Can you believe it? The high-tech industry finally got the Clinton administration to relax stiff export curbs on computer encryption-particularly to China. But China last week said it won't allow such systems into the country.
The Chinese government disclosed new regulations stipulating that after Jan. 31 no computer or network system using foreign-designed encryption can be sold into the country. Moreover, any person in China using an existing encryption system must register with the government and eventually disclose how the code works.
That sure beats anything on encryption that White House hard-liners have contrived. U.S. authorities wanted robust computer codes to come equipped with an escrow key "trapdoor" that law enforcement officials could unlock to decipher coded wire-tapped messages.
But the harebrained federal scheme was voluntary and widely ignored. The Feds claimed the "trapdoor" key would be safeguarded by a trustworthy third party. But leery citizens feared security could be breached once critical code keys got out of their hands.
In China, there won't be any escrow key nonsense. Encryption goodies will be simply handed over to the Communist government. Good luck on secure communications.
Presumably, home-grown encryption in China might still be allowed-Chinese-designed encryption algorithms do exist. But if the Clinton export police are correct, the domestic coding systems don't cut muster. That's why the United States was trying so hard to keep robust encryption out of China.
In any event, you can bet the ban on systems designed with foreign code isn't a typical move to block trade in an effort to foster local industry. China's paranoid party officials don't want secret network communications, no matter who invented the coding algorithms.
Indeed, this is China's latest vagrancy foiling the dreams of Western Internet providers. Unencrypted e-commerce and Internet could stop the information superhighway at the Chinese border.
China's latest decision comes at a time when outsiders thought they had beaten back earlier government attempts to severely limit foreign Internet-hub ownership. The Chinese actually had backed off their campaign to control the Net inside their borders.
But the growing Internet Great Wall is a barrier that could block China's economic and technological growth, affecting the lofty sales projections of countless foreign businesses counting on a vibrant economy made up of a billion potential customers.
But President Clinton at least can thank Chinese encrypto-phobia. It will keep the computers he wanted to embargo out of China.