University of North Florida
“There are those who say we should not open our windows, because open windows let in flies,” proclaimed Deng Xiaoping, the successor to Mao, in the defining years of China’s post-Mao reform era, “But we say, ‘Open the windows, breathe the fresh air, and at the same time fight the flies.’” Little did Deng know how apt his metaphor would become in the digital age, considering the Chinese government construction of a web to ensnare swarming flies. The content of an unrestricted Internet is inherently democratic, relying on engaging contributions and support from users all over the globe. Somehow, even in the so-called information age, China has managed to quarantine almost an entire population from free access and create its own network to maintain a rule by law derived from authority, rather than authority derived from law. Really only a symptom of the systematic political authoritarianism, the Internet in China has become an innovative tool of Chinese Communist Party (CCP here after) to perpetuate restriction of civil liberties. As network access multiplies, the control grows even more powerful. This has been further enabled by the compliance of Western companies, whose unenlightened policies advance the assault on citizens’ political activism for the sake of market share. Some attempts to motivate resistance within China have gained traction, but these movements are frequently squashed by the state. This is not to suggest that citizen resistance in the mainland is futile, but is greatly hindered by the tenacity of the state and will require an unforeseen catalyst to accelerate reform of internet controls.
The functions of the Internet in China and the West are vastly different. For some context, and a glimpse of the interaction of public and private sectors in both systems, it is necessary to look at the history of the Internet within China and its earlier development in the United States. Created as a Cold War initiative by the Department of Defense, the Internet was up and running on a limited scale by the early 1960s. At inception, tellingly, the project’s appeal came from information control and transmission in a world on the brink of war. Eventual router development allowed interconnection of several government offices, and gradually the private sector has assumed control with minor government regulation. However, intellectually liberated (relatively speaking) scholars conceived the web within China for academic exchange during the reform era. The country’s first computer networks were established in 1987, and within a year were exchanging emails through German gateways in the now-open West. How many of these emails contained details about Tiananmen protests or the plight of Berliners is unknown to this researcher, but by 1993 the government saw fit to construct its own connection system, the China Education and Research Network, through the State Education Commission. Early control of data, then, fell under the auspices of the educational sectors but the network depended on lines leased from the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications. Soon management shifted as the MPT built its own network under director Wu Jichuan, a leading advocate of “maintaining control in virtually all areas of voice and data communication.” Unlike in the United States where a defense undertaking became property of civilian enterprise, in China the web was a private endeavor later assumed by the government. The state has a long history of presenting everything from academic journals to art galleries on its own terms that keeps the general population oblivious to dissent.
For almost two decades the Chinese government has overseen internal web development, so the overarching structure has changed little. The most significant modifications concerned how China would police such a structure. While nations with liberal internet access were frantically updating software codes to avert Y2K, on the eve of the millennium China launched its “Golden Shield Project” - known pejoratively to Westerners as the “Great Firewall of China” - to monitor, restrict, and suppress views considered “alternative” to those of the government. The project expanded in 2003 due to increased internet access by Chinese citizens. According to Pippa Norris, a cultural consultant for the World Bank and lecturer at Harvard University, the Golden Shield uses “automated technologies to conduct wide-scale filtering of internet addresses” and spreads crippling computer viruses by “poisoning” certain types of restricted data. In addition to sites on and downloads from the web, words in online postings are screened as well. Messages on discussion forums including terms like “human rights,” “Taiwan independence,” “BBC,” or “Falun Gong” (a belief system always at odds with official secularism) are filtered “and lost forever.” Pamphlets can be printed anywhere and triangulating broadcast signals are labor-intensive, but digital footprints left by online users are easily tracked by the government. Anticipated to be the ultimate opportunity for liberal information exchange, conversely, the Internet is providing unprecedented efficiency in its own regulation.
