Dispelling the myth of China’s 30,000 Internet Police

25 03 2007

By James Nicholas Tay, March 25 2007

Let’s set the record straight. 30,000 Chinese Internet police? wow, really? That’s a big number, and a magically manufactured one.

What started out as rumour with Ethan Gutmann’s article in The Weekly Standard 15 february 2002, turned into “reportedly” 12 days later in an Amnesty International report. By August, and November “reportedly” had been dropped by U.S. newspapers such as the L.A. Times and Washingtion Post, and there you have it, rumour was no longer rumour, and reportedly was no longer reportedly. The rumours and reportedly had magically “like a caterpillar transforms into a butterfly”, turned into fact.

And that is the problem which continues till today with the BBC only last week continuing this myth. Furthermore, the ‘resourceful’ writers at The New York Times on March 4, 2005 have thought it necessary to increase and inflate the figure to 50,000 taking into account the rise of Internet users in China.

Many reporters and publications continue to repeatedly cite and reference the 30,000 number even though this has already been proven false by Nart Villeneuve and Ben Walker. In addition according to Nart Villeneuve EastSouthWestNorth, makes an interesting point that is: “Media reports seem to merge together the self-censorship practices by forums, portals, blog hosting companies and so forth with the Internet police.”

That said, I am not disputing the fact that there are Internet police in China. It is the exaggerated ‘magical’ 30,000 number that I take issue with. On the contrary, they do exist, and are active. They operate their own websites and often engage in law enforcement duties such as detaining suspects and shutting down their websites. They also reportedly, although it is safe to accept as true, often investigate, detain, and arrest dissidents.

In addition, they allow the public to submit reports (reportedly through SMS) against people who according to Nart Villeneuve “want to split the nation, or attack the party and the government, and people with “wrong doctrines opinion”/ falungong. (babelfish).” It is safe to deduce that the mandate of the Chinese Internet police is to investigate reports of people who criticize the government and members of Falun Gong.

I am not saying that Chinese Internet police do not exist. As I have shown above they do, rather it is the inflated, and exaggerated ‘magical’ 30,000 number that I have a problem with. It is clearly untrue, yet is constantly bandied around by the media. Reporting rumour as fact is definitely not helping the issue of Internet censorship in China which is bad enough as it is. Instead, it is contributing and negatively re-inforcing a climate of self-censorship in China. A climate that is detrimental to the cause of a free press in China, a cause in which many reporters and publications champion yet are slowing down with their “magical” 30,000 Internet police.




2 responses

5 04 2007

g’day jt-
reporting rumor as fact, in this day and age? NEVER!

our little group has had quite the many convo’s of the inaccuracy of mainstream media, and how public faith remains. we (the collective, universal we) laugh at trusting the online culture, but alternatives to the commodified myths are popping up all around.

do you find a sense of irony in misrepresenting information about media censorship? i certainly do.

as for china, i have read/heard that they are cracking down on users in internet cafes. the “point” (from what i understand) is to limit the use of computers for gaming. now it’s only a silly (and personal) theory, but we’ve got the informational/educational tool of a lifetime here. it’s sort of like if tv had remained as a social tool, not just a capitalist one.

but then again, the control in china is probably for different reasons.

sorry for the ramblings.

and thanks for the visiting our site. we in this together?

love and light,

16 04 2007
Ethan Gutmann

Hmm. I know it shouldn’t be amusing, but….well, here’s what I actually said:

“…for the first four years of the Net era, those with paranoid visions of China’s government were never quite able to square their suspicions with the rapid expansion of the Chinese Internet. Although it was widely rumored in Beijing that up to 30,000 state security employees were monitoring the Internet in that city alone, the monitoring was also laughed at. Apparently the bureaucrats liked monitoring pornography so much that they had a massive backlog. State security was said to be lax, corrupt, full of holes.”

That’s pretty similar to what I wrote in my (more definitive) book, “Losing the New China” as well.

It was, in fact, “widely rumoured” in Beijing – but because none of those sources – high-profile figures in the IT industry in the main – could back up the number, I reported it as a rumour, nothing more.

I personally think that the actual number is significantly HIGHER than that by now – I mean, labor is awfully cheap in China. But it’s just an educated guess. I have never gone beyond that original statement because I don’t think there is any compelling evidence to do so.

So I have no apologies – however, one does wonder why all these venerable news/human rights organizations keep repeating that number as fact, rather than rumour. Or perhaps they know something I don’t?

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