Ever since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has lived in a constant state of fear that it might share the fate of its former mentor and ideological bedfellow. To stay in power, the party had to strike a difficult balancing act: maintaining a tight grip on information, while simultaneously opening up to the world under the program of economic reform initiated by former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平).
The balancing act became increasingly difficult with the popularization of the Internet in the mid-1990s. The CCP could not block Chinese citizens from accessing the Internet, as North Korea did, as the party recognized that China would be left behind in an increasingly globalized world without access to the transformative communications technology.
To get around this problem, then-Chinese president Jiang Zemin (江澤民) instructed the party to embark upon an ambitious program to censor the Internet within China’ s borders, removing politically “incorrect” content and any information deemed “sensitive.” At the time, many believed this would be impossible: then-US president Bill Clinton famously quipped that China’s attempt to tame the Internet would be “like nailing jello to a wall.”
Unfortunately, the conventional wisdom during the heady days of the Internet’s infancy proved to be wide of the mark. The CCP has been remarkably effective in censoring the online sphere, constantly updating and automating its content removal systems to keep pace with changing technology, and building a closed ecosystem of imperceptibly curated content.
One of the reasons that the CCP has been so successful is the global infrastructure that underpins the Internet: Nations are connected through a network of intercontinental submarine data cables. The data cables’ entry points into China’s domestic telecommunications network are managed by state-owned telecoms, which allows for the filtering out of “unhealthy” content at the point of entry.
The construction of the Great Chinese Firewall — referred to internally by the CCP as Golden Shield — is arguably the chief reason the CCP has been able to maintain its grip on power, despite the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union more than three decades ago. It stymies the free flow of information and prevents the formation of a coordinated resistance to the party’s rule.
However, the advent of a parallel Internet infrastructure called Starlink — a satellite constellation built by Elon Musk’s SpaceX — might be about to knock the shine off Golden Shield.
Once fully operational, Starlink would provide low-latency broadband Internet coverage anywhere on the planet using a constellation of at least 12,000 small satellites, criss-crossing the globe in low Earth orbit and communicating with each other via lasers. Chinese citizens should, in theory, be able to bypass China’s censored terrestrial Internet using an inexpensive satellite terminal roughly the size of a trash can lid.
The CCP could of course ban the sale of satellite terminals within China, but a black market would likely spring up. The party could also attempt to jam the signals, but it is unclear whether this would be technically feasible, as evidenced by a test in Ukraine.
Musk has provided Starlink terminals to Ukraine to restore Internet and telephone communications systems destroyed by Russia. Russia then attempted to jam the signal, but only succeeded in taking the system offline for a few hours, with a quick software update restoring normal operations, Musk said.
If Starlink and its competitors, such as OneWeb, reach their potential, the CCP’s stranglehold on information in the digital domain could finally end. This can only be a good thing for China’s downtrodden public and the rest of the world — and it might precipitate the collapse of the odious CCP regime.
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