A Day In The Life Of A Chinese Internet Police Officer

Here is a myth: there are 30,000 Internet police in China who sit around all day looking for harmful information.  30,000 is a big number, since it could fill a soccer stadium.  But with respect to 100 million Internet users, 30,000 is woefully inadequate to patrol all possible Internet content material (that is, one Internet police officer has to keep an eye on 3,333 users at the same time, or less than 10 seconds per user per day).  

In any case, one has to ask just how well trained these 30,000 Internet police are.  A fair bet is that when they come across a website with pictures of naked people, they will take action.  But if they come across a copy of Anti's blog post (see Comment 200601#029) or the scholarly article History Textbooks in China, they would not have a clue what to think.

In the scheme of things, I don't think these 30,000 Internet police form the front line.  Rather, it is the Internet unit administrators (such as BBS forum masters) who do the active work because they have domain knowledge.  The Internet police are only there to catch the periodic leak so as to hold the Internet unit adminstrators accountable for negligence and/or sabotage.  If you are a vigilant forum master that has everything under control (e.g. wiping every mention of Beijing News immediately), then you will rarely come into contact with the Internet police; if you are a progressive forum master, you will get phone calls every day and eventually you will be dismissed and your website may even be disappeared like the Yannan forum.  That is why it was no surprise that nothing was found on this day by the reporter who played Internet police.

Postscript:  Oh, by the way, they obviously don't read overseas English-language blogs ...

(Wenxue City)  Let Us See What The Chinese Internet Police Do Each Day

[in translation]

Following the development of science and technology, the Internet has become a major tool for communication and information.  At the same time, Internet crime has followed.

Due to the special nature of the crimes, the Internet police needs to have computer-related professional knowledge and they must have experience dealing with Internet crimes.  They may not have the experience of having to physically arrest someone, and they look like intellectuals at a scientific research institute, but their heads are filled with leading-edge technology and they know all about computers and networks.

The principal work of the Internet police is to look around the Internet to catch criminals.  They monitor the Internet bars, they look for pornographic, reactionary and other harmful material on the Internet and they solve Internet crimes based upon the clues.

There was not the excitement of making arrests, there was no hardship in solving cases, there was no need to carry guns and most of the time, they are in plain clothes looking like intellectuals at scientific research institutes.  But their job skills are no less than the crime investigating police officers.

This reporter was elated for a few days about the opportunity of working with the Internet police.  It was going to be a vacation looking for harmful information on the Internet compared to gathering news out in the field!

Before the reporter started to work, the Xicheng Public Security Bureau Internet Safety Monitoring Center deputy director Ma Xiaoting told the reporter that supervising the Internet bars is an important duty of the Internet police.  Apart from making surprise inspections periodically in conjunction with other departments, the Internet police watches over the Internet bars through the front-end filtering connections at the locations.  During the process of searching the information, if they find harmful information, they will notify the relevant departments to prevent and deter crimes ...

Before Ma Xiaoting had even finished, the reporter was already beginning the day's work.  For starters, the reporter launched a piece of software called "Network Detective" and found a list of Internet bar names.  The reporter selected one site at random, and was immediately looking at the records of all the people who were on the Internet at the time.  If there is an under-aged person, the interactive box at the bottom will indicate it.  The Internet police will contact the Internet bar immediately or notify the appropriate department to check.

So that was how the morning passed by.  A site was selected and checked; then another site was selected and checked but the warning box at the bottom of the screen never showed anything.

In order to be able to bring back some "work results" to the newspaper office, the reporter returned in the afternoon to look at web pages for harmful information.

This was easy because it was just like surfing the Internet, right?  Under Ma Xiaoting's guidance, the reporter opened the page and followed the specified rules to look at all the items on the page.  If there are no problems, then the reporter moved to the next page.  For several hours, it was opening pages, looking at them, closing them, repeatedly again and again for goodness knows how many times.

The reporter kept hoping to find some problems during the work.  In the end, the reporter felt that the letters on the computer monitor screen were dancing in the eyes and could not be seen clearly.  Still, no problems had been found.  Ma Xiaoting told the reporter that the Internet police search for harmful information at least four hours a day.  She comforted the reporter: "Usually, we don't find anything all day.  If we find problems every day, then the crime level on the Internet is too much."  When the reporter thought about it, it seemed clear that the reporter's actual work experience would bring no real results.


Originally, the reporter thought that Internet police work was relaxed and simple.  It was just like searching for information on the Internet, and there may be some interesting stuff occasionally!  After this experience, the reporter realized how boring and unexciting their work was.  The reporter began to wonder: How can this experience be considered "fun-filled"?

