The Qiangguo BBS is the largest BBS in the Chinese language on political issues. It belongs to People's Daily, the China Communist Party official newspaper. Regulation relative to the BBS are strict. No postings are allowed against laws and policies of the Chinese government, with controls by both software and human intervention. The rate of censorship was probably more than 1.5% in 2000. Some subscribers have protested these controls but this sort of regulation will continue in the near future and only diminish slowly over time.
The Ways of managing content
The tendency of regulation
After China's embassy in Yugoslavia was bombed on 8 May 1999, Chinese nationalism rose sharply on the Internet. People's Daily Net (www.peopledaily.com.cn or www.people.com.cn) operated a Bulletin Board System (BBS) for the public to comment on the issue within 48 hours of the incident. The BBS was later renamed Qiangguo BBS; "Qiangguo" means "to make China strong".
Qangguo BBS is the largest of all Chinese language BBS. Managing a popular BBS became a new problem for the official Chinese newspaper, the People's Daily, which belongs to the China Communist Party.
The regulations of the BBS can be viewed widely and narrowly. The narrow regulations are just rules listed on the Web. The wider regulations include every way to manage the BBS, for example through the power of the Webmaster and access times.
The rules, listed on the Web site, are the regulatory core. The rules display some lists with red words, which are the most important to subscribers. The main points are that: No postings would be allowed to against the laws, policies of reform and opening to world, and the Four Basic Rules (which are "hold on CCP leading, hold on socialist road, hold on people democracy dictatorship, hold on Marxism, Leninism and Maozedong Thought"); no postings are allowed to impersonate any person or entity, including, but not limited to, a government official, forum leader, guide, or host. There are other rules regarding the registered name of the site and copyright as well.
Some of these rules may be found on almost any BBS in the world, while others are very specific and unique to this Chinese BBS. Of course, the most important rules attracting public attention are about content: What can be said and what can't be said on the Internet. New regulations on Internet information services, approved by the China Central Government, essentially control digital content in all of its variety.
The Ways of managing content
Subscribers post to the BBS in two ways: either registering online or not registering online. If one has registered, one can post a page freely during time online. If one has not registered, one has to enter a name and code before every posting. The posting will not become a page on the BBS until it has passed the censor.
There are two ways in which postings may be censored. The first step involves software that automatically checks the content of the posting. If the posting contains some offensive words or phrases, the software will stop it. The software then hands the message off to the Webmaster, who will read it carefully. The software stop list includes the names of political leaders and special political issues, which can be modified according to circumstances and needs.
The second step involves censoring directly by the Webmaster. There is one or two Webmasters stationed on the BBS at any given time. They read every posting stopped by software and decide whether to let the posting appear on the BBS. They also check other postings that have passed the software filter and appeared on the BBS. They also delete displayed postings if they are problematic. Normally, it takes several minutes to censor a posting. Having passed these steps, the posting can remain on the BBS permanently.
Punishments for offending subscribers are classified into three degrees. The first and lightest is public criticism by the Webmaster. This occurs for postings with irrelevant subject matter or for those containing unfit language. The second and main punishment is the deletion of a specific posting. These postings may be blocked by software filters or deleted by one of the Webmasters. This punishment focuses on content and generally reasons for deletion are not provided. The third and most serious punishment is to block the IP address and register name of a specific individual. This punishment is given to those who frequently post messages that need to be deleted or whose actions are considered as deliberately offensive. Once you have been punished at this level, it is impossible to login and send messages to the BBS.
Since offending messages are deleted by software filters or human intervention, it is difficult to estimate exactly how many postings are deleted or the rate of censorship. However, we can get clues from the postings against censorship on the site. The rate of protest posting is relevant to the rate of censorship.
Table 1: The Rate of postings against censorship relative to all postings, Qiangguo BBS
Table 1 and the accompanying figure describe the rate of protest postings in a year. The rate in September and October 1999 is greater than 2%, the highest values for the survey period. There could be several explanations; the Webmasters could have been careful and strict at that time, with subscribers unaccustomed to regulation and hence protesting over blocked messages. Over time, as subscribers become adjusted to control, the rate flattens to between 1%-1.5%. If there are tens of messages every day protesting censorship, then the number of deleted postings must be much greater in volume.
