China’s great firewall metaphor needs a new interpretation

By John Naughton  /  The Guardian, LONDON

Wed, Jul 17, 2013 - Page 9

Two years ago, when it was discovered that a US intelligence agency was pouring millions of dollars into a research project on “metaphor,” some people thought it was a delayed April Fool’s joke. This columnist begged to differ, on the grounds that metaphors are the way that most of us make sense of the world, and if you want to monitor what people are thinking (or plotting), then a good understanding how metaphorical language works in different countries, languages and cultures might be really useful.

What brings this to mind is a fascinating blogpost by Perry Link on the New York Review of Books Web site. It is headlined “Censoring the News Before It Happens” and it is about how the Chinese government “manages” the Internet.

“Every day in China,” Link writes, “hundreds of messages are sent from government offices to Web site editors around the country that say things like: ‘Report on the new provincial budget tomorrow, but do not feature it on the front page, make no comparisons to earlier budgets, list no links and say nothing that might raise questions’; ‘Downplay stories on [North Korean leader] Kim Jong-un’s facelift’; and ‘Allow stories on deputy mayor Zhang’s embezzlement, but omit the comment boxes.’”

Why, Link asks, “do censors not play it safe and immediately block anything that comes anywhere near offending Beijing? Why the modulation and the fine-tuning?”

Why indeed? This is where metaphor comes in. Our view of Chinese Internet censorship is shaped by one particular metaphor — “the great firewall of China.” Actually, this is a metaphor inside a metaphor because the word “firewall” means different things to different people. To a builder, it is a wall or partition designed to inhibit or prevent the spread of fire. To a computer scientist, on the other hand, a firewall is a piece of software designed to prevent unauthorized or unwanted communications between computer networks or hosts: It decides what data packets are allowed in from the network and what are allowed out, and it is in this sense that the “great firewall” is generally understood.

To some extent, it is helpful. Firewall-type activity does indeed describe aspects of the Chinese approach to the Internet. However, it has been obvious for a while that the subtlety of the regime’s approach to managing the network has gone way beyond the binary allow/disallow nature of the firewall metaphor. There are still occasional “completely and immediately delete” instructions to Web site editors, but because of the rapid growth of social media, the Chinese have realized that blanket bans have become a kind of nuclear option and that a more graduated approach is required.

“For sensitive topics on which central media have already said something,” Link reports, “the instructions may say: ‘Reprint Xinhua [the official Chinese news agency], but nothing more.’ For topics that cannot be avoided because they are already being widely discussed, there are such options as ‘mention without hyping’; ‘publish, but only under small headlines’; ‘put only on back pages’; ‘close the comment boxes’; and ‘downplay as time passes.’”

We need different imagery to communicate the essence of this more sophisticated approach.

Rebecca MacKinnon, one of the world’s leading experts on “networked authoritarianism,” suggests that a Chinese academic, Li Yonggang (李永剛) of the University of Hong Kong, has come up with a better metaphor: the Internet as waterworks. He thinks that the regime’s efforts to deal with the Internet can be best described as a hydraulic project. Water, in this view, is both vital and dangerous: It has to be managed.

In a blogpost about this approach, MacKinnon wrote: “If you approach Internet management in this way, the system has two main roles: Managing water flows and distribution so that everybody who needs some gets some, and managing droughts and floods — which if not managed well will endanger the government’s power. It is a huge complex system with many moving parts ... there is no way a government can have total control over water levels. Depending on the season, you allow water levels in your reservoir to be higher or lower ... but you try to prevent levels from getting above a certain point or below a certain point, and if they do you have to take drastic measures to prevent complete chaos.”

Given that almost all of the ruling Chinese elite are engineers, you can see why this approach would make sense to them. It is both rational and feasible and it provides such an instructive comparison with the British Government Communications Headquarters, whose pet project for hoovering the network is codenamed — wait for it! — “Mastering the Internet.” Interesting metaphor that, eh?