How China Builds the Firewall

At the top of the news today is the crackdown on another blogger in China for disagreeing with his government. I highly recommend taking a look at the interactive feature CNN appends to the story: 'How China Controls the Internet.'

The CNN feature puts you in the shoes of a person trying to navigate the Net behind the Great Firewall. China's people have no privacy rights. They must register to use the Net, providing the government with their names and passwords. Their activity on the Net is monitored. Businesses providing Internet service are required to keep records of all that goes on.

The technology for blocking and filtering sites is provided by firms like Yahoo and Google China and, more than any other, Cisco.

What is China's government afraid of? A look at a few of the taboo subjects tells a great deal.

Here's a short list of keywords that will trigger the filtering system and block access to content:

  • Revolution
  • Equality
  • Freedom
  • Justice
  • Taiwan
  • Tibet
  • Falun Gong
  • Dissident
  • Democracy
  • STD
  • Human rights

  • If you have participated in Internet forums and chat rooms where some participants are from China, you have likely noticed the surreal reaction you get whenever a subject comes up that remotely questions whether China's leaders always knows best. The Chinese participants will quickly declare their loyalty to the party line and insist that the subject be dropped. They shame others for bringing up the subject at all and declare their unwillingness to continue further. If the conversation proceeds anyway, they disappear.

    Those who are naive about the oppression that exists in China find these reactions surprising, disproportionate and baffling. They often misinterpret it as the expression of a passionately held belief on the part of the individual. This is, of course, a matter of habit. It's the way we normally register such reactions in democratic societies, where the right of all participants to express their feelings openly is a given. So it strikes them as amazing that Chinese friends should 'feel so strongly about' this or that subject.

    What their Chinese friends feel strongly about, though, is not the banter; it is about keeping themselves and their families alive, out of prison, and employed. On any subject where their government has staked a position there is only position they may take. To say anything different, to even treat the question as open, is to open oneself to the charge of subversion. And that government has staked a position on a vast array of subjects, including how many children to have.

    You see the phenomenon occur frequently on networking arenas such as Flickr. I have seen the reaction occur with subjects as innocuous as whether it is practical, in a keyboard texting age, to continue using simplified Chinese characters. No sooner is the question raised than Chinese participants declare the subject inappropriate and say they will leave the discussion if it continues.

    Not a political issue, you say? China's Communist Party has already ruled on the matter. Simplified characters appear on all the street signs because that is the choice the government ruled to be best. Nothing exists now for a Chinese person to discuss. To act as if options still existed, even to sit idly by as other opinions are expressed, is to take risks the discussion is hardly worth.

    Announcing their intention to boycott a conversation serves another practical purpose. The Chinese participants in Internet discussion know (even though their foreign friends often do not) that the discussion will soon end for them anyway. Their Internet content is filtered. The comments you and others make on a subject, even the thread in which those comments appear, are destined to disappear soon from their screens. It was accident that they saw it at all. They know that, unremarkable as the discussion seems to you, their government intends to deny them access to it. The safest thing they can do is go on record as supporting the Party line before the curtain falls, as it will, on the whole subject.

    Why don't they tell you that they can't continue the conversation simply because it puts them in a bad situation and is certain to be filtered? They don't tell you because their government's filtering of the Internet is itself another taboo subject. Big Brother knows it makes Big Brother look bad when Chinese citizens tell their international friends how much he watches.

    It is thus naive to assume, when Chinese colleagues quit an Internet discussion, that you have 'caused offence.' Your friends in China have far more urgent concerns than your humble opinion. They are performing for the camera. The authorities are always watching. They are giving the only show those authorities care to see.

    All in all, it's a sobering situation as we head into the year of the Beijing Olympics. China was only awarded the games, after all, because its government pledged to make significant progress by 2008 on human rights.



    Naruwan said...

    There's a fascinating blog post at the RConversation site about how internet users in China are getting round the censors by using certain words that everyone knows is referring to something else. When people talk about "river crabs", for example, they are actually talking about the subject of censorship.

    Alton Thompson said...

    Many thanks, Naruwan. The link didn't work for me, though. Readers who experience the same difficulty should try this one:


    Scroll down to September 12 to find the 'crab' entry.

    Naruwan said...

    Sorry about the dud link. I neglected to test it before hitting the publish button. This link works now !