Beijing, China - Two visions of China's campaign to strengthen its influence over the global future of the World Wide Web are being staged in two Chinese cities this week.
One vision offers digital riches to global tech leaders who join forces with the Beijing leadership to offer a tightly controlled Web to China's online masses.
The other promises prison for anyone accused of using the Internet to challenge Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rule.
Leveraging its 630-million-strong platform of Web users to attract some of the planet's internet elites, the government is staging its first World Internet Conference in the ancient riverside resort of Wuzhen on the east coast.
But simultaneously, in a secret Beijing courtroom, the CCP is launching the trial of a Tiananmen rights activist for allegedly leaking a secret Communist Party diatribe against democracy to an online American magazine.
The Tiananmen activist, journalist Gao Yu was held incommunicado while coerced into confessing that she passed state secrets to the US-based website, said Maya Wang, a Human Rights Watch researcher in Hong Kong who has been monitoring the case. "Police also detained Gao Yu's son, and threatened to imprison him if she did not confess," she explained.
"Torture by police during detention is prevalent throughout the Chinese justice system," Wang noted.
|Jack Ma Yun (C), chairman of Alibaba Group, prepares to deliver a speech at the first World Internet Conference in Wuzhen [EPA]|
The CCP directive that Gao Yu has been accused of leaking is the Central Committee's Document Number 9, which warns party cadres of the dangers of democracy and a free press, she said. The punishment for disclosing state secrets, in serious cases, can include life imprisonment.
The timing of the trial, set to coincide with China's first staging of the global Internet summit, is unlikely to be lost on any of the elites from Microsoft, Cisco, IBM, Apple, Amazon or Oracle attending the gathering.
The director of the Cyberspace Administration of China stated on the eve of the conference while China seeks a new agreement on global governance of the internet, it is not about to liberalise any of its domestic controls on the Web.
Government-imposed blocks on access to sites including Facebook, he said, reflect the fact that "cyberspace in China will continue to be governed by Chinese laws".
"All the moves we take are aimed at protecting our cybersecurity," proclaimed director Lu Wei. He made the remarks during a press conference attended by reporters from Bloomberg News and the British Broadcasting Corp, just two of the myriad Western media outfits whose websites are likewise blocked by the Great Firewall that encircles cyber-China.
But the strategies China uses to control cyberspace, including its digital barricades against Google, Facebook, YouTube and thousands of other websites, and its never-ending arrests of scholars and dissidents who post government critiques online, actually constitute one of the greatest attacks on internet freedom the world has ever seen, said William Nee, China researcher at Amnesty International.
In times past, the internet, and many of the international tech titans now represented at the Chinese summit, "have played a tremendous role in facilitating human rights and internet freedoms", he said.
Now, at the China-staged forum on the future of the Web, these leaders should call for the release of all citizens detained for promoting democracy online and put human rights on the agenda, said Nee.
Hong Kong threat
Since the launch of this year's democracy movement in Hong Kong, he said, more than 100 sympathizers across mainland China have been detained for airing their solidarity with the protesters online. Some have been charged with subversion.
These arrests represent just the latest stage in the crackdown on cyber-dissent that has grown with the explosive expansion of China's online populace.
China's best-known advocate of liberal, constitutional rule, Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, remains locked away in a Manchurian prison, convicted of inciting subversion for circulating his Charter 08 blueprint for a democratic China online.
Liu was initially arrested in the summer of 1989, after he attempted to negotiate with People's Liberation Army troops who had shot their way through Beijing and surrounded Tiananmen Square to allow student protesters safe passage out of the square.
The Amnesty researcher said even as China's rulers crush cyber-dissent internally, they are trying to promote their model of a controlled World Wide Web globally.
One of Beijing's strategies aimed at achieving stronger Web control involves a licensing system that requires foreign players in the Chinese market to be integrated into the censorship machinery.
Under this system, Western IT giants long blockaded outside the Great Firewall are pressured to sign agreements on blocking forbidden search terms such as "Tiananmen Square Massacre", deleting any criticisms of the communist system in blogs, and self-censoring any news reports that reflect negatively on the leadership.
Collaboration on the CCP's model of internet regulation is presented as the sole means to gain access to the market, and to have blocks on individual Western websites lifted, said a European Union legal scholar who has long focused on China's internet control system.
The leaders of Google reluctantly agreed to filter search results when they launched nearly a decade ago, but faced a series of clashes with their communist censorship overseers over demands for ever-greater control over the search engine. Google ultimately abandoned the attempt at collaboration, stating its $250 million in profits from the Chinese market were outweighed by the cost of participating in a system that crushed freedom of expression.
'Internet world order'
But Hosuk Lee-Makiyama, co-director of the European Centre for International Political Economy, said Western internet titans have an alternative to being linked into China's censorship apparatus or abandoning the Chinese market.
The legal scholar, a former advisor to the EU leadership on global trade issues, said China's internet licensing system violates World Trade Organization rules on open market access.
Comparing Beijing's Great Firewall to the heavily armed Berlin Wall, he said China's cyber-blocks on websites operated by the New York Times, the BBC, Google and Facebook likewise violate WTO mandates.
The Chinese government is trying to reshape the internet world order.
To end these blocks without forcing Western Web outfits to be incorporated into China's censorship apparatus, Lee-Makiyama said, the European Union and the US should join forces to challenge Beijing's digital barriers to free trade in the WTO.
This unified challenge, he added, could also aid in countering China's moves to expand its controls to widening swaths of the World Wide Web.
Human Right Watch's Wang said China's simultaneous moves to silence Web-based calls for democratic change and its hosting of the World Internet Conference are part of a wider scheme to guide the evolution of an increasingly controlled Web.
"The Chinese government," she said, "is trying to reshape the internet world order."
Nee said while negotiating any pacts to enter or expand in the Chinese market, American and European tech leaders should be careful to distance themselves from policies that mete out imprisonment to bloggers and new media stars who criticise some facet of socialist rule.
Western IT outfits that are integrated into the system of online controls in China, he added, might ultimately face scrutiny under American laws or UN mandates on corporate responsibility to protect human rights worldwide.