The hostess Ma Xiaoting obviously knew why the reporter was there.  Upon meeting, she quickly presented the major daily duties: searching for harmful information on the Internet, reviewing and supervising Internet units, supervising all the Internet bars in the district, monitoring the Internet bars through closed-circuit television, training Internet unit administrators ...

The reporter began at first with enthusiasm.  After a while, staring at the computer monitor got annoying.  But when the reporter looked at Ma Xiaoting by the side, a woman about the same age who was so highly attentive, the reporter could sense that she was enjoying the happiness in her work.

After a few hours without finding any harmful information, the reporter had tears in the eyes (caused by staring at the computer monitor screen for a long period of time), and the reporter began to curse the editor for assigning this tough assignment.

When Ma Xiaoting saw the angry look, she quickly offered comfort that sometimes nothing happens for a few days in a row.  When the reporter heard that, it felt better.

(The Guardian)  Pirates and bloggers beat China's great wall of propaganda.  By Jonathan Watts.  February 14, 2006.

Considering that each copy of Memoirs of a Geisha found in China breaks at least two laws and defies the will of communist censors, you might think that DVDs of the banned film would have to be sold under the counter.

There is nothing secretive, however, about the pirated display of this diplomatically controversial movie. It is flying off the shelves and into millions of homes for less than £1 a copy - the latest evidence that the market rather than the authorities often controls the flow of information in China.

Pirate DVD shops might not normally be considered outposts of free expression, but they are among the many gaps in the great wall of propaganda, which is being breached by a motley crew of bloggers, copyright dodgers and curious consumers.

Following Google's decision last month to censor search results in China, much has been written about the country's restrictions on "socially unhealthy" content and its sophisticated control techniques. Yet, government censors have told the Guardian they are no longer capable of blocking all sensitive information, so they must work harder to guide its course and respond to public opinion, particularly via the internet.

Memoirs of a Geisha is a case in point. Earlier this month, the government denied approval for the release of the Hollywood epic, citing "the current political situation". Officials feared that the film - in which the Chinese actress, Zhang Ziyi, plays the part of a Japanese geisha whose virginity is put up for sale in the 1930s - would become a focus of public anger towards Japan. The ban is thought to have been largely influenced by an online outcry. Many bloggers called Zhang a whore and a traitor.

"She is the most shameless Chinese woman in the world. I wonder whether she ever thought about the pain brought by the Sino-Japanese war," wrote one of the least offensive web critics.

But government censorship has only served to boost the pirate DVD business.

At a popular DVD shop in north-west Beijing, staff say they sell 60 copies of Memoirs every day, making it one of their top two moneymakers (along with Brokeback Mountain, which has also yet to win approval for release in China).

"I guess about 70% of the stuff we have is pirated," said a sales assistant. "The police come from time to time and we close until they've gone. But they come back in private and ask us to give them free DVDs. Then we open again."

Prohibited material

The motivation is purely business, but the effect is partly political. Much of the material for sale is officially prohibited because it contradicts the government line. Among many banned items on sale is Seven Years in Tibet, in which Brad Pitt plays a character sympathetic to the Dalai Lama; Devils at the Doorstep, a film about Japanese troops in a Chinese village that won the 2000 Grand Jury prize at Cannes; and Stanley Kwan's Lan Yu, set around the 1989 Tiananmen Square democracy movement.

"Censorship isn't all bad because it stimulates demand and promotes the development of the piracy business," said one radical blogger, Muzimei, whose name was once among the list of banned words on the internet, despite being used commercially to sell everything from underwear to cockroach killers. "Forbidden things are always attractive. The politicians at the top introduce policies. The people at the bottom find a way around them."

Missed royalties

This applies not only to the film business. One of the bestselling books of the past few years is A Survey of Chinese Peasants, a searing exposť of the plight of China's vast rural population. The official version was banned in 2004, but at least 30 pirate versions have been published. The authors, Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao, estimate they have missed out on royalties for 8m copies.

Such is the hunger for information and debate on the web that news providers and commentators find ways to circumvent restrictions on sensitive material. Companies such as Microsoft help the authorities block sensitive words, but bloggers and forum commentators quickly introduce slang terms to get around these walls. Some use initials, others mix English and Chinese, still more add a space or exclamation mark in the middle of a sensitive word. "When the government bans something, it just makes me want to know more about it," said the blogger, Laoyang.

There are many restrictions on online chat. Controversial blogs are shut down, and chatroom moderators kick out participants who post comments likely to antagonise the Communist party.

But no restriction is entirely effective. Despite Google's self-censorship, a search for "Tiananmen Square" on its China-based search engine produces several articles and pictures of the 1989 protests on the first page of results. Part of the challenge for the authorities is volume. The number of internet users in China has surged from 620,000 in 1997 to 110 million. It is estimated that there are between 5m and 10m blogs. Censors say they have had to change tactics.

