China’s scary lesson to the world: Censoring the Internet works

Rachel Orr/The Washington Post

China’s scary lesson to the world: Censoring the Internet works
The Washington Post, May 23, 2016
World: Asia & Pacific
By Simon Denyer

“BEHIND THE FIREWALL: How China tamed the Internet | This is part 1 of 6 of a series examining the impact of China’s Great Firewall, a mechanism of Internet censorship and surveillance that affects nearly 700 million users.”


“After two decades of Internet development under the Communist Party’s firm leadership, [China’s Internet czar, Lu Wei] said, his country had struck the correct balance between ‘freedom and order’ and between ‘openness and autonomy.’”


BEIJING — First there was the Berlin Wall. Now there is the Great Firewall of China, not a physical barrier preventing people from leaving, but a virtual one, preventing information harmful to the Communist Party from entering the country.


Just as one fell, so will the other be eventually dismantled, because information, like people, cannot be held back forever.


Or so the argument goes.


But try telling that to Beijing. Far from knocking down the world’s largest system of censorship, China in fact is moving ever more confidently in the opposite direction, strengthening the wall’s legal foundations, closing breaches and reinforcing its control of the Web behind the wall.


Defensive no more about its censorship record, China is trumpeting its vision of “Internet sovereignty” as a model for the world and is moving to make it a legal reality at home. At the same time — confounding Western skeptics — the Internet is nonetheless thriving in China, with nearly 700 million users, putting almost 1 in 4 of the world’s online population behind the Great Firewall.


China is the world’s leader in e-commerce, with digital retail sales volume double that of the United States and accounting for a staggering 40 percent of the global total, according to digital business research company eMarketer. Last year, it also boasted four of the top 10 Internet companies in the world ranked by market capitalization, according to the data website Statista, including e-commerce giant Alibaba, social-media and gaming company Tencent and search specialists Baidu.


“This path is the choice of history, and the choice of the people, and we walk the path ever more firmly and full of confidence,” China’s Internet czar, Lu Wei, boasted in January.


After two decades of Internet development under the Communist Party’s firm leadership, he said, his country had struck the correct balance between “freedom and order” and between “openness and autonomy.” It is traveling, he said, on a path of “cyber-governance with Chinese characteristics.”


What China calls the “Golden Shield” is a giant mechanism of censorship and surveillance that blocks tens of thousands of websites deemed inimical to the Communist Party’s narrative and control, including Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and even Instagram.


In April, the U.S. government officially classified it as a barrier to trade, noting that eight of the 25 most trafficked sites globally were now blocked here. The American Chamber of Commerce in China says that 4 out of 5 of its member companies report a negative impact on their business from Internet censorship.


Yet there is to be no turning back. Later this year, China is expected to approve a new law on cybersecurity that would codify, organize and strengthen its control of the Internet.


It has introduced new rules restricting foreign companies from publishing online content and proposed tighter rules requiring websites to register domain names with the government.


Apple was an early victim, announcing in April that its iTunes Movies and iBooks services were no longer available in China, six months after their launch here (though shortly after it announced a $1 billion investment in a Chinese car service).


As it pursues a broad crackdown on free speech and civil society, China has tightened the screws on virtual private network (VPN) providers that allow people to tunnel under the Firewall.


The changes are not, as some initially feared, a move to cut off access to the outside world and establish a Chinese intranet but are instead an attempt to extend legal control and supervision over what is posted online within the country, experts say.


Indeed, China’s Firewall is far more sophisticated and multi-tiered than a simple on-off switch: It is an attempt to bridge one of the country’s most fundamental contradictions — to have an economy intricately connected to the outside world but a political culture closed off from such “Western values” as free speech and democracy.


The Internet arrived in China in January 1996, and China first started systematically blocking some foreign websites in August 1996. (The nickname the Great Firewall was first coined by Wired magazine in 1997.)


But the system as it stands now really only began to be developed and implemented in the early 2000s. Google was first blocked, for nine days, in September 2002. YouTube was blocked after unrest in Tibet in 2008, and Facebook and Twitter followed after riots in Xinjiang in 2009.


Still, there have always been deliberate loopholes.

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About the Author:

Simon Denyer is The Washington Post’s bureau chief in Tokyo, covering Japan and the Koreas. He served previously as bureau chief in China, and in India; a Reuters bureau chief in Washington, New Delhi, Islamabad and Kabul; and as a Reuters correspondent in Nairobi, New York and London. He is author of “Rogue Elephant: Harnessing the Power of India’s Unruly Democracy,”, and the co-editor of “Foreign Correspondent: Fifty Years of Reporting South Asia.” He has also made frequent TV and radio appearances, including on BBC, CNN, NPR, PBS, Fox News, MSNBC, CNBC and Sky News, as well as India’s NDTV, Times Now and CNN-IBN.

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