China’s Return to Global Glory
Engagement or Protectionism? US Policy towards China
James A. Dorn
China and the United States: Learning to Live Together
China’s Economic Transformation
Shalendra D. Sharma
China’s Reformists: From Liberalism to the ‘Third Way’
Nationalism and Democratisation in Contemporary China
An Inadequate Metaphor: The Great Firewall and Chinese Internet Censorship
China and Africa: Dynamics of an Enduring Relationship
Garth le Pere
China’s Role in Central Asia: Soft and Hard Power
Islam in China: Beijing’s Hui and Uighur Challenge
Dru C. Gladney
Persians and Greeks: Hollywood and the Clash of Civilisations
Kaveh L. Afrasiabi
Choosing Chinas: Friend or Foe?
James H. Nolt
Israel’s Glass Wall
Volume 9 ● Number 1–2 ● Winter/Spring 2007—The Rise of China
An Inadequate Metaphor: The Great Firewall and Chinese Internet Censorship
The dynamics in the relationship between the Chinese state and its control over information flows shifted up another gear with the advent of the Internet. The remapping of this relationship has given rise to numerous metaphors that attempt to make some sense of the new situation. These new metaphors determine the way the Internet continues to develop, what kind of information it will carry and what its primary purpose is. How we choose our metaphors also has important legal and political ramifications, as analogy is one of the most often used road maps for judicial decision-making and policy design when it comes to technological change.
The metaphor most frequently used in describing and understanding Internet censorship in China is that of the Great Firewall. In this essay, I argue that our (ab)use of the Great Firewall metaphor leads to blind spots that obscure and limit our understanding of Internet censorship in the People’s Republic. A metaphor is a way of understanding one thing in terms of another. Metaphors are often useful for helping us to understand new, complex and often contradictory situations, but they do so by highlighting and focusing on one set of characteristics while neglecting others. I am not arguing that in our efforts to think about the Internet in China we should move beyond the censorship issue, but that even within our discussions of censorship there are issues we do not properly understand because of the Great Firewall metaphor we employ over and over again. To illuminate the existence of these blind spots, I use the term Great Firewall myth (as opposed to metaphor). By using the word “myth”, however, I am not denying the existence of Internet censorship in China. On the contrary. The Great Firewall myth is the belief that China’s efforts to censor the Internet must ultimately fail, and that the Internet will eventually lead to the country’s democratisation.
Our understanding of a complex phenomenon, such as the Internet in China, is constructed through a selective process of powerful acts of imagination. These acts of imagination and fantasising often reveal much about ourselves and the way we come to understand and make sense of the world. Therefore, it is more productive to think about myths as being alive or dead rather than as true or false. What does it mean, then, that the Great Firewall myth is so very much alive? This essay will discuss two questions: first, what is the Great Firewall metaphor telling us about Internet censorship in China, and more importantly, what is it not telling us? Second, what does the Great Firewall myth tell us with regard to how the West attempts to understand the Internet in China, for whom is the myth useful, why does it persist and how does it affect policymaking?
Metaphor and Myth
The Great Firewall metaphor consists of two parts: it refers firstly to the Great Wall of China, and secondly to a computer firewall, an Internet-technology security device intended to protect and shield one’s own network from other networks by selectively permitting or denying traffic. The Great Wall was originally constructed to keep the “barbarians” out of China. Similarly, the Great Firewall metaphor signifies China’s desire to block “undesirable” content from reaching the People’s Republic.
Interestingly, the computer firewall is itself a metaphor, borrowing heavily from the original meaning of a firewall: a flame-resistant barrier used to prevent fires from spreading throughout a building. In sum, the Great Firewall metaphor denotes an increasingly xenophobic China that disengages itself from the world by using the latest technologies to erect barriers of censorship. What I call the Great Firewall myth is the claim that such disengagement and censorship will be impossible, and that the Internet will ultimately result in the democratisation of China.