"It is becoming more difficult to block and monitor web traffic so we need to switch to guidance," said an official responsible for internet surveillance. "Strict management didn't work. It is like trying to control a flood. Guiding is more effective than blocking."

Even with an estimated 30,000 internet police, he said it was difficult to monitor bulletin boards. "The technology hasn't reached a level that will allow us to control them. And we must also consider the trend of democratisation, which cannot be stopped," he said. "China is very big. If you want to control such a large country, mere politics is not enough. You must control minds. You need to win the battle for ideas."

In this battle, Memoirs of a Geisha is a mere skirmish. Further clashes can be expected between censors and pirates, propaganda officials and bloggers, the government and the market.

At a glance


Some 95%of all DVDs sold in China are pirated, costing the film industry $280m (£160m), according to the Motion Picture Association of America. Pirate DVDs typically sell for less than £1 and you can try them out in the shop before you buy them. Most go on sale within days of general release in America.


Customs officials estimate that 67% of the fake goods seized at US and European borders originated in China, despite Beijing's seizure of 500m pirate discs in the past five years.


Computer stores in Beijing offer to install a pirate version of Microsoft software for less than £1. The US patent office estimates that more than 90% of all intellectual property sold in China is fake.


More than 45% of Chinese internet users download music on a daily basis, and 37% frequently download movies, according to the China Internet Network Information Centre. The vast majority pay nothing.


Four out of five copies of Chinese bestselling books are fake, according to the Beijing Book Distribution Research Institute. Pirated versions of My Life - the memoirs of former US president Bill Clinton - went on sale before the original and sold for 18 yuan (£1.30), 60% less than its full price in shops.

(New York Times)  In Rare Briefing, China Defends Internet Controls.  By Joseph Kahn.  February 14, 2006.

Chinese authorities are determined to stop "harmful information" from spreading through the Internet, but the controls it places on Web sites and Internet service providers in mainland China do not differ much from those employed by the United States and European countries, a senior Chinese official responsible for managing the Internet said today.

The official, Liu Zhengrong, who supervises Internet affairs for the information office of the Chinese State Council, or cabinet, did not dispute charges that China operates a technologically sophisticated firewall to protect the ruling Communist Party against what it treats as Web-based challenges from people inside China and abroad.  But he sought to place the massive Chinese efforts to control the Web in the best possible light, stressing repeatedly that Chinese Internet minders abide strictly by laws and regulations that in some cases have been modeled on American and European statutes.

"If you study the main international practices in this regard you will find that China is basically in compliance with the international norm," he said. "The main purposes and methods of implementing our laws are basically the same."

The briefing was one of the few times any senior official has spoken in detail about China's management of the Internet. Officials assigned to enforce the government's media controls operate behind closed doors and rarely make public statements about their work.  The Internet policies of China have come under closer scrutiny abroad after Google and Microsoft acknowledged helping China censor information available through Web searches and blogs, and Yahoo has been accused of providing data that helped convict dissidents who used its e-mail accounts.

Mr. Liu said the major thrust of the Chinese effort to regulate content on the Web was aimed at preventing the spread of pornography or other content harmful to teenagers and children. He said that its concerns in this area differ minimally from those in developed countries.

Human rights and media watchdog groups maintain that Chinese Web censorship puts greater emphasis on helping the ruling party maintain political control over its increasingly restive society. Such groups have demonstrated that many hundreds of Web sites cannot be easily accessed inside mainland China mainly because they are operated by governments, religious groups or political organizations that are critical of Chinese government policies or its political leaders.

Mr. Liu said that Chinese Internet users have free rein to discuss many politically sensitive topics and rejected charges that the police have arrested or prosecuted people for using the Internet to circulate views.

Human rights groups argue, and Chinese court documents show, however, that legal authorities have cited e-mail communications and postings on domestic and foreign Web sites as evidence against Chinese dissidents accused of "incitement to overthrow the state" and "leaking state secrets."

Mr. Liu objected to what he suggested were biased criticisms of Chinese Internet controls that ignored similar restrictions that foreign governments and private companies impose on their own Web sites.  He cited, for example, statements on Web sites run by The New York Times and The Washington Post that reserve the right to delete or block content in reader discussion groups that editors determine to be illegal, harmful or in bad taste. Chinese media Web sites are also monitored in that way, he said.  "Major U.S. companies do this and it is regarded as normal," Mr. Liu said. "So why should China not be entitled to do so?"

Journalists and Web site operators in China say that domestic news and discussion sites must ban a long list of topics deemed off limits by party officials or face penalties. Such controls appear to have only superficial similarities to attempts by private companies in the United States and Europe to monitor content on Web sites they operate.

