At Large

The Great Firewall of China

A close-up look at how Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo enable repression.

By 10.5.06

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I visited China a few years back and was pleased that I could call a local AOL number to get online. The connection flickered weirdly before I received the normal "welcome" screen, but no matter. I was able to check and send email -- no small accomplishment after being in transit for almost an entire day.

When I tried to get onto the web, however, nothing happened. Or, more precisely, I received the standard error message about not being able to connect. I tried another site and got the same message. I restarted AOL and had the same experience. I'd run into Great Firewall of China.

A couple times during the trip something went "wrong" and I ended up with a normal connection. Even though I was going to be home in a few days, I nevertheless felt strangely free. I could explore political, economic, and cultural worlds as I wanted, not as the ruling autocrats ensconced in Beijing thought I should.

I was back in China this summer and again a few weeks ago. This time my AOL connection failed. I could call the number, but never made it all the way through the necessary seven steps. However, every hotel had a LAN connection, so the worldwide web still beckoned.

With trepidation I prepared to jump from email to the web. Naturally, my first stop was TAS online. It came up. Amazing! Here was a site featuring Jed Babbin, someone known for predicting war -- not just war, but untold horror and slaughter as a result of China's machinations. Yet I could get everything he and everyone else was writing on the Spectator's website.

The Washington Times came up as well as the New York Times. National Review Online as well as the Center for American Progress. I thought maybe freedom was coming to China after all.

Then I tried to make a blog entry. No go. I tried the second blog to which I contribute. Forget it. I tried going via the organization's website. No luck.

I tried reconnecting. I tried in different cities. I tried at different times. Not a chance.

THE AVAILABILITY OF, but restrictions on, the Internet exhibit China's challenge. The government wants the economy to grow. It recognizes the importance of easy access to information the world over to educate its population and for its people to discover, research, and develop new processes and technologies. If the People's Republic of China wants to become a great power, it must partake of the information age.

On the other hand, information is power. And Beijing's gerontocracy still zealously attempts to guard power.

Of course, the PRC falls short in a number of areas when it comes to human rights. Amnesty International has just released a new report, "People's Republic of China: The Olympics Countdown--Failing to Keep Human Rights Promises." Limiting Internet freedom is hardly Beijing's worst offense.

Amnesty points to China's prolific use of the death penalty. The organization opposes it in principle, but the PRC lacks a transparent, fair judicial process, and the government adds some uniquely communist twists, including harvesting organs for transplant.

There's also a system of "Re-education through Labor," as well as the "arbitrary detention, torture and harassment of human rights defenders," reports AI. Although Amnesty doesn't mention it, in July Beijing threatened another basic human right, putting out a directive proscribing "unhealthy" songs in karaoke bars. It has started requiring sing-along establishments to choose music from a central database. (The government did promise to pay royalties to copyright holders.)

The media is closely regulated as well. Explains Amnesty, "Over the last year the Chinese authorities have intensified their controls over media outlets, including newspapers, magazines and websites."

The government has limited reporting on emergencies by both domestic and foreign media. New restrictions have been placed on the release of court information. Reporters in China and Hong Kong have been convicted of dubious charges for zealous reporting.

In September Beijing required all foreign services distributing news in China to operate through Xinhua, or New China news agency, which will censor content undermining "China's national unity," endangering "China's national security," inciting "hatred and discrimination," undermining "social ethics or the fine cultural traditions of the Chinese nation," and more. Explained a government spokesman, the purpose of the rules was to promote for the "healthy and orderly" dissemination of information.

An incredible 30,000 cyber cops are said to be busy policing the Internet in China. Students are enlisted to "moderate" collegiate web use -- and snitch to the authorities when appropriate.

Beijing permanently blocks the websites of organizations such as Amnesty and similar groups that report on human rights abuses. Some sites face intermittent interruptions. Although the BBC was available when I checked while in China, I was told that Beijing blocks it whenever the news service carries a particularly critical article about the PRC.

Moreover, the Chinese government routinely closes domestic sites which exhibit too much freedom of thought. (Two major sites shut down in August were Century China and China Consultation Net. The former had hosted forums for intellectual exchange; the latter had surveyed the public on Communist Party electoral procedures.)

In May Beijing launched a crackdown on "unhealthy" postings on websites. In June the government said it planned to impose "admittance standards" for blogs. More restrictions are likely to come. In July Cai Wu, director of the Information Office of the State Council (China's de facto cabinet), advocated action "because more and more harmful information is being circulated online."

Still, in an odd way, the greatest challenge might be that the Internet remains too free in China. That is, Tim Wu, a Columbia law professor, told Time that "It feels almost normal, so people don't think about what it is they can't get."

LUCKILY, THE BATTLE FOR INFORMATION freedom is not static. It's hard for even 30,000 cyber spies to keep up with the many Chinese blogs, thought to be 37 million and growing. Moreover, a number of Chinese and Western programmers work to defeat Beijing's censors. Wang Yi, a law professor and blogger, told the New York Times that "I think the Internet in China will always find a way forward, because of technology and other factors."

We should hope so. But of obvious concern is the cooperation of Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo with the Chinese government. For instance, Google has developed www.google.cn, which automatically censors searches. (Among the disfavored words are apparently "democracy," "freedom," and "human rights." Microsoft closed down a U.S.-based blog which offended Beijing and limits Chinese uses of MSN Spaces. Yahoo has provided account data to the Chinese government for use in prosecuting Chinese citizens for political offenses. In a detailed report in July, Amnesty charged that "all three companies have in different ways facilitated or participated in the practice of government censorship in China."

The companies argue that China would be less free and Chinese Internet users would have less intellectual space if foreign web firms refused to cooperate and were barred from operating in China. Perhaps. Still, it's hard to see these American enterprises as anything but enablers of repression. Certainly, as AI advocates, U.S. concerns need "to address ongoing restrictions on freedom of expression and to avoid contributing to further human rights abuses."

The lack of liberty in China evokes tragedy. A tough people has gone through so much over the last two centuries: imperial decrepitude, outside domination; imperfect revolution, ineffective republic, warlord conflict; Japanese invasion; murderous revolution; internecine struggle; capitalist revolution. In the last two decades the Chinese people have come far and seem destined for greatness. But they are not yet free.

Let us hope that some day, soon, they will have the liberty that they deserve. Including to enjoy the full intellectual as well as economic fruits of the Internet revolution.

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About the Author
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author and editor of several books, including The Politics of Plunder: Misgovernment in Washington (Transaction).