China's "Great Internet Firewall"

The government has largely succeeding in turning technological advances that strengthen society into tools that strengthen the state

By Daniel Lynch  / 

Sat, Dec 14, 2002 - Page 9

Contrary to popular wisdom, Chinese efforts to control the Internet and other new media are not doomed to fail. China's government has lost much control over the information and images that now circulate through Chinese society, but it still is capable of preventing any serious challenger from using the media to attack it. How can this be?

The government demands that Web sites, television programs and other media meet three general criteria.

First, they must support, or at least not hinder, China's efforts to sustain economic growth, maintain social order, unify with Taiwan and secure international respect;

Second, they must support, or at least not question, the Chinese Communist Party's monopoly on political power.

Third, they must oppose such "negative" social phenomena as "spiritual pollution" (for example, pornography and drug abuse), "bourgeois liberalization" (Western-style democratization), "feudal superstition" (the Falun Gong and other proscribed religions) and "worship of things foreign" (especially American popular culture).

The government's tools for enforcing these criteria are far more effective than most observers realize. First, it can imprison those who violate its media policy. For example, in 1998 it sentenced a Shanghai engineer to two years in prison for selling 30,000 Chinese e-mail addresses to an overseas-based dissident newsletter. In March last year, it launched a general crackdown on Internet dissent that resulted in numerous people being imprisoned and harassed.

Second, the government can use technical means to deny people access to undesired content. It has jammed Voice of America broadcasts since June 1989 and in the spring of last year began jamming Tibetan-, Uighur- and Kazakh-language broadcasts from India and Central Asia. It blocks Chinese Internet surfers from visiting a list of banned Web sites and late last summer it blocked access to the Google and AltaVista search engines. More recently, it developed a new system that allows surfers to access some sections of formerly banned sites, but deploys packet-sniffing technology to deny access to other sections.

Third, the government enlists cooperation from foreign businesses in exchange for exclusive access to China's gigantic market. Just as the government persuaded Rupert Murdoch to remove BBC News from STAR-TV in 1994, it convinced Yahoo this year to design a special search engine for China that screens out Web sites dealing with unacceptable subjects. Companies such as Cisco have been accused of providing the government with advanced technologies designed to make the "Great Internet Firewall" leak-proof.

Fourth, the government distracts attention by supporting "healthy" Chinese Web sites, as well as glitzy but vacuous entertainment-oriented TV programs. Such circuses -- combined with the bread of economic growth -- crowds out subversive messages from abroad, especially when combined with nationalistic propaganda designed to inoculate people against whatever subversive media content that might slip through.

So far, China's government has succeeded famously in meeting technological advances that strengthen society with technological advances that strengthen the state. Nor do Chinese and foreign businesspeople clamor for change. They don't need to read or hear about the Falun Gong and human rights to make sound investment or purchasing decisions.

All of this suggests that China might evolve into the kind of society whose members spend so much time and money on conspicuous consumption and diversionary entertainment that they lack the psychic energy to reflect upon the issues of freedom, equality, religion and human rights. Problems fester in such a society, but don't necessarily explode. As long as the middle class supports state repression, order can be upheld.

The hope for more liberal democratic change in China seems to lie in a conflict between the rising middle class, rallying on both its own behalf and that of the poor, and the authoritarian state. Journalists, intellectuals and entrepreneurs reportedly chafe at government efforts to block access to overseas search engines; one day they might demand freedom of speech more generally. But nowadays most members of the middle class seem content to exchange complacency for economic growth. If they become unhappy, they can always console themselves with a pirated DVD.

Some groups, nonetheless, are fighting for the global freedom of the Internet. One Chinese Internet hacker group, called "Hacktivismo," is researching the development of a technology called "Six-Four" (named after the date of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre) that would allow Chinese netizens to use the Internet to communicate free from government observation and thus visit banned Web sites safely. But even in a best-case scenario, these technologies won't be available for many months, if not years, and few people in China are likely to have the desire or ability to use them.

Sadly, China's government has demonstrated amazing adeptness at controlling the Internet in the face of daunting technological challenges -- at least to the point of preventing a hard core of sensitive subjects from being discussed openly. This situation will not change inevitably. Those who assert that China is on the wrong side of history in its communication policies -- and that the Internet means eventual democratization -- ought to temper their optimism. In China, history often takes a very long time.

Daniel Lynch is assistant professor of international relations at the University of Southern California and author of After the Propaganda State: Media, Politics, and `Thought Work' in Reformed China.

Copyright: Project Syndicate