Mr. Liu also said the powers that the Bush administrations gained under the Patriot Act to monitor Web sites and e-mail communications and the deployment of technology called Carnival by the F.B.I., which allows it to scrutinize huge volumes of e-mail traffic, are examples of how the United States has taken legal steps to guard against the spread of "harmful information" online.

"It is clear that any country's legal authorities closely monitor the spread of illegal information," he said. "We have noted that the U.S. is doing a good job on this front."

The Bush administration has maintained that its efforts to monitor online communications pertain mainly to preventing terrorist attacks.

Mr. Liu said there are now 111 million Chinese Web users and that in the past five years, China has expanded the bandwidth available to connect with overseas Web sites nearly 50-fold to 136,000 megabits per second, underscoring its strong commitment to allow its citizens to gather information and interact with people around the world.  The number of Web sites that mainland Chinese users cannot access amounts to a "tiny percentage" of those available abroad, he said.'

(FT.com)  China's virtual cops pinpoint web dissent.  By Mure Dickie.  February 18, 2006.

With their big blue blinking eyes and their quirky personal websites, there is no denying the cuteness of the cartoon cops at the front line of China's battle for control of the internet.  But the role played by Jingjing and Chacha, the animated online icons recently introduced by police in the southern Chinese boomtown of Shenzhen, is entirely serious.

The cartoon couple patrol the city's news and discussion websites to scare off anyone who might be tempted to use online anonymity to break China's laws, says Chen Minli, director of the Shenzhen City Public Security Bureau's Internet Surveillance Centre.  "Now internet users know the police are watching them," Ms Chen says in an interview at the Bureau's gleaming new 28-storey building in central Shenzhen.

Such official online oversight is highly controversial elsewhere. Human rights activists fiercely condemn the efforts of China's ruling Communist party to stifle online political debate.  In recent weeks, moves by Yahoo, Microsoft and Google to bow to varying degrees to Beijing's party censors have exposed them to fierce criticism from both customers and members of the US Congress.  But the no-nonsense Ms Chen and her comrades in the Surveillance Centre are proud of the online enforcement role played by Jingjing and Chacha (whose names are made up of the Chinese characters for "police").

"All around the world there are internet police, but they always operate backstage. . . No other internet police have stepped to the front of the stage," she says. "We really feel that this is a historic breakthrough."

Jingjing and Chacha operate by appearing as clickable adverts on local websites and as virtual users of the hugely popular QQ instant messaging system operated by Nasdaq-listed Tencent.

In a demonstration at the Surveillance Centre, part of an internet division that has seen its staff more than double to 100 in less than a year, officer Xu Qian shows how the Jingjing icon keeps pace whenever a user of a local discussion website scrolls down a page.  "He is just like a policeman, interactively moving along with you. Wherever you go, he is watching you," Mr Xu says.

By clicking on the icons, users can report crimes or learn about the rules on online conduct. Jingjing and Chacha also have their own websites with a selection of music including the "Song of the People's Police".

Ms Chen, a police technology veteran, says inspiration for the personal sites came from her 15-year-old daughter who keeps her up to date on new internet possibilities.  But deterrence remains the main goal for Jingjing and Chacha, who are just part of a huge system of government internet control that includes blocks on thousands of websites and sophisticated content filters.

Ms Chen says the mere appearance of the icons makes users think twice before posting sensitive messages. When Jingjing and Chacha arrived on local websites, the number of postings that had to be filtered out because of suspect content fell more than 60 per cent.  When the pair send warning messages to websites under investigation for alleged fraud, the sites' operators often immediately shut them down, she says.

China's internet laws do not stop at such crimes. Users are also barred from a range of offences including the posting or even consultation of content judged to challenge the political order, incite secession, promote "feudal superstition" or harm the "honour of national institutions".  Such laws have been used to jail people who peacefully question the Communist party, and they lie at the heart of debate overseas over the role international internet companies should play in China.

Ms Chen says since their official online launch in January, Jingjing and Chacha have not played any role in such cases. She has little time for suggestions that China controls the internet too tightly.

Only one in 50 internet users wants to break the law, and they are the only ones to complain about a lack of liberty, she insists, the web is "completely free" for those who stay within the "legal framework".  Indeed, Ms Chen suggests US officials might want to consider adopting their own Jingjings or Chachas to police Google services following the US company's refusal to share information about its searches with the government.

In any case, she says, overseas critics should not judge China by their standards.  "In my family, if my child does not lay her chopsticks down properly, then I will smack her, but maybe in your family you are too relaxed about such things," Ms Chen says. "Each family has its own rules and countries are the same."

Related Link: A recruitment ad for virtual cops  Joel Martinsen, Danwei.  May 22, 2007.