March 16, 2006

Beating Beijing's Big Brother

As authorities fortify the Great Firewall of China, information technology is allowing increasingly modern, high-tech and culturally sophisticated Chinese to slip the grip of totalitarianism

By George Dvorsky, December 8, 2003

During the late 1990s, as the Internet wave swept virtually every part of the world, the Chinese government reacted by establishing its own internal and highly regulated Internet. Dubbed the "Great Firewall of China" by cynical outsiders, the move marked a dangerous and disappointing precedent for Chinese information technology policy.

Since that time, Beijing has continued to make life difficult for those desiring specific types of information. Citizens are prevented from visiting some Websites and engaging in some online activities. Those who dare defy the system put themselves at risk of arrest—or worse.

This fusion of information technology with a totalitarian agenda bears a startling resemblance to the Orwellian nightmare in which information flow is tightly managed and deviously engineered by those in power. The Chinese may be making great strides in such fields as space exploration and biotechnology, and are certainly moving forward in information technology and modern capitalism, but old-school Marxist impositions remain.

The question we must ask now, as we inexorably head deeper into the digital age, is this: To what extent can the communist Chinese authorities continue to control and use information technology for their own political and ideological ends? Will they be capable of implementing a Big Brother style Internet and society, or is this a project doomed to failure as the Chinese move further into the information age?

Given recent events in China, it's still hard to say. But I'm inclined to think that controlling a country of more than one billion people who have access to an ever-growing assortment of savvy communication technologies will be no easy task, demanding a massive police effort that would be hugely impractical and untenable to maintain. Instead, through the application of novel technologies, democratization may be forced upon Chinese authorities whether they like it or not.

Building information armor

There are now more Internet users in China than any country in the world apart from the US. With numbers steadily increasing, the country now boasts an estimated 68 million users online.

At the same time there are tens of thousands of Websites blocked from Chinese eyes. The Chinese government is doing its best to isolate its citizens from sites that it deems offensive or politically incompatible. Citizens are prevented from accessing sites that express dissenting political opinions, religion, sexually suggestive material and gambling.

"Obviously there is some harmful information on the Internet," says Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan. "Not everyone should have access to this harmful information," he says, "the whole world now is exploring a way to manage the Internet and China is also working on this."

In part, Beijing has been able to control much Internet access by eliminating search engines such as Google and AltaVista altogether. Google was banned for a time in 2002, accompanied by a loud chorus of outrage. It has since been returned.

Yahoo!, unlike Google and AltaVisa, agreed (or is that caved?) to voluntarily block access to certain Websites in accordance with Chinese Internet laws. Some of the sites that have been blocked by Yahoo's China-based affiliate include the US Courts, Playboy, MIT, CNN, Voice of America and even, apparently, this very publication,

To ensure stronger government control, and in a move that smacks of economic protectionism, Chinese authorities have recently urged China's IT industry to develop and implement its own encryption standards for wireless networks. It's been speculated that the Chinese government is concerned about having its own network hacked. More likely it's an attempt to prevent the free flow of information from person to person that wireless technology allows. This move is a continuation of like-minded policies, including Beijing's 1999 order to importers to provide extensive information about Web servers and other computers with encryption technology, and to replace with Chinese products any software rejected by the government.

The Chinese authorities are also training "Internet police," who will be used to trace and arrest political dissidents who are using the Internet to evade state censorship. Recently, exiled Chinese dissident Xu Wenli spoke out on the matter, noting that the government "used to sentence people because they spoke to a newspaper abroad or spoke to VOA." He claims that Chinese communist authorities are jailing dissidents simply because they are using the Internet to disseminate or read political views. "Lately people who have gotten online have been arrested and sentenced," says Xu. "A lot of students are training as Internet police online to censor articles. This is a very dangerous signal for us."

Xu's disclosure is consistent with a report put out by Amnesty International in late 2002. It was shown that through these types of policies Beijing has effectively created a new type of "prisoner of conscience." At the time that the report was issued, at least 33 people had been detained for Internet subversion and two prisoners had subsequently died after apparent torture or ill treatment. "Internet users are increasingly caught up in a tight web of rules restricting their fundamental human rights," reads the report. "Anyone surfing the Internet could potentially be at risk of arbitrary detention and imprisonment." Amnesty International has been critical of China's efforts to block foreign websites, create Internet police and close off sites with articles on corruption or criticism of the government.

Where there's a wall there's a way

Despite Beijing's efforts to control the Internet, however, it hasn't been all smooth sailing. The very essence of information technology makes it difficult to control, and this is what Beijing is now coping with. Every action has a reaction, and in the information age every measure has a countermeasure.

