February 28, 2008
Stopping the Signal: Another Look at China's "Great Firewall"

With the Beijing 2008 Olympics fast approaching and the recent announcement by the International Olympics Committee to allow athletes to post personal blogs during the games, so long as they follow fairly limiting content guidelines, talk is buzzing again around China's so-called "Great Firewall," now with the addition of the "Golden Shield" -- an elaborate filtering system that prevents undesirable internet content from being viewed.

According to a great article by James Fallows at The Atlantic, plans are in place to open up a range of IP addresses that the government expects to cater to foreign visitors for the length of the games.

The move comes as no surprise to anyone who's been inside a high-end Chinese hotel where the extravagant lobbies give way to mediocre rooms where the curtains don't hang right: China has been notoriously good at putting on a show for western visitors (and potential investors).

But that they plan to open IP addresses not just in hotels, but internet cafes they expect to have tourist traffic, says something about the fundamental purpose of the firewall. After all, the visitors of the chosen internet cafes cannot be exclusively western, and if the primary goal of the firewall was to fully block access to western and "controversial" media as is often depicted in the popular press, the government wouldn't be compromising it for the sake of visitors who would be coming for the Olympic games regardless of whether or not they can check their blog feeds.

The western press has repeatedly pointed out that the firewall as a way to block subversive content and ideas isn't sustainable, that technology, in the form of VPNs and proxy servers are already finding big gaping loopholes in the system. These journalists often point out that, what's more, the nature of information-sharing online cannot be blocked so easily and that China's system isn't sustainable in the long run.

All of this may very well be true, but as Fallows points out, the point isn't so much just to keep western media out, but to keep China in, to ensure that journalists and bloggers know that "if they want to be read in china, they must operate within China." The Great Wall metaphor, as catchy as it is, starts to fall apart when we consider that "the west," has long invaded the Chinese consciousness. Western magazines and other media are fairly easy to come by in larger cities, and pirated western film and television stream online at much faster speeds inside China than outside, in my experience. Which is to say, China's unwillingness to fall in line with American ideals of a post-communist world isn't a result of the government's technological blockade. The issues surrounding China's emergence into a developed nation and an economic power are complex and while they may not have the same types of social freedoms that we ostensibly value in the US, neither are they cowering victims of the government's iron fist. At the very least, many citizens are experiencing degrees of cultural freedom and economic prosperity unheard of decades ago and likely aren't willing to risk it for a chance to read the bbc online.

In touting technology as the solution to China's censorship and social control issues, we run the risk of glossing over the complex mechanisms of control that go into successful censorship. The Chinese government in all likelihood recognizes the impossibility of really controlling online traffic, not just because of the technology but also because of the commercial needs of both domestic and foreign corporations--of China's bottom line. What the firewall does is provide an additional barrier, and added nuisance and reminder that you're doing something potentially prosecutable, a far more effective tactic than full-out blocking.

After all, the censorship doesn't begin and end with not being able to access some websites or getting your blog taken down -- it can have very harsh real-world consequences, and thus relies on mechanisms of self-censorship as much as if might rely on the effectiveness of its state-of-the-art technology.

The Sun Zhigang case cited in the Wired article back in October, for instance, may have stirred tens of thousands of people online and changed some bureaucratic policy, but the staff from a Chinese paper that looked into the case were consequently sentenced to lengthy prison terms for "corruption" and Sun Zhigang's father was quoted as bemoaning the fact that his son had been taught to argue with authorities. Which is to say, while it may be true that China's attempts to control what happens online are ultimately doomed to fail, just because people can get around government censors online doesn't mean that they will consider it worth the risk.

In the end, it seems that the Chinese government and the International Olympics Committee are not so different, despite the way China has been know to play fast and loose when it comes to regulations around IP. They both exercise rigorous levels of power and control over communication in service of the bottom line and they both recognize that it is far easier to prevent something from being written in the first place than to prevent its dissemination online after, that the best way to stop the signal to make sure that there's nothing to transmit.