Deleted messages may touch on many subjects, but there are basically three forbidden topics. The first includes Tiananmen Square issues and Falungong. Messages on these topics simply cannot appear; even Chinese official points are forbidden to post on these matters. However some messages can somehow sneak the digital and human barriers; recently there were some "loose" postings on Falungong issues. A few critic postings are able to pass through the censors. A second forbidden topic relates to criticism of Chinese leaders. The third main category includes special issues. Generally, it allows discussions of any political and social issues. But when these issues are considered important, such as big corruption cases, smuggling abroad, local problems, and certain international topics, and the subscribers' viewpoints are far from official stands, it would be forbidden to post.
Faced with censorship, most subscribers respond with silence. What they choose to do passively is not to post or to post less in the future. But some subscribers choose to protest. There are two ways to protest. One way is to send a formal complaint to the People's Daily Web. Another is to post protest just on the BBS. Most disgruntled subscribers opt for complaining electronically, rather than using the post.
Some criticism will be leveled over the power of the Webmaster. In many cases, the Webmasters have too large, even unlimited, power and they use it unfairly and randomly. Standards vary from Webmaster to Webmaster, because the rate of censorship changes on a daily basis. To answer this criticism, Webmasters should be accountable, and provide some explanation of their actions.
Others protest regulation on the use of the service. Some of these regulatory lists are vague, while others are simply too abstract. The regulations in turn can be interpreted differently, by subscribers and Webmasters. Some of the rules are unfair. For example, the rule that forbids criticism of the country's rulers really puts the leaders in a special position. Criticism should be tolerated about anyone. It is clear however that impersonation should not be tolerated.
Fundamentally, critics protest the violation of basic rights in the act of online censorship. The Chinese Constitution clearly states that citizens enjoy the right of free speech, but this somehow does not translate to the digital environment.
The Tendency of regulation
The Qiangguo BBS has operated for more than a year and gained attention both within China and abroad. Because it belongs to the official People's Daily, its regulation will be followed by other developing forums. The regulation on this BBS certainly indicates the official attitudes of the Chinese government towards Internet-based communications.
Optimistically we can hope that these sorts of regulations will be less restrictive in the future. The Internet is a new and revolutionary medium. The regulatory environment has to adapt to this new technology if China is serious about using information technology as an engine to drive modernization. Fundamentally, China has to face inevitable changes brought by information technology. Right now, China has 17 million Internet subscribers and 200 million phones; it will be impossible to control this technology completely, even with filters and an army of trained digital agents.
Right now, the regulations governing the Qiangguo BBS will not calter immediately. As Internet use explodes in China, other political BBS will appear, sponsored by other media such as CCTV. These services will be competitive on the Internet, and it will be important for traditional media like newspapers and television to have successful Internet presence. Since Internet users will support their sites with use, efforts will be made to make sites attractive and utilitarian. Regulations will eventually alter, to attract traffic and content.
Some have called the BBS a "special speech district", named after economic special districts. In China, places like the Qiangguo BBS have to develop special meanings, a place for freedom of expression and the free flow of ideas and opinions. Certainly, it is easy to allow freedom of expression but it is difficult to control it again. Under China's political system, it is reasonable that policies on speech would be loosen slowly step by step, not rapidly, which makes it easy to control. These steps will be slower than changes in economic policies, with pauses and even reversals in special times. But overall China will begin to see the effects of information technology in its society as it continues to modernize and integrate itself into the global community.
About the Author
Wenzhao Tao, Ph.D in Political Science, was Assistant Professor in Renmin University of China, and now is a Postdoctral Fellow in the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
Paper received 1 November 2000; accepted 31 December 2000.
Copyright ©2001, First Monday
Censorship and Protest: The Regulation of BBS in China People Daily by Wenzhao Tao
First Monday, Volume 6, Number 1 - 8 January 2001