Information Warfare: September 16, 2000

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Electronic Guerillas; China entered the 21st century nervous about technology. New things tend to produce change the government cannot control. For centuries, China solved that problem by successfully outlawing potentially troublesome technologies. This may seem odd to us, but it has worked in China many times, and Chinese leaders see nothing implausible about this approach. And they have made it work. The internet, fax and cell phones were thought to be mighty weapons in the hands of democracy advocates in China. Didn't work out that way. There are no magic bullets. The Chinese communists have been running a police state for over half a century and still, despite all the economic reforms, control key communications companies. So the Chinese censor the Internet and monitor use. Same with cell phones and faxes. These efforts are not completely effective. But they don't have to be. If dissidents or criminals know that there's always a chance they can get overheard, there is a little fear. A little fear goes a long way.

The Chinese cyberpolice have driven much free expression underground and created a generation of electronic guerillas. Email, faxes and cell phones get around this somewhat by using code words. Web sites containing forbidden information are set up outside China. When the cyberpolice find out about it and block it, the site is moved and the coded messages go out to let everyone know where the new location is. Internet users within China have to be careful. It's illegal to use encryption. Get caught and you have a close encounter with the secret police. Cell phone systems are set up so that the location of users can be quickly found. If you are one of the usual suspects, you have to use your cell phone carefully. Constantly getting new ones can get expensive, and can also alert the police. Fax usage can be traced to a specific phone line. 

But there is wireless gadget the cyberpolice do have a real hard time with. Pagers. This was the first form of wireless communication introduced into China and it remains very popular. It's much cheaper than cell phones and the Chinese early on worked out codes so that they could perform pretty complex communications with simple two way, or one way, pagers. There are currently some 1,500 pager systems in China, with 52,000 base stations and over a hundred million users (compared to 60 million cell phone users, 12 million internet users and 130 million regular phone users.). Policing the pagers is difficult because there are so many separate companies providing the service, and so many codes. Thus it is, for all practical purposes, impossible to capture all, or even most, of the messages. Even if that were done, sorting out which messages said "pick up some snow peas on your way home from work" from those that mean "the demonstration will be at 1 PM tomorrow" would be beyond current technology. So Chinese freely use their pagers to communicate without Big Brother ease dropping. It's with pagers that Falungong has been able to maintain its organization and the ability to continue mounting demonstrations. The downside is that criminal organizations also use the pagers, complicating police work. 

Yet the police do come off with one unique advantage. China's cybercops are the most expert and experienced in the world when it comes to messing with and monitoring the internet and wireless communications. This has implications beyond the needs of running a police state in the internet age. It gives you an edge beyond your borders. Working as a hacker for the police is seen as a prestigious job in China. The government has been playing up nationalism for the last ten years and this has been well received by the younger folks. The propaganda stresses China's remarkable recovery from a century of calamities and the need for other nations to show China proper respect. The usual drill, and the same sort of nationalism that got World War I and II started. The communist politicians running China are playing with fire, but it works. So the hackers eagerly sign up to serve the fatherland. Remarkably, few have been "polluted" by Western ideas. Democracy is an alien concept in China, and few people see much need for it. All they want the government to do is leave them alone so they can get rich. 

The government's biggest problem, however, is corruption, not dissidents. But the grpwing corruption, especially among members of the ruling communist party, makes unregulated communications among citizens a source of unwanted political change. 20th century media developments changed everything. Electronic media, especially radio, made a largely illiterate population more aware of the world beyond their villages. The spread of television in the last twenty years only intensified this. Then came the pagers, cell phones and internet in the 1980s and 90s. This was, for a totalitarian government, a truly scary development. Centrally controlled media like radio and TV made running a police state easier. You could tightly control the message. Even telephones can be controlled by limiting who has them and letting everyone know what a phone tap is. Pagers and cell phones were mobile, and thus more dangerous. The internet was worse, for it allowed access to the outside world. Worst of all, there was no historical experience of how to deal with these new technologies. The communists rule much the same way the emperors did for thousands of years before them. Although the Chinese now have the most formidable ability on the planet to deal with pagers, cell phones and the internet, they know this may not be enough. This capability will probably prove more useful as a weapon against foreign enemies. Taiwan and the United States have already gotten an unpleasant test of what the Chinese government hackers can do. Meanwhile, the grassroots hackers in China move in ways no one can predict. If China spins out of control, you can be sure pagers and cell phones are at the root of it.

 


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