While Yahoo! has acquiesced to China's terms, for example, AltaVista has been anything but happy about censorship. James Barnett, AltaVista's CEO, has made his displeasure with the Chinese government very clear. He plans to make the search engine available through other avenues that are accessible to Chinese citizens, including the no-frills search engine Even though less than five percent of AltaVista's audience originates in China, it's the principle that matters to Barnett. "This is very unfortunate," he says. "We believe free and open access to information is critical to the global community."

And for the brief period in which Google was off limits, an innovative—if not tongue-in-cheek—workaround was devised: A mirror site called Elgoog (Google spelled backwards). Elgoog allows users to type in search queries backwards and access the genuine Google database, with results returned backwards. While the mirror site was intended as a spoof, a number of Chinese citizens asked that it be un-mirrored and made completely functional.

Indeed, as much of the world is finding, there will always be cracks in the Internet armor. And according to Guo Liang, deputy director of the Research Center for Social Development at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Beijing is quickly losing control of Internet usage. "You cannot control [the] Internet," he says, "People can receive all sorts of information." Guo's observation is on the mark. It's difficult, for example, for filters to scan a graphic with text on it. Moreover, with access to encryption technologies, including 128-bit encryption, it is already near impossible for messages to be deciphered en route from source to destination.

The kind of information that is seeping into China is reminiscent of what transpired during the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union. As an example, the news and propaganda wing behind the US government's VOA broadcasts has developed a type of virtual private network that lets Chinese running Microsoft Windows operating systems breach the Chinese firewall. Known as a circumvention Web server, it allows users to effectively tunnel under the firewall to access VOA broadcasts. Ken Berman, program manager for Internet anticensorship at the International Broadcasting Bureau, which puts out the VOA radio and Internet transmissions, is concerned about how highly censored news is in China. "The Chinese government jams all of our radio broadcasts and blocks access by their people to our Website," he says. "We want to allow the people there to have the tools to be able to have a look at it."

Disenchanted by what Beijing is doing, and as a means to protest what they consider to be the illegitimate detainment of Chinese citizens, a number of hackers have taken to a new form of political agitation known as hacktivism. These hackers have penetrated and disabled a number of Chinese firewalls and defaced Websites, including the Tianjin City Network of Information of Science & Technology site, which explains what the people of China are entitled to access legally over the Internet.

Tearing it down

Of course, information and communication technologies are more than just a means to transfer and access data, they are also an effective vehicle for novel means of expression, be they artistic or political. The West has witnessed the rise of personal sites and blogs and China, it would appear, is not immune. Needless to say, the Chinese authorities are increasingly concerned with the way that the Internet contributes to the individuation of its citizens and allows them to spread what it considers to be deviant ideas and behaviors. The democratization of China is happening, and it's happening at the grassroots level.

One example is the excellent Living in China blog at which contributors frequently add what they consider to be newsworthy items. The tagline for the blog is explicitly democratic: "One Country, Many Voices." The blog aims to showcase the growing variety of opinions and experiences of those living in and writing about China.

Recently, a racy Chinese blog caught the attention of Chinese authorities: The personal site of 25-year-old sex columnist, Mu Zimei. Writing about the intimate details of her personal life and sexual experiences, Mu has attracted millions of followers to her site. Needless to say, Beijing, after ignoring the site for some time, eventually reacted in a predictable manner; the state-run Beijing Evening News severely criticized Mu and accused, the popular Chinese portal site that bought the rights to Mu's blog, of wrongly promoting her to attract more visitors. "The blind pursuit after this kind of phenomenon," the newspaper stated, "will mislead people into thinking that the government authorities over news are turning blind to this." Bowing under this pressure, quickly pulled back in its promotion of the blog, but did not remove it. However, in an effort to diffuse the controversy, Mu has quit her columnist job and voluntarily shut down her Website.

It's safe to say, though, that despite the regrettable resolution to this story, it's certainly not going to be the last of its kind. Freedom of expression is about to become a big issue in China, one that is being fueled by the introduction of new technologies.

Indeed, technological developments, contrary to the dystopic images conjured up by George Orwell and Aldous Huxley, are extremely effective at promoting and propagating democratic values and institutions. China is in many respects a third world country that is unconsciously modernizing itself in an awful hurry. What Beijing is currently doing to control this wave is as reactionary and short-sighted as it foolish. With 68 million Chinese citizens already online, it will soon become impossible for authorities to control China's ongoing democratization.

Copyright © 2003 George Dvorsky

This column originally appeared on Betterhumans, December 8, 2003.

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