With a total of 61 Internet users in detention at the start of May 2004, China is the world’s biggest prison for cyber-dissidents. It is also the country where the technology for e-mail interception and Internet censorship is most developed. What’s more, the authorities recently decided to tighten the vice and roll back the few gains made by Internet users in recent years.
The Chinese authorities use a clever mix of propaganda, disinformation and repression to stifle online free expression. Initial hopes that the Internet would develop into an unfettered media and help liberalize China have been dashed. What has happened in China has shattered generally accepted ideas. The Internet can indeed become a propaganda media. On its own, it will not suffice to support the emergence of democracy in any significant way. And it can be totally controlled by a government that equips itself to do so.
Indeed, the way the Chinese government has sabotaged online dissent offers a model for dictatorships around the world. Cuba and North Korea stifled online dissent by limiting the Internet’s development. The Chinese government unfortunately proved that the Internet can be developed and sterilized at the same time.