I started writing in Beijing cafés not so much inspired by Hemingway and the Paris literary crowd as by the harsh realities of information control in the Chinese capital.
When I tried to get my home computer online I went to China Telecom, where I was told to come back with my passport and a mountain of forms telling the authorities everything they needed to know to monitor my communications more efficiently. As a freelance writer without press credentials or a press visa in Beijing, handing them the keys to my electronic office didn’t seem like a good idea, so I shopped around for other services.
Journalists with official press credentials are generally required to live and work in designated buildings barred to ordinary citizens. Life in the “fishbowl” means putting up with agents of the state in the form of government interpreters, drivers, workers and cleaning ladies. Telephones, faxes and locally based e-mail accounts are easily monitored, and offices and rooms are sometimes bugged. The passive gaze of Big Brother is not necessarily obtrusive, but it can have a chilling effect on Chinese friends and contacts.
I soon discovered one could get online in Beijing by dialing a three-digit number advertised by some cheaply priced Internet Service Providers (ISP’s) without offering any identification at all. I could send and receive e-mail almost anonymously using my U.S.-based accounts, but service was spotty. Worse yet, logging on someone’s home phone leaves an electronic record, putting the entire onus on the owner of the phone.
The Internet café at the local university turned out to be a good place to work. A cheerful former lifeguard at the local swimming pool ran the café and, true to form, not much happened in the café that escaped his eagle eyes. He lived with his wife and son in the two-room aluminum shack—a safety measure to protect the 10 valuable computers and printer—nestled on the edge of a quiet tree-lined lane adjacent to the “Experimental Dining Hall.” He ran a clean ship and served a decent cup of coffee in a smoke-free environment, which made the sunny café nicer than a hotel business office at a fraction of the price, about a buck an hour. Police questioned the café manager from time to time, and on two occasions some fugitive dissidents looking for a safe house on campus were politely asked to leave. As comfortable as the university café was, I knew that some of my work, reporting on Falun Gong in particular, would have to be done elsewhere. Luckily for the freelance journalist, Beijing has hundreds of Internet cafés that compete with sleazy bars for dimness of lighting, thickness of cigarette smoke, and decibel blast of Chinese pop. In the more grungy down-market cafés, customers playing video games and boy-girl chat room users out-number Web surfers and those using e-mail by about 20 to one, so most of the activity is below the radar screen of the politically minded authorities.
Beijing bans some English news sites such as The New York Times and CNN, but I could find most of the research information I needed from the wire services and other online publications. Chinese language sites, including Yahoo! China and other big-time portals, are heavily censored for political content but useful to study as a barometer of how far American companies are willing to kowtow in order to compete in the China market. Small Beijing-based e-zines such as “Beijing Scene” and “ChinaNow” shy away from touchy political material in order to survive, perchance to thrive, but they are basically lifestyle Web sites run by and for expatriates. It is far more disappointing to observe that a big American gun such as Yahoo!, known for competent news coverage and hotlinks to The Associated Press, Reuters and other wire services, self-censors the Chinese-language version of its popular portal.
The advantage of sending e-mail from a randomly chosen Internet café with a free Internet e-mail service registered under a pseudonym is that one’s name and the name of one’s correspondents are not easily revealed during governmental investigations, electronic spot checks, and e-mail records. Articles intended for publication are less of a problem, just a zap of the email button will do, since they are for public consumption and will sooner or later be recorded by press monitors in Chinese embassies abroad.
China’s October 2000 crackdown on the Internet means it will be tougher to report from Internet cafés without someone facing the consequences. It has been ruled that content providers must to stick to the party line in posting content and, more ominously, ISP’s will have to police the content transmitted and viewed by customers or face fines and possible closure.
Despite the stringent new rules, the sheer volume of traffic on the Internet makes it a good conduit for news information, but individuals can be singled out. Selective monitoring puts at risk the freelancer or local informant who piques the attention of the public and state security services. Hotel business offices are usually monitored and probably best avoided. Sending encrypted e-mail and/or using anonymous free e-mail accounts at randomly chosen commercial cafés offers some protection to both sender and receiver.
The advantages of reporting from a café go beyond the virtue of anonymity. There is no laptop to lug around and no fear of its confiscation or abusive customs fees. I had to leave a deposit of $100 with customs officials at Beijing airport when my computer was discovered and examined during a spot check. Scott Savitt, editor of “Beijing Scene,” had all of his office computers confiscated during a crackdown on entertainment weeklies. Laptops are more secure than desktops, but it’s hard to beat having no computer at all when it comes to traveling light and unobtrusively. It’s handy to travel with a floppy disk for backup, though in a pinch sending an e-mail to yourself will do the job of saving and filing text.
Working in an Internet café can be cheaper than logging on with one’s own computer in places like Beijing and Bangkok, where the hourly rate (outside of big hotels) is less than a dollar an hour. The café strategy also works fine in Seoul, where Internet café culture has taken firm root, but it doesn’t work as well in Hong Kong despite free Internet kiosks in some cafés. Japan is by far the most expensive; logging on is costly and Internet cafés are few and far between.
This year I have filed dozens of stories by e-mail from cafés around Asia. Sometimes it’s bytes in, bytes out, such as when I post stories on The Freedom Forum’s International Web site, the Pacific News Service newswire, or zap an e-mail to a mass e-mail publication called Z-net. Other times it’s digital in, analog out, such as e-mailing pictures and stories to paper publications such as The Japan Times and The South China Morning Post.
None of this should lead one to conclude that hanging out in cafés makes a journalist’s life any easier. As I tap keys to compose this e-mail from a busy Internet café on Sukhumwit Road in Bangkok, a live band starts belting out pop tunes next door, and I’m starting to lose my concentration.
The author at an Internet café in Phuket town, southern Thailand.
Philip Cunningham, a 1998 Nieman Fellow, is a lecturer in the faculty of communication arts at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. He writes on Asian politics, culture and media issues. He is the author of “Reaching for the Sky,” a memoir about covering the Tiananmen student demonstrations for the BBC.