Blocking, Filtering, and Monitoring

Radio and TV  |   Internet Filtering  |   Monitoring

Blocking Radio and Television

Chinese authorities attempt to block Voice of America and Radio Free Asia shortwave radio transmissions directed into China. In a statement made before a Commission roundtable in December 2002 , a representative of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) said that the BBG has filed complaints of "harmful interference" with the International Telecommunications Union monthly since August 2000. China did not acknowledge receipt of these complaints until July 2002. Failure to acknowledge complaints is itself a violation of ITU radio regulations.

The Chinese government restricts who can legally receive satellite television broadcasts, and restricts individual ownership of satellite receivers. Chinese viewers often ignore these restrictions and install illegal receivers to view foreign broadcasts. While authorities have allowed limited legal distribution of some foreign channels to some households in Guangdong Province, national distribution is limited to luxury hotels and foreign compounds. Authorities explicitly prohibit foreign satellite news broadcasts, and require that all foreign satellite television broadcasts be distributed through a government-owned and operated platform, which has enabled more fine-tuned censorship of foreign television broadcasts. For example, in June 2003, Chinese authorities cut CNN's broadcast into China just as a Hong Kong lawmaker began to criticize proposed anti-subversion legislation, and did not all the broadcast to resume until the interview was over.

Filtering the Internet

Chinese authorities continue to block human rights, educational, political, and news websites without providing the public notice, explanation, or opportunity for appeal. Chinese officials have publicly admitted that the government has established a national firewall to prevent Chinese citizens from accessing certain types of content. Studies conducted by Commission staff and others indicate that China's national firewall is used primarily to block political content, not obscenity or junk mail. Tests performed by the Commission staff indicate that the Chinese government continues to manipulate Internet communications in the following manner:

  • Attempting to access prohibited websites results in either a gateway timeout or "Page Cannot Be Displayed" message. Chinese authorities continue to block sites such as Google's cache (which would allow people to view "snapshots" of sites taken by Google, and thereby view Web pages which were otherwise blocked), the Alta Vista search engine, BBC (Chinese), VOA and those of most human rights organizations critical of the Chinese government (including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Human Rights in China, China Labor Bulletin, the Dui Hua Foundation, and Reporters Without Borders).
  • Searching for certain sensitive terms, such as "Falun Gong," on search engines regulated by the Chinese government yields results (which do not deviate from the official government position), while searches for the same terms on search engines not regulated by the Chinese government, such as Google, results in the Internet browser being temporarily disabled.
  • Attempting to send e-mails from China to well-known dissidents using an Internet browser interface results in the browser being temporarily disabled.

Chinese Internet users are generally able to access English-language news from major Western news media outlets through the national firewall, but Chinese authorities actively block Chinese language news websites with contents they are unable to control. For example, tests performed by the Commission staff indicate that while Internet users could access the BBC and Radio Canada websites in English, the Chinese versions were inaccessible.

Over the past year, Chinese authorities continued their policy of increasing the extent of Internet censorship during politically sensitive times. For example, Chinese authorities blocked access to foreign news websites (even sites available only in English such as the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and CNN) during the 16th Party Congress in November 2002 and the 10th National People's Congress in March 2003.

Authorities Admit Filtering the Internet

"[W]e have our own understanding of what is a limitation of the freedom of speech. So we do use techniques to block certain websites . . . ."

Larry X. Wu, Second Secretary for Science and Technology at the Embassy of the People's Republic of China in Washington, DC, quoted in Patrick Di Justo, "Does the End Justify the Means?", 18 March 2003.


"A spokesperson for the Chinese embassy in Washington . . . confirmed that China was blocking access to MIT websites, but said neither he nor his colleagues in China knew why it was imposed."