One often forgets that in China itself there are myths surrounding the Internet, albeit different from that of the Great Firewall. The Internet in China is cast in terms of informatisation, modernisation, globalisation and ultimately, transcendence. Jiang Zemin, president of the People’s Republic from 1993 to 2003, often referred to one of the priests of cyberspace, Alvin Toffler, and his “third wave” theory in justifying his decision to develop the Internet in China. Having missed the “second wave” of industrialisation, the Chinese government was determined not to miss out on the third wave of informatisation. Developing the Internet is a key component of this strategy.
If China’s desire to participate in the third wave is motivated (at least in part) by frustration at having missed the second wave, it is important to see the impact of technology in China in a historical context. Technology has always played an ambivalent role in the Chinese quest for modernisation. It was crucial in making possible the organised violence of the mid-nineteenth-century Opium Wars, in which the West was able to leverage its superior level of industrialisation into forcing its opium on China in order to restore the trade balance. As Samuel Huntington observes, “The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion … but rather by its superiority in applying organised violence. Westerners often forget this fact; non-Westerners never do.”1
China realises that technology, precisely because it was the major reason for its historical downfall, is essential to the country’s reclaiming what it considers to be its rightful position as world leader. Its ambivalent attitude towards technology is perhaps best summed up in the Chinese concept of tiyong: “Chinese learning as substance, Western learning for practical use.” The concept states a clear separation between technology itself and the morals and values that shape its impact, diffusion, and use.
A similar separation of values and technology can be seen in Beijing’s desire to secure the economic advantages the Internet brings while simultaneously attempting to limit and manage its political disadvantages and drawbacks. Can the Chinese government have it both ways? Two possible answers seem directly at odds with each other: on the one hand, the Great Firewall myth implies the impossibility of separating from the Internet as technology its democratising influence, while on the other hand, tiyong is a normative approach that tries to use the Internet as a technology but one infused with “Chinese” values.
Is it possible to isolate democratising values from the Internet? Judging by how the Chinese government is able to buy and employ router technology from Western companies such as Nortel and Cisco, instilling it with “Chinese” values and mastering the art of Internet filtering like no other government in the world, such isolating would seem to be distinctly possible. However, Western observers commonly stress the impossibility and futility of censoring the Internet. Just as the Great Wall failed to keep the barbarians out, so it will be impossible to keep information flows out of the Chinese Internet. The Internet is seen as a Trojan Horse (another metaphor) that will eventually disempower the Chinese state from within and topple the authoritarian government, just as the barbarians did in previous times.
This is part and parcel of the Great Firewall myth. It was utilised by the Clinton administration to justify granting China “permanent normal trade relations” in 2000, clearing the way for it to join the World Trade Organisation. Clinton particularly emphasised the liberalising force of the Internet, famously stating that the Chinese effort to prevent it from being used to spread ideas of freedom and democracy was “like trying to nail Jello to the wall”. However, in regarding the Internet as an economically advantageous, but politically disadvantageous technology for China, we forget to consider at least two things: what are the economic disadvantages, and what are the political advantages, that the Internet brings for the Chinese government? I do not presume to give a comprehensive answer to these questions in this essay, but merely wish to point out how we might be blinded from even considering them because they do not fit neatly into the framework of the Great Firewall myth. Instead, I will consider several issues that we tend to ignore through our use of the Great Firewall metaphor.
A Barrier against the West?
First, the Great Firewall is a spatial metaphor. It depicts a situation in which China is protecting its own boundaries from foreign flows of data that might threaten the Communist Party’s monopoly on information. The metaphor represents China as closing itself up and censoring everything that comes in from the outside. One literally envisions a wall surrounding China.
However, the dichotomy that separates space into categories of inside and outside the Great Firewall is problematic. It gives the impression that censorship is practised only on information that lies outside the Great Firewall: after all, that is the purpose of the protection the wall provides. Attempts to “break down” the Great Firewall focus on countering censorship technology with more and better technology, resulting in a cat-and-mouse game between activists and censors. Just as important, though, if not more so, is the censorship of information that flows within China’s legal jurisdiction, and this censorship is of a vastly different nature. Here, Beijing does not have to rely solely on filtering technology, but rather uses a mix of socio-legal, political and economic methods in order to censor—something companies such as Yahoo!, Microsoft and Google have themselves experienced, being criticised in the worldwide press for complying with the regime’s demands. In order to do business in China, one has to find a way of working with the government. The image of the Great Firewall protecting China from the West thus obscures the fact that “undesirable” information often comes not from the West but from within China itself.
