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Internet regulation in China: the never-ending cat and mouse game

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China's initial attitude towards the Internet was entirely predictable. It did not view with amusement a technology that opened up to its population vast means of communications with the outside world. The stranglehold on information generation and dissemination that the Communist Party had for decades could not be abandoned overnight for whatever reasons. Thus the first form of Internet regulation adopted was slightly less than total blackout of the new technology. China belonged to the group of nations (Myanmar, Saudi Arabia and Iran) that saw in the Internet a pernicious tool to breakdown its social and political order.

The sweeping spread of the Internet across the world and its acceptance by nearly all nations persuaded China to abandon absolute control and introduce censorship schemes. China soon discovered that its attempt to choke the Internet for fear of what it might do to the political establishment clashed with its commitment to open up the economy to foreign investment and trade. The use of the Internet for business, education, government and other purposes had a particularly dampening effect on Chinese enthusiasm to throttle the Internet. Gradually, the usual Chinese pragmatism prevailed and institutional and legal means of taming the Internet started to take over.

Nevertheless, China has not succeeded in finding an appropriate formula to deal with the Internet; it continues to fight a rear-guard battle with the power of the Internet. News stories of the Chinese authorities arresting and sentencing citizens purportedly disseminating 'illegal content' on the Internet are recurrent items. Its continuous preoccupation to police the Internet and hound out people from among the ever-growing number of Chinese surfers for alleged 'wrongful' use make headlines across the world. China is still treading along a contradictory path of simultaneously allowing and restricting the Internet.

This article attempts to examine the dilemmas that have confronted China in clamping down on the Internet, and the extent to which the legal and institutional solutions it has adopted have proved effective. It concludes that China is fighting a losing battle; that, unless it joins with other nations with similar views on the common plights arising from the abuse of the Internet (such as in the dissemination of child pornography), its single-handed efforts will be counter-productive. Above all, China's fixation with shutting out the Internet as a means of mass communication and flow of information will only shorten the days of the dictatorship.

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: School of Legal Studies Wolverhampton, Email:

Publication date: 2004-03-01

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