Internet Development, Censorship, and Cyber Crimes in China


Since its first Internet connection with the global computer network in 1994, China has witnessed explosive Internet development. By the end of 2008, China replaced the United States as the largest Internet user of the world. Although China enjoyed tremendous economic benefits from Internet development, the Chinese government has tried to maintain tight control over the telecommunications industry and the public Internet use, and fight increasing cyber crimes. In this article, we first review historical development of Internet use in China and then focus on China’s Internet censorship and its regulatory control. Next, we explore how the Internet is actively utilized by both the government and the public to serve political and civic functions. Finally, we discuss cyber crimes as an emergent form of crime in China and examine how the Chinese government reacts to these offenses. Lessons from Internet use and regulation in China are also discussed within the context of China’s economic, political, and legal conditions.


Internet, Internet censorship, Internet regulation, cyber crime, China

Introduction Internet use and development is one of the most important inventions in the second half of the 20th century. It has transformed people’s lives and its impact is beyond one’s imagination and is still to come in many aspects.

1Oklahoma State University-Tulsa 2University of Nevada, Las Vegas

Corresponding Author: Bin Liang, Associate Professor, Department of Sociology, Oklahoma State University–Tulsa, 700 North Greenwood Avenue, Main Hall, 2223, Tulsa, OK 74106 Email:

104 Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 26(1)

China’s Internet use and development did not begin until a decade later after its economic reforms. Its growth has outpaced other countries, and China by 2008 has the largest number of Internet users in the world. What accompanied China’s Internet development is the government’s tight control and regulation over Internet infrastruc- ture, its commercial and social use, and its potential political ramifications. Despite being criticized by human rights groups and activists, China’s Internet censorship system seemingly functions well as the “Great Firewall of China.”

On the other hand, there is high hope that Internet use and development in China will eventually lead to democracy in the largest country, testing the hypothesized rela- tionship between Internet use, free flow of information, and democracy. Indeed, the Internet has profoundly transformed the Chinese society in the last decade, even in China’s political-legal reforms. However, democracy is still as far-reaching as it once was and the role of the Internet in this reform has been constrained by the wider socio- political and economic context of China.

Like many other nations, China’s Internet use and development also witnessed surging cyber crimes, many in traditional forms but others as new phenomena. Unfor- tunately, this appears to be the least studied subject. Key questions such as the status of cyber crimes in China, the features of such crimes, and the government’s response to these crimes are rarely answered.

In this article, we briefly review the historical development of Internet use in China and its regulation. We also explore the issues of China’s democracy on Internet use, the political and civic functions of the Internet, and emergent forms of cyber crimes and the Chinese government’s response to them. These issues are all discussed within China’s wider social, economic, political, and legal conditions.

Internet Development: Beyond the Great Wall, Joining the World China’s Internet development has come a long way in a very short time (Wu, 1996). Though China initiated the economic reform and “open-door” policy in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the use and development of Internet did not appear until almost a decade later. In the late 1980s, China’s academia, with the support of foreign partners, began to explore Internet use. In September 1987, a symbolic message “Beyond the Great Wall, Joining the World (yueguo changcheng, zouxiang shijie)” was sent from China via email (Qiu, 2003). In 1994, China connected its first international dedicated line to the Internet and became the 71st country to register onto the global computer network and received CN as the highest level domain name (Lu et al., 2002; Taubman, 1998).

Similar to other countries, China’s early efforts at creating Internet networks were focused on the scholarly exchange of information. Its first networks reflected these interests, including the China Academic Network (CANET), China Research Network (CRNET), and the Institute of High Energy Physics (IHEP) Network (Harwit & Clark, 2001). Soon after, China began to realize the significance of computer information

Liang and Lu 105

technology in its economic development and encouraged fast development of Internet in commercial use to embrace the new information era. As a result, China witnessed tremendous expansion of Internet use.

China’s total estimate of Internet users was only a few thousands by the mid-1990s but grew exponentially afterwards. Based on annual survey data by the Chinese Inter- net Network Information Center (CNNIC), Internet uses in China reached 2 million in 1998, surpassed 100 million in 2005, and rose to 298 million by the end of 2008. China also replaced the United States as the largest Internet user of the world. Despite its uneven distribution across geographical regions (e.g., rural areas carry fewer users than urban areas), China’s Internet coverage of its total population (23% by 2008) already passed the world average coverage (22%) (CNNIC survey reports at http://; Dowell, 2006; Srikantaiah & Dong, 1998; Tan, 1999; Tai, 2006; Wang, 2002).

Along with the growth of Internet users, other indexes of Internet development are impressive as well. Since the official establishment of the CNNIC in 1997, the number of registered domain names increased from a little more than 4,000 in 1997 to 1.8 mil- lion in 2004 and reached nearly 17 million by 2008; the number of registered Web sites increased from less than 4,000 in 1997 to almost 3 million by 2008.

China’s Internet development has been bound to its overall economic development in general and the growth of its telecommunication industry in particular over the years. For example, in 1997, the numbers of fixed-line telephones and mobile phones were about 70 million and 13 million, respectively (annual data reported by the National Bureau of Statistics of China). By 2001, China surpassed the United States to become the world’s largest mobile telecom market and its total number of mobile phone users reached nearly 373 million by 2005 while the number of fixed-line tele- phone reached 342 million (Tai, 2006, p. 119). CNNIC (2008) estimated that more than 117 million Internet users accessed Internet via their mobile phones by 2008 and more than 90% of Internet users (270 million) had broadband Internet access.

In comparison to other nations (e.g., Abbott, 2001; Fan, 2005; Srikantaiah & Dong, 1998; Xue, 2005), the intervention and domination by the Chinese government has been the major distinctive feature of China’s Internet development. The Internet boom was made possible largely because of a “state-centric strategy for comprehensive informationization” (Hartford, 2000). This state-precipitated development of the Internet also ensured the state ownership and control of main Internet infrastructure and the use of Internet.

Internet Censorship and Regulation: The Great Firewall, Self-Censorship, and Multidimensional Regulations Given China’s single-party political system and its heavy intervention in Internet development, its Internet censorship and regulation has evolved into a comprehensive, multidimensional system that governs Internet infrastructure, commercial and social use as well as legal domains.

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The great firewall. The predominant method of control at the infrastructure level is restriction of access to Internet information (e.g., regulating access and content, moni- toring Internet use). At the national level, only government-approved agencies and businesses are permitted to establish an Internet Interconnecting Network (also called “backbone network” or gugan wangluo in Chinese) and to license the operation of Internet service providers at the next tier. These networks are required to go through international gateways located in Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou and are subject to governmental control and regulation (see, for example, Cheung, 2006; Fan, 2005; Perritt & Clarke, 1998; Tan, 1999). At the next tier, all private Internet service provid- ers are licensed through one of these Internet Interconnecting Networks and are required to install filters to block away undesirable content. The bottom tier involves Internet users who are required to register with Internet service providers to gain Inter- net access.

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