Keith J. Winstein, " China Blocks MIT Web Addresses," The Tech, 22 November 2002, Volume 122, Number 58

Chinese authorities are becoming increasingly sophisticated in how they censor the Internet and admit to developing technologies that will both enable more targeted censorship and notify government officials as soon as any person tries to access such websites. Specifically, officials claim to be prepared to deploy technologies that will allow them to automatically and precisely block Web pages based, not on specific words, but on the actual viewpoint of the author. In February 2003, state-sponsored academic researchers in China announced that they had already developed such technology for a "Falun Gong Content Examination System." Using this system, if an article contains pro-Falun Gong information, it is designated as "black." If the system determines an article criticizes or opposes Falun Gong, it is designated as "red" and blocked. The system can be installed on personal computers, servers, and at national gateways, so that as soon as a user tries to visit a Web page that is pro-Falun Gong, the system can filter the page and immediately notify authorities.

Tests performed by Commission staff indicate that systems providing this type of increasingly fine-tuned censorship have already been deployed at some Internet cafes. Specifically, Web pages containing sensitive content on sites that are otherwise accessible begin loading, but before they are completely visible the page is replaced by a message informing the user that the content the user is trying to access is forbidden. The browser is then automatically redirected to a government-authorized general interest website, but the user is not told why the site was prohibited or to whom an appeal can be submitted to have the prohibition removed.

"A Measure of Freedom of Expression in China" - Internet Forums

In June 2003, Chinese authorities blocked distribution of an issue of Caijing magazine that discussed the government's handling of the SARS crisis. Although it was reported that Caijing editors claimed that the failure to distribute the issue was the result of logistical problems, censors repeatedly blocked attempts by Commission staff to post questions such as "Has Caijing been censored?" on government-controlled Internet bulletin boards.


One Internet forum that the Commission has been monitoring first went down in early July 2003, saying it was "under malicious attack." It came back up for a short period at the end of July, with the moderator citing "content problems" as one of the possible reasons for the site having been taken down, and warning posters that ". . . `[Forum name] warmly welcomes you to join, provided you observe the principles of a united motherland, harmony between peoples, and obedience of the law." By December 2003, the bulletin board had been completely removed from the site.


Recent cases where the government has shut down BBSs for political content include "Sleepless Night" [Bumei zhiye], and "Study and Thought" [Xue er si].

Internet bulletin board systems (BBSs) continue to provide a glimpse at how Chinese authorities would like to shape the Internet. As the government-affiliated China Internet Network Information Center put it: "[BBSs such as the one operated by the official People's Daily] represent the degree of freedom of expression the people of China have." Chinese law requires all BBSs to be licensed, all articles to be constantly monitored, and all BBS providers must keep a record of all content posted on their website, the time it was posted, and the source's IP address or city name.

BBSs use software to automatically block posts containing blacklisted words and also use human monitors to block and remove articles posted with content that they deem politically unacceptable. It is possible to watch as users on government-controlled BBSs debate with the censor about whether or not a given post should be allowed. In one case, a Commission staff member observed a user successfully persuade a censor to allow his post because, even though the title sounded like it was praising the U.S. multi-party system, in fact it was a long essay about the dangers inherent in such a system. Commission staff regularly observe censors removing posts that are either too critical of the government, or that might be acceptable by themselves but have generated too many responses critical of the government. BBSs that become known for allowing cutting-edge postings on politically sensitive topics routinely disappear from the Internet altogether.

Learn More

For a thorough study of how BBSs in China are censored, see Reporters Without Borders, "Living Dangerously on the Net: Censorship and Surveillance of Internet Forums ," 12 May 2003, (15 August 2003).


Perhaps one of the greatest concerns regarding freedom of expression on the Internet has nothing to do with the rights granted under Article 35 of China's Constitution, but rather with what in the United States are termed "Fourth Amendment rights." In the United States the Fourth Amendment establishes the right of people to be secure against unreasonable searches and seizures, as well as the requirement that warrants cannot be issued without probable cause. In China these rights are protected by two separate articles of China's Constitution:

  • Article 39: The home of citizens of the People's Republic of China is inviolable. Unlawful search of, or intrusion into, a citizen's home is prohibited.
  • Article 40: The freedom and privacy of correspondence of citizens of the People's Republic of China are protected by law. No organization or individual may, on any ground, infringe upon the freedom and privacy of citizens' correspondence except in cases where, to meet the needs of state security or of investigation into criminal offences, public security or procuratorial organs are permitted to censor correspondence in accordance with procedures prescribed by law.