Examples of stories originating inside China whose truth was ultimately uncovered through local Internet use include an explosion at a school in Jiangxi province in 2001. Officials initially said the blast had been carried out by a madman. This explanation was challenged by Chinese Internet users, whose efforts eventually exposed an attempted cover-up of the fact that children at the school were being forced to make fireworks. Without the electronic bulletin boards and the Internet, it would have been much harder to reveal the truth of this story. Zhu Rongji, China’s then vice-premier, offered an apology for the way the government handled the incident, an act of official contrition which remains quite unprecedented.
Another example of a scandal publicised and acted upon because of Chinese Internet use is the case of Sun Zhigang, a young fashion designer who travelled to Guangzhou in March 2003 to seek work but wound up dead just a month later while held in police custody. Sun was stopped by the local police, who asked him for his identity card and a temporary residency permit. The permit is required for those seeking to work outside their home province. Sun failed to produce the required identification and was brought to the local police station. When he refused to co-operate with the police, pointing out his rights, he was transferred to a migrant detention centre. Friends sought to visit him, but were told he had died of a heart attack, even though he had no history of heart problems. An autopsy indicated he had been beaten to death. The story circulated widely on the Internet and the subsequent public outrage led the government to make significant changes in policy. Migrant detention centres were turned into voluntary service centres and the requirement for temporary residency permits was abolished.
An Internal Clamp
Second, besides its misleading spatial characteristics, the Great Firewall metaphor hints at the difficulty only of receiving information, not sending it. Censorship prevents the barbarians from coming in, but does it also prevent the Chinese from going out? The concept of free speech has two aspects: the right to receive information, but also the right to impart it.
Consider, for example, China’s continued blocking of websites that facilitate the imparting of information in one way or another. Traditionally, websites that allow users to host Web pages, such as Geocities, are blocked in China and this has extended to websites that host blogs, such as Blogger and Typepad, and even Wikipedia. This does not mean that Chinese Internet users cannot make Web pages or have blogs, just that they cannot do so on servers hosted outside China. In free-speech doctrine, another way of negating speech you do not like, besides censoring it, is to provide counter speech, and this is exactly what the Chinese government is doing. Its strategy is twofold: block websites outside China that facilitate speech, and funnel the users to websites that facilitate speech but are hosted inside China. While Chinese Internet users cannot access Blogger, Typepad or Wikipedia, there are the local Chinese variants, such as Blogbus, Bokee and Baidupedia. Lawrence Lessig, professor of law at Stanford Law School, sees the future of the Internet as lying in a struggle between a read-only Web that treats its audience as passive, and a read–write Web where users actively contribute content.2 In examining censorship, we need to focus not only on how the Great Firewall makes it hard for Chinese users to access information, but also on how it creates barriers to their having their own external voice and contributing to the rest of the world.
US communications policy, however, is still mostly based on the idea of censorship as the impossibility of receiving information from outside, neglecting censorship that takes place within China as well as ignoring the potential of the Internet to impart speech. This approach has led to the relatively unsuccessful funding of so-called “technologies of freedom” such as proxy software developed by Safeweb called Triangle Boy, which purports to allow users to have unrestricted access to the Internet. As of this writing, both support and distribution of the tool have been halted. It has also led to discussions such as the November 2002 roundtable by the Congressional–Executive Commission on China entitled “China’s Cyber-Wall: Can Technology Break Through?”, in which the emphasis is again on censorship in terms of accessing information outside China.3 Finally, it has led to the bill proposed by Congressman Chris Cox in 2003, tentatively named the “Global Internet Freedom Act”. The bill, whose purpose is “to develop and deploy technologies to defeat Internet jamming”, again focuses solely on the right to receive information:
Unrestricted access to news and information on the Internet is a check on authoritarian rule by repressive foreign governments in countries around the world.
