30,000 Internet Police in China Myth, Please Not Again!

UPDATED (28 Mar 07)


Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on building what is known as the Great Firewall Of China – a network of state-licensed internet access providers, and around 30,000 internet police censors who filter sites between China and the rest of the world.

Nearly two years after the “30,000” myth was exposed it is still being repeated by reputable news media.

I searched LexisNexis (and Googled) and collected articles that discussed Internet police in China and those that specifically stated the magic 30,000 number. The earliest reference I can find (if you have an earlier one, please send it to me) is an Ethan Gutmann article in The Weekly Standard 02/15/2002

Although it was widely rumored in Beijing that up to 30,000 state security employees were monitoring the Internet in that city alone, the monitoring was also laughed at.

Note that it states it is a rumor and that it was in Beijing, not all of China. Following that, on the 27th of February 2002, Amnesty International releases a report which states:

30,000 state security personnel are reportedly monitoring websites, chat rooms and private e-mail messages.

Rumored has turned in to reportedly, but at least there is a qualifier. But by the 25th of August 2002 the LA Times dropped the modifier:

More than 30,000 state security employees are currently conducting surveillance of Web sites, chat rooms and private e-mail messages–including those sent from home computers.

On November 7, 2002 the Washinton Post decides to leave out the “rumored” and “laughed at” part:

But Beijing, with 30,000 “Internet police,” has acted swiftly to clamp down on dissent through the ethers.

And so it begins. Rumor turned into fact. Some publications have and continue to include references to “rumored” or “estimated” along with the 30,000 figure. (An interesting sidenote is that publications continue to reference 30,000 (no change since 2002) despite a huge rise in China’s number of Internet users). However, the New York times has upped the number to 50,000 and dropped all qualifiers:

Stern instructions like those are in keeping with a trend aimed at assigning greater responsibility to Internet providers to assist the government and its army of as many as 50,000 Internet police, who enforce limits on what can be seen and said. — New York Times, March 4, 2005

I guess there were some massive firing because in 2006 the number was back down to 30,000. This time however, USA Today claims that China Internet Network Information Center is the source of the number (I cannot find it on their website, email me if you can). But the part that gets me is the “shadowy force” — so shadowy that they have their own websites? Why yes, try www.cyberpolice.cn or any of the numerous local sites.

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…” — The Guardian February 14, 2006

China has roughly 30,000 Internet police who use Internet Detective and other tools to monitor Web users, according to the China Internet Network Information Center, an arm of China’s Ministry of Information Industry. Officials at the Ministry of Public Security declined interview requests for details of this shadowy force. — USA Today 4/3/2006

This is an analysis from EastSouthWestNorth:

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 …

EastSouthWestNorth touches on a very interesting point. Media reports seem to merge together the self-censorship practices by forums, portals, blog hosting companies and so forth with the Internet police.

An old article in The Guardian I missed earlier does discuss this issue:

Better still is scaring users into censoring themselves. No one I spoke to could tell me where the figure of 30,000 internet policemen originated. But researchers pointed out that it was in Beijing’s interests to persuade its citizens that Big Brother lurks in every cafe. Similarly, arrest a few people and you frighten many more into compliance.

There are Internet police in China, they have websites, lots of them. They engage in law enforcement duties. They also investigate websites. It is also, in my view, safe to assume that they investigate and arrest dissidents. In fact the Beijing cyberpolice accept reports (appears to be via SMS) from the public against persons who want to split the nation, or attack the party and the government, and people with “wrong doctrines opinion”/ falungong. (babelfish). Seems quite clear to me that the cyber police’s mandate is to investigate reports of people who criticize the government or belong to falun gong — it is right in their incident report form.

However, its the manufactured number and the near godlike capabilities assigned to China’s Internet police and filtering/monitoring technology in most news reports that infuriates me. There is definitely a lot going on in this area in China, there is a lot left to investigate. However, reporting rumor as fact is not the way to go about this. It doesn’t help people better understand what is really going on in China, but it does re-enforce a climate of self-censorship in China.

Please, stop repeating the “30,000” myth.