China's Criminal Law provides penalties for violations of these rights with respect to Internet activities:

  • Article 245: Those illegally physically searching others or illegally searching others' residences, or those illegally intruding into others' residences, are to be sentenced to three years or fewer in prison, or put under criminal detention.
  • Article 252: Those infringing upon the citizens right of communication freedom by hiding, destroying, or illegally opening others' letters, if the case is serious, are to be sentenced to one year or less in prison or put under criminal detention.

Unfortunately, these protections, prohibitions, and punishments ultimately provide no meaningful deterrence to Chinese authorities from conducting illegal searches, because China's courts do not enforce them when violation leads to evidence that provides the basis for a criminal conviction. In other jurisdictions, if evidence is acquired in violation of the law either it will be inadmissible, or those who illegally collected it will be subject to punishment. There is no such negative reinforcement in China, and consequently any data transmitted through the Internet is essentially fair game for government monitors and prosecutors.

Under the Internet Measures , Internet information services engaged in journalism, publishing, and providing bulletin board services must keep a record of all content posted on their websites, the time it was posted, and the source's IP address or city name. The Internet Measures also require Internet access providers to record information regarding the amount of time each customer is on the Internet, the customer's account number, IP address and primary phone number. Both Internet Information Services and Internet access providers must maintain these records for 60 days, and make them available to all relevant government agencies. The Provisions for the Administration of Electronic Bulletin Services requires Internet information dissemination services to monitor the content of posters, delete all "illegal" information, and keep a record of all such incidents and report them to the relevant state authorities.

Pursuant to the Regulations on the Administration of Internet Cafes, anyone wishing to access the Internet at an Internet cafe must provide a copy of their identification to the operator, and the operator is required to maintain these records for 60 days and provide this information to agencies of the Culture and Public Security ministries for examination. However, these regulations are currently subject to only spotty enforcement, and most Internet cafes in China currently only require cursory, if any, registration. In November 2002, however, authorities in Jiangxi Province began requiring Internet cafe users to buy access cards and register their names, ages and addresses, information, which is then loaded into a police database. The user's card is swiped at the Internet cafe, and the police are then able to monitor who is browsing what.

The goal of Chinese authorities appears to be to develop technologies that will allow them to screen all information carried over the Internet and determine both the source and the requestor of that information. An announcement regarding the development of the "Falun Gong Content Examination System" indicates that Chinese authorities may already have achieved this:

[D]uring the process of filtering, the system can simultaneously report the incident to the gateway, and the gateway can report it to the government; the government monitoring and oversight agency can then completely oversee the situation.

"Phonetics Institute Achieves Advance in Computer Language Comprehension Technology ," Announcement on the Phonetics Institute, Chinese Academy of Sciences website, 18 February 2003.

Combined with the lack of evidentiary rules discouraging the use of illegally obtained evidence, such a system will have a severely chilling affect on freedom of expression.

The Panopticon

In 1791, Jeremy Bentham published a description for an "ideal" prison and factory. Dubbed the "Panopticon," (Greek for "all-seeing") it would be a circular structure housing cells surrounding a central tower for the guards. Using blinds, glass, mirrors, and angled walls, it would be possible for the guards to look into each cell while remaining invisible to those within. Bentham espoused the benefits of such as system as follows:

[W]hether it be [for the purpose of] punishing the incorrigible, guarding the insane, reforming the vicious, confining the suspected, employing the idle, maintaining the helpless, curing the sick, instructing the willing in any branch of industry, or training the rising race in the path of education: in a word, whether it be applied to the purposes of perpetual prisons in the room of death, or prisons for confinement before trial, or penitentiary-houses, or houses of correction, or work-houses, or manufactories, or mad-houses, or hospitals, or schools.
It is obvious that, in all these instances, the more constantly the persons to be inspected are under the eyes of the persons who should inspect them, the more perfectly will th e purpose of the establishment have been attained. Ideal perfection, if that were the object, would require that each person should actually be in that predicament, during every instant of time. This being impossible, the next thing to be wished for is, that, at every instant, seeing reason to believe as much, and not being able to satisfy himself to the contrary, he should conceive himself to be so.

Bentham, Jeremy, "Panopticon: or, the Inspection-House."