The largest online community in the world suffers under a heavy hand.
China has more people online than any other country. But its rulers are also world-class obstructors of the Internet, a practice sure to be under scrutiny during the Olympic Games, when foreigners used to Web freedom will visit Beijing.
How China treats the foreign press during the Games, and especially how it treats Chinese who help them, will be one story. But the big, ongoing story is how the government keeps access to the Internet under tight control and uses it to violate human rights.
Because of restrictions agreed to by American search engine companies – Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft – Chinese citizens can see only a portion of the Web visible elsewhere in the world. The censorship is aimed at topics that the government regards as threatening to its authoritarian rule.
The government also snoops on dissidents who use the Internet. It has imprisoned at least 49 "cyber-dissidents" for promoting democracy and freedom of expression online, says the group Reporters Without Borders. In a 2005 case, Yahoo China provided the government with information about the e-mail account of Chinese journalist Shi Tao. It led to his arrest and a 10-year jail term. Yahoo later apologized and has since sold a majority stake in Yahoo China to a Chinese firm.
Google and the other Internet companies fear losing access to the huge Chinese market if they don't bend to the government. In actions that must make the censors smile, they are blocking more of the Web than they need to, according to a study last month from the University of Toronto's Open Net Initiative.