another development, all companies, including foreign ones, are required to tell the government by Monday, Jan. 31, about the type of the encryption software they use to send confidential information over the Internet. They have been asked to provide also details about the employees using that type of software.

According to Chinese sources, the Ministry of Public Security has drawn up, but not yet published, rules forcing all firms that use the Internet to register with the police.

In the works is a fourth set of rules, prepared by the State Press and Publication Administration, that would prevent domestic websites from breaching the state's monopoly on news distribution. The Shanghai Daily reported this week that only state-approved news would be allowed to appear on Chinese-registered sites.

By far, the recent set of regulations barring the leak of state secrets appear to be the most serious attempt to tame the Web, as the definition of a state secret is so vague that it can cover anything.

Under Chinese law, "state secret" could mean almost anything
The crime of leaking state secrets is regularly used to silence any dissent voices the Communist Party disapproves of.

The rules published in The People's Daily say thus: "All organizations and individuals are forbidden from releasing, discussing or transferring state secret information on bulletin boards, chat rooms or in Internet news groups."

"Any website that provides or releases information on the World Wide Web must undergo security checks and approval," Article 8 says. Article 11 bans people from transferring or copying state secrets in e-mail.

A spokesman contacted at the State Bureau of Secrecy says that the new rules are "highly targeted to state secrecy." Yet under the Chinese law, "state secret" could mean almost anything.

While the 1988 State Secrets Law covers many of the obvious areas -- national defense, diplomatic affairs, science and technology and criminal investigations, its definition also includes questionable categories such as "major policy decisions on state affairs," "secret matters in national economic and social development," "those secret matters of political parties... (that) concern the security and interests of the state."

There is also a catch-all clause that makes state secrets all "other state secret matters that the state secrecy preservation departments determine should be preserved."

But the scope of those could be enormous. In 1993 a couple, Bai Weiji and Zhao Lei, were sentenced to ten-and six-year terms respectively on the charge of "leaking state secrets" merely for translating materials from magazines marked "internal use only" for Washington Post correspondent Lena Sun.

In this case, the term "internal use only" was equated with the term for "state secrets" despite the fact that the first one does not appear in the law or in its implementing regulations.

It is far from clear whether the government would be able to implement the new Internet rules. The State Bureau of Secrecy official admitted the Internet did not lend itself to easy monitoring.

"It is rather complicated so we can't really manage this by ourselves," he said. "The Public Security must also get involved."

Analysts here argue that the authorities are divided on the issue of controlling Web content. Security-related ministries are said to insist for more control, pointing that Chinese dissident groups and Falun Gong, the banned spiritual group, have been known to use the Internet to communicate with followers in China.

Economic ministries, on the other hand, see the Internet as beneficial for the economy and are believed to be pressing for more freedom of the information industry.

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Albion Monitor January 30, 2000 (

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