The government has not neglected to develop its own brand of technological apparatuses to keep internet access restricted within its borders. Citing “national security” concerns, China demanded that a WLAN Authentication and Privacy Infrastructure (WAPI) technology be incorporated into every Chinese Wi-Fi device during the surge of Golden Shield Project initiatives undertaken in 2003. WAPI technology can essentially close an open wireless network by forcing every user of a given wireless network to register with a “centralized authentication point.” The tactic was interpreted as a technical trade barrier by the World Trade Organization and drew threats of intervention prompting China to scale back the compulsory installation. As mentioned earlier, the government does not have to regulate the technology if it already regulates the network, so China has spent billions in crafting a new intra-Chinese network operated and filtered by a single state-owned company. As such, network-wise, China will soon be “like a country with a great internal transport system but relatively few roads leading in or out.” The interwoven access points bring to mind an elaborate network designed to ensnare prey, so the spider web analogy sticks.
Some flies are able to evade capture by the web itself, but many find themselves prey to sentient agents. Willing users with working knowledge of the net enlist in the internet police, required by the government to “be proactive in developing discussion, increase control, accentuate the good, avoid the bad, and use the internet to our advantage.” The internet police supplement the web filters and add discernment to censorship. It is impossible to completely quantify anything that involves individual agency, so the police monitor video and text posts for implications of subversion. They even offer an instant messaging service to citizens, much like tech support companies elsewhere, in case they have any questions about internet policy or want to report suspicious activity. The monitors are represented during these conversations by cartoon avatars named Jingjing or Chacha (jing cha translates to “police”), who serve as a cute reminder that online actions have tangible consequences from the omnipresent state.
In an attempt to keep the general population supportive of continuous filtration, the state cites national interest as a primary concern. Beyond the deceptively charming Jingjing and Chacha cartoons, intellectual and patriotic appeals are made to sway public sentiment on state control of the Internet. Colonels Ye Zheng and Zhao Baoxian of the People’s Liberation Army recently advocated strengthening China’s presence in the new virtual world order: “Just as nuclear warfare was the strategic war of the industrial era, cyber-warfare has become the strategic war of the information era,” the officers wrote in the party-run China Youth Daily, “and this has become a form of battle that is massively destructive and concerns the life and death of nations.” The state has concluded the same, based on military expenditures. Under the current paramount leader of the People’s Republic Hu Jintao, China has seen double-digit increases in its defense budget alongside rapid growth in GDP. All the resources poured into controlling the Internet are written off as for the sake of national security.
Recently, the CCP was given an opportunity to flex its virtual propagating muscle. Late 2010 and early 2011 saw the dawn of the “Arab Spring” or “Jasmine Revolution,” a period of riots and protests in numerous countries of North Africa. The demonstrations carried out in these regions concerned “surging food prices, poverty, unemployment, and authoritarian rule,” and some cases resulted in the overthrow of the government. Even though the latter complaints can easily be applied to China, the process of delegitimizing the rising movement began with lack of coverage. Reporting of the protests are limited to scant stories buried in state newspapers and a single broadcast on China Central Television. Additionally, the state network filters have blocked the word “Egypt,” as the regime was one of the first to suffer an ouster. In fact, because the original Jasmine protestors communicated via social networking services such as Twitter and Facebook, the same circumstances will not likely align for active Chinese dissidents. China’s flies are stuck in their own web, far away from the hornet’s nest developing in the third world.
China’s own “Jasmine Revolution” took place in early 2011, though the events that unfolded in the People’s Republic can hardly be compared to the aforementioned upheaval. Still, it is no coincidence that the reassertion of purpose by Ye and Zhao was penned following the largest Chinese protest ever organized online. The initial call to action came from an overseas Chinese dissident site with impetus during the Arab Spring. These proponents soon had their message picked up on Twitter where it immediately trended abroad and, where possible, in the mainland. Activists managing to circumvent restrictions organized sporadic gatherings of demonstrators, holding jasmine flowers in silent opposition. To quash the resistance, the state hindered communication via mobile companies and disabled some users’ messaging services. On the ground, police arrested and beat protestors and even foreign journalists. One BBC correspondent witnessed a cameraman being “set upon by five men [plainclothes police] who kicked, and punched him in the face” before he was hospitalized. A generation ago the CCP learned the consequences of letting a movement snowball during Tiananmen; 2011 will not be the next 1989. Still, the escalating violence is only against combatants in information warfare, or what the state convincingly emphasizes as the most dangerous modern form of subversion.
