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Cracks in ‘Great Firewall of China’

John Lee

China’s crackdown on political activists and commentators in light of the Jasmine revolutions sweeping across the Middle East and North Africa was expected. The latest high-profile case is Sunday’s disappearance of Yang Hengjun, a Chinese-born Australian novelist who was visiting in Guangzhou. That Mr. Yang once worked in China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs always marked him as a person of interest to the authorities. But the fact that he also is a frequent contributor to more than 10 blogs that appear on Chinese portals tells us that Beijing is increasingly worried that its strategy to control the Internet could be failing.

China spends a vast amount of resources on monitoring and censoring the Internet. Its Golden Shield Project, which builds and maintains what is popularly known as the “Great Firewall of China” employs more than 50,000 people and cost a reported $800 million to set up. The project is designed to ensure that China’s 450 million Internet users are not exposed to any “harmful” content that could subvert the authority of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) or threaten its legitimacy in any way. This largely means filtering out outside content that is critical of the CCP’s political system or policies—“foreign viruses and ideas,” as President Hu Jintao once put it.

But Beijing’s Internet policy is not completely defensive. In a speech to the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress by the deputy director of the Propaganda Department in May 2010, Wang Chen, who doubles as director of the state council’s information office and therefore is the country’s Internet policy chief, described a policy of using the Internet to help preserve the CCP’s hold on power. Mistakenly posted on a government site for several hours on May 4 before being removed, Mr. Wang’s missive urged the CCP to embrace the digital age as an opportunity to expand the party’s propaganda apparatus and improve the effectiveness and efficiency of spreading pro-government messages and information to the Chinese people.

Mr. Wang’s message is important because it is further confirmation that the CCP’s digital censorship policies are carefully thought out.

For example, the vast majority of China’s 450 million Internet users do not read English well or at all. While removing “harmful” foreign content is one part of the Golden Shield Project, authorities also are well aware that such content in English or other foreign languages will have limited readership. Instead, arguably the greater priority is to generate domestic pro-government content or help circulate such information generated by citizens while blocking out any domestically generated sites critical of the government and its policies. Focusing only on a Chinese audience, the ideal is to create a vast government-friendly Mandarin-language Intranet throughout China.

Such a Chinese Intranet would achieve two purposes. First, it would significantly assist the party in creating and shaping viewpoints among the country’s online users. Second, such a vast and established pro-government Intranet could then be promoted externally to challenge the dominance of Western sites in the ongoing debate about the CCP and its policies. As Mr. Wang argued, such a platform would markedly strengthen Beijing’s capacity to promote its messages overseas and challenge the stranglehold enjoyed by Western sites in online commentary about China.

The CCP might be ambitious, but it is far from omniscient. Whereas the party saw the Intranet as a vehicle to circulate government-friendly information, it also has evolved to become a vehicle for Chinese citizens—and ethnic Chinese foreigners such as Yang Hengjun—to create spontaneously and spread non-sanctioned opinion. This is being done primarily not through more traditional and static websites, which are relatively easy to monitor and censor, but through blogs.

That many Chinese citizens are supportive as well as critical of government policies is not the point. What is important is that such blogs are easy to set up and rapidly add content and opinion in real time, making effective monitoring and censorship difficult. Because blogs are interactive and easy to participate in, they serve as a virtual meeting place for citizens to gather, discuss issues and express frustration. Worryingly for the CCP, such virtual meeting places are not government-sanctioned.

The threat of such sites to the CCP’s grand vision of a supervised Intranet throughout the country was first officially recognized by the annual Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Blue Book, which was released in December 2009. Reporting on the annual situation and progress of Chinese society, the report expressed surprise at the number of bloggers participating in a growing number of unauthorized sites. Of grave concern to the CCP is that the exponential rise of “citizen journalists” was not only unforeseen, but is impossible to measure or halt.

The future of the CCP’s vast national Intranet project remains uncertain. But we do know that the freedom to express grievances is not simply a “Western obsession,” as Chinese citizens are consistently told.

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