China’s Modern-Day Great Wall

By January 23, 2008 No Comments

China’s Great Wall is counted among the civilization’s great achievements. How does the Great Firewall measure up?

Winning the bid to host the Olympics in 2001 was no easy task. It seems to have paid off though; the Chinese government is now basking in the world’s spotlight as the Beijing Games draw closer. Some Chinese officials, though, may now wonder if all this attention might be too much of a good thing. With the government’s promotion of Chinese culture and the nation’s rapid economic growth, international organizations are jumping in as well, using the opportunity to call for the government to fulfill its pledges to protect human rights, including free speech and free reporting.

The Chinese government’s Internet firewall, nicknamed the Great Firewall of China, and the role of non-Chinese firms in enforcing content norms and providing firewall technology are becoming increasingly scrutinized, along with other issues. And though domestic criticisms are silenced by the Chinese government, pressure for change continues to come from foreign (and primarily Western) journalists, companies, organizations and, even some foreign governments. On January 14, for example, the Paris-based World Association of Newspapers and World Editors Forum called on the Chinese government “to free all jailed journalists ahead of the Olympics Games.” The organizations say more than 30 journalists and 50 cyberdissidents are currently jailed.

The Great Firewall functions as much more than a wall to keep out enemies. Its operations are so far-reaching that it has, in fact, been called the “the most extensive, technologically sophisticated, and broad-reaching system of Internet filtering in the world” by the OpenNet Initiative, an international partnership between universities designed to identify and document Internet surveillance. Similar to the Great Wall itself, it has proven to be one of the most remarkable structures of its time. Unlike the Great Wall, however, it is flexible and growing stronger.

Like any grand project, the Firewall operation is a team effort. The Chinese government works constantly to maintain a base of banned keywords and topics, but most of the actual censorship is performed by private companies, many of them overseas. Websites, blogs, forums, email and even text messages are among the modes of communication constantly monitored.

Most of the filtration occurs at the highest level, in the routers connecting China’s fiber optic network to the rest of the world, which act as the Ellis Island of China’s Internet; all information must pass through them. The companies who manufacture them, including the American firm Cisco Systems, cooperate with the Chinese government to edit the guest list as requested. The Internet service providers (ISPs), the companies that help users access the fiber optic networks, add a second but less important line of defense.

Cybercafes, another major Internet gatekeeper in a nation where a vast number of working class people cannot afford their own computers, are required by law to maintain usage reports of all patrons. Major Chinese search engines such as Baidu.com also perform keyword filtering and remove certain items from search results. Searches for leaders’ names, for example, only yield links to government sites, while sensitive topics such as the Falun Gong, a religious organization declared as a cult by the government, return error results.

Chinese Internet users have become highly aware of these regulations. Some evade the blocks via proxy servers, but most surf the net within the government’s boundaries. On the creation side, most writers and artists and their web publishers engage in self-censorship. ISPs and search engines frequently add their own blocked keywords in anticipation of government reaction, while many foreign companies create heavily edited versions of their sites for China. Chinese bloggers often bite their tongues. The Chinese government has perfected its work to the point that others are doing the work for them.

No single law defines China’s censorship policy. Instead, a murky patchwork of laws covers everything from media regulation to the protection of “state secrets.” This ambiguity gives the government the flexibility to interpret rules as they see fit–widely. Topics targeted for censorship range from political discussions to religious material to pornography, anything that the government feels threatens what it calls “social stability.”

Critics provide two main lines of argument against China’s Internet restrictions. Some say opening up discussion is healthy, provides valuable feedback to authorities and helps reign in corruption and legal practices. The government, they believe, is only making its job harder, and loosening censorship would actually help them maintain stability.

Many human rights activists, however, charge that free speech is a basic human right and should be protected. The Chinese government has a responsibility to its citizens to protect this freedom, they say.

The standard government response is that restrictions are necessary to protect the public from pornography, superstition, rumors and ideas that could be destabilizing. . The government notes the spreading of false news in particular (last summer, authorities jailed a reporter who spread a sensational–and ultimately false–story accusing a food vendor of adding cardboard to his steamed bun recipe) as proof that all magazines and newspapers should be required to have licenses and an explanation why Internet companies are required to comply with censorship guidelines.

Most Chinese seem satisfied with the existing Internet controls or believe that challenging them head-on is pointless.

Most Chinese value social stability, prioritizing it above individualism. Economic reforms and greater social openness have encouraged many Chinese to be more open in expressing their opinions, but most seem to accept the government’s consistent limits on speech and access to information as necessary. Officials and even ordinary Chinese are often quick to point out that even in the West, there are limits on free speech to maintain safety and protect personal reputations.

The introduction of the Internet and China’s breakneck economic growth has created such a plethora of opportunities that most citizens are impressed by the greater openness, not depressed at the limits. Despite the Great Firewall, today’s China is more open than yesterday’s, they contend.

Chinese companies may have another reason not to complain: reduced overseas competition when the government turns its ire at foreign countries on their companies.  In mid-October, when the U.S. Congress awarded a gold medal to the Dalai Lama, a figure reviled as a separatist by the Chinese government, Chinese Internet users who tried to access Google, Yahoo or Microsoft Live Search were redirected to Baidu, a Chinese-owned competitor for several days.

Executives at Yahoo, Google and other foreign firms worry about access to the Chinese market and have generally adhered to governmental directives. This time, however, Google protested. Google lobbyists are even asking the U.S. Trade Representative’s office to treat Chinese Internet restrictions as international trade barriers and to raise the issue in the World Trade Organization. Citing Google’s chief product as information, they seek to establish trade agreements guaranteeing free trade in “information service.”

In this instance, foreign firms were targeted, but some Chinese firms seem to be using censorship policies against domestic competitors.  Jed Crandall, a computer science professor at the University of New Mexico, pointed out in an interview with US-China Today that large Chinese Internet service providers sometimes use threats of punishing smaller ISPs for censorship law violation in order to pressure them into handing them business. The larger firms, according to Crandall, claim that only they have the proper technology to implement legally required firewalls and force the smaller firms to reroute their traffic.

The future of China’s firewall is unclear, and holes have already appeared. According to an article in Wired magazine, anyone who is ”minimally savvy” is capable of evading the filters. There are cases where “netizens” have focused enough attention on specific cases of injustice or wrongdoing to force official redress. The Chinese government is erecting a next generation information control structure  known as the Golden Shield, but many believe the Internet and mobile communications are forces too powerful to completely rein in. The Great Firewall of China may be an impressive feat of technological and social engineering, but it remains to be seen if it can endure anywhere nearly as long as its namesake.

DJ Strouse is a sophomore studying International Relations and Computer Science at the University of Southern California.