Discrediting opposition is not limited to citing national security concerns. The government recently arrested Ai Weiwei, a popular but controversial activist-artist who publically endorsed the Jasmine-inspired civil disobedience. As son of perhaps the most famous modern (state-approved) poet, Ai has been relatively free to exercise his own style of mild cultural subversion. In a statement about the Jasmine Revolution in China, Ai concluded, “the government cannot afford to lose this battle.” For once, perhaps, the state would agree with Ai. He was detained for months under the dubious charge of tax evasion, an unrelated charge that distracts the issue. The CCP crippled their ideological opponents with one-sided media, appeals to national security, and an extra-legal penal system.
More troubling than internal development of Internet controls are agreements from Western companies to restrict access within Chinese borders. Of course, the alternative to compliance with government policy is being blocked in its data filters. In any case, one of the more well-publicized incidents was Google’s acquiescence to government pressure: seemingly violating their company pledge (“don’t be evil”), Google began censoring search results in the mainland four years after the 2002 entry into the Chinese market. Now, users are offered pictures of “happy smiley tourists” when they search for Tiananmen Square images. Google is apparently undergoing recalcitrance on China, since as of late their Chinese front page (google.cn) includes a link to the server based in the less tightly-regulated Hong Kong (google.com/hk), a relatively autonomous Special Administrative Region within the People’s Republic. Given that hollowed-out searches offer unprecedented access to information, enterprises like Google may be able to rationalize submission to the status quo. Other companies seem eager to kowtow only for profit.
On the whole, the international community is hesitant to issue anything but unofficial condemnation to China regarding the Internet. During a visit to Shanghai in 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama held a town-hall-style meeting with university students and was asked if he knew about “the firewall” and whether they should “be able to use Twitter freely.” Obama evaded confronting the Chinese government, clarifying that he was a “big supporter of non-censorship” and ostensibly not an opponent of restriction. After touting the possibilities of a “free Internet,” including his own successful “bottom-up” campaign for the presidency, Obama countered with the “downside to technology” meaning “that terrorists are able to organize on the Internet in ways that they might not have been able to do before. Extremists can mobilize. And so there's some price that you pay for openness, there's no denying that.” Such is music to CCP ears; America and its allies’ War on Terror is playing out as internet access explodes within China. Ideally, as Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights dictates, “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.” Unfortunately this vision is undermined by a subsequent caveat, restricting it in cases which might threaten "the protection of national security or public order." As such, the party line for continued repression is straightforward: online subversion is just another form of terrorism. Really, even if Obama, the American government, or any other legal body wanted to break down the repressive Chinese web, insistence on worldwide eradication of terrorism has them in a rhetorical corner.
The panoptic vision of a many-eyed government has stifled any popular online campaigns for democracy. Many users are complacent, but those seeking change are wanting a legitimate campaign due to the tone set by the government. Swift examples made of users deviating from the party line prove this apprehension well-founded. These actions are enabled by Western companies doing business in China, which turn blind eyes to oppression for a better look at balance sheets. The government interest in online regulation is both immediate and long-term: a population kept ignorant of a democratized internet will be slower to call for similar proceedings in politics, while the government can strengthen its digital arsenal in the name of, or under the guise of, national security. Despite this buildup, Western governments, like the United States that espouses universal democracy, are too preoccupied combating terrorism to investigate China’s suspect use of the label. In any case, this kind of control over the Internet has allowed the spider, the CCP, to spin a most entangling web. Short of a massive breach in government cyber defenses, or dissatisfied users merging with other social unrest movements (such as the oft-neglected migrant labor market) to create a sizable coalition opposition, the initial fray in the web will not come from within. Because of the increasing role of e-commerce and industry dependence on the Internet, it remains to be seen whether this Chinese weave can mesh with an increasingly globalized net; spiders are by nature territorial.
Kyle Bridge is a senior History major and Education minor at the University of North Florida, specializing in 20th-century American politics and culture. Kyle aspires to a career in secondary public school teaching and aims ultimately for instructing at the collegiate level.
Kyle Bridge, “The Spider and Its Web: The Internet Control in China,” Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History 1, no.2 (Summer 2011).