  1. […] Zahl der 30′000 chinesischen Internetpolizisten wohl kommt, und kommt zu folgendem Ergebnis: 30,000 Internet Police in China Myth, Please Not Again! Nearly two years after the “30,000″ myth was exposed it is still being repeated by reputable […]

  2. obviously it’s Western propaganda against China. It leaves people the impression that there were no any internet policing in Western coutries. what a pity: it’s not true. I live in US now. I am hunderd percent sure that US’ government monitors internet.in another word, it’s policing the internet

  3. So have you ever bothered to send an email or letter to the original author for a source?

    And checking out the NYPD’s traffic division, they seem to have about the same ratio of police to NYC traffic as ESWN mentions and somehow this functions reasonably well, even without all of the extra automation provided by computers scanning internet traffic and probably providing automated reports to the CCP cyber police.

    As for ESWN’s fair bet about cyber police training, how do you know it’s a fair bet? Why is scanning a blog post for the list of forbidden words and forbidden topics somehow harder than making a judgement whether a nude is artistic or pornographic? To paraphrase Groucho, you say the secret word, you win a blog post deletion.

    And why are the forums’/b-boards’/bloghosts’ policies self-censorship? Aren’t they (at least the majors) handed lists of the forbidden topics and words every day? At that point it isn’t self-censorship, the system admins just become surrogates of the cyberpolice.

  4. Interesting. Right before I left for China, a columnist at my old paper pulled me aside to warn me about the 30,000 net censors at work day and night. I recall him saying, “That’s six times the size of the NSA,” or something like that. Interesting how it’s spread.

    I know of a few English-language blogs, not including those on free hosts, that are blocked here. Any idea what could trigger it?

  5. Tom, I have not emailed the original source because there is no need. Everything is quite clear from Gutmann’s original piece:

    Although it was widely rumored in Beijing that up to 30,000 state security employees were monitoring the Internet in that city alone, the monitoring was also laughed at.

    The “30,000” was both “rumored” and “laughed at”.

  6. Richard, I don’t think its “western propaganda” but rather poor fact checking.

  7. […] (further) its already strict on-line content controls (note this article ups the standard “30,000 Internet police figure” – inflation?).  China is perhaps the world’s most adept on-line censor; now, […]

  8. The “30,000″ was both “rumored” and “laughed at”.

    No. Basic reading comprehension!

    the monitoring was also laughed at.

    MONITORING was laughed at. Not the number. *geesh*

    As for the number, you’ve admitted you don’t know what the number is. How can you prove something is a myth, when you have no facts disputing the rumour and admit that you’ve done nothing in pursuit of those facts?

    I’d agree there is a need to go back and check on the sourcing and check the numbers (if the cyber police weren’t murky but transparent, that would be a matter of a simple press inquiry), but you’ve proven NOTHING, since you have no proof contradicting the rumours.

  9. “you have no proof contradicting the rumours.”

    The word here is “RUMOURS” — when articles say there is a “RUMOUR” of 30,000 internet police then fine that is reporting the fact that there is a rumour, the reader can take or leave it but to exclude the “RUMOUR” gives the impression that the number 30,000 is fact when the only thing that is fact is there is a RUMOUR.

    What I’ve shown is that Ethan Gutmann heard a rumour in 2002 this rumour is now being reported not as a rumour but as fact.

  10. Hmm. I know it shouldn’t be amusing, but….well, here’s what I actually said:

    “…for the first four years of the Net era, those with paranoid visions of China’s government were never quite able to square their suspicions with the rapid expansion of the Chinese Internet. Although it was widely rumored in Beijing that up to 30,000 state security employees were monitoring the Internet in that city alone, the monitoring was also laughed at. Apparently the bureaucrats liked monitoring pornography so much that they had a massive backlog. State security was said to be lax, corrupt, full of holes.”

    That’s pretty similar to what I wrote in my (more definitive) book, “Losing the New China” as well.

    It was, in fact, “widely rumoured” in Beijing – but because none of those sources – high-profile figures in the IT industry in the main – could back up the number, I reported it as a rumour, nothing more.

    I personally think that the actual number is significantly HIGHER than that by now – I mean, labor is awfully cheap in China. But it’s just an educated guess. I have never gone beyond that original statement because I don’t think there is any compelling evidence to do so.

    So I have no apologies – however, one does wonder why all these venerable news/human rights organizations keep repeating that number as fact, rather than rumour. Or perhaps they know something I don’t?

  11. BBC World Broadcast monitoring reported that Ming Pao reported on December 8, 2000 that 300,000 – yes three hundred thousand – Internet police were authorized by the PRC government, which also has been repeated in other books and media.

    Can anyone confirm the Ming Pao article?

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