The governments of Burma, Cuba, Iran, Laos, the Maldives, North Korea, the People’s Republic of China, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Vietnam, among others, are taking active measures to prevent their citizens from freely accessing the Internet and from obtaining international political, religious, and economic news and information.
The bill was amended in 2006 and proposed again by Representative Chris Smith, this time named the “Global Online Freedom Act”. Its declared purpose is “to promote freedom of expression on the Internet [and] to protect United States businesses from coercion to participate in repression by authoritarian foreign governments”. The Global Online Freedom Act is an improvement on its predecessor in that it realises that concentrating just on breaking down the Great Firewall is to have a restricted understanding of the nature of censorship:
The Internet has played a role in bringing international attention to issues the discussion of which are [sic] forbidden by authoritarian foreign governments, such as attempts by the Government of the People’s Republic of China to suppress news of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2004.
While the dominant theme is still the blocking of outside information from flowing into China, the second bill at least recognises that there are also attempts to censor information from within the People’s Republic, both preventing it getting to the outside world and denying Chinese citizens knowledge of it.
Third, the Great Firewall metaphor hints at repression: Chinese Internet users are being prevented from receiving the information they want. But how many people in China disapprove of censorship? In 2005, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) conducted a survey of Internet use in five Chinese cities: Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chengdu, and Changsha. Asked whether the Internet “should be controlled or managed”, 36.8 per cent of respondents deemed such control “very necessary”, while 45.6 per cent deemed it “somewhat necessary”. This is an overwhelming majority (82.4 per cent) in favour of Internet regulation and does not differ greatly from the results in a 2003 CASS survey (86.1 per cent). When asked about specific types of content, majorities want regulation of pornography (85 per cent), violence (73 per cent) and spam (53 per cent). A small percentage believes there should also be regulation of political content (8 per cent), while a rising concern is online gambling (16 per cent).4
Moreover, what the figures are unable to show is the indignation felt by at least some Chinese Internet users over Western perceptions of their situation. In what was dubbed the “great China censorship hoax”, two Chinese bloggers, nicknamed Massage Milk and Milk Pig, reported that their blogs were shutdown in April 2006. The Western media picked up the story and coverage spread wide and fast. However, it turned out that the claimed shutdown was merely an experiment by the two bloggers, who were quite critical of the Western media, and particularly of their tendency to confine their interest in the Chinese Internet to matters of censorship. Although one cannot generalise the opinion of two bloggers to the rest of the online population in China, it does serve as a reminder of the limitations of the Great Firewall metaphor. As one China Internet–watcher, Rebecca MacKinnon, states:
Outside observers of Internet and politics in China would do well to focus on the impact of blogs beyond the narrow scope of overt political protest and obvious political change. Most Western media attention focuses on those instances where bloggers clash with government censors or the web hosting companies who act as proxies for government censors. But to look only at these instances of conflict is to miss a great deal of what is really happening, much more quietly, under the surface. Powerful socio-political change can be expected to emerge as a result of the millions of online conversations taking place daily on the Chinese Internet: conversations that manage to stay comfortably within the confines of censorship. With each passing day, these conversations do their quiet part to move the collective Chinese mind yet another step further from government control.
There are signs that the Internet does help Chinese people to learn about the outside world. The 2005 CASS survey found that adult Internet users spend a significant amount of time on websites that are either foreign-based or have foreign-language content. In 2001, they spent about 9 per cent of their time on foreign-language content and 15 per cent on Chinese-language content provided by foreign-based websites—i.e., almost one-quarter of their time online. This figure fell to 15 per cent in 2005. How significant this downfall is, is hard to determine. It would be interesting to compare foreign-related Internet use in China to that in other countries and to assess whether the decline is a blip or a long-term trend.
The Internet in China has proliferated over the last decade, having grown from some half a million users in October 1997 to more than 123 million as of June 2006. This amazing growth hardly looks like evidence of repression. Yet, that censorship is practised is hard to deny in the face of overwhelming evidence. The OpenNet Initiative goes so far as to proclaim that
China’s Internet filtering regime is the most sophisticated effort of its kind in the world. Compared to similar efforts in other states, China’s filtering regime is pervasive, sophisticated, and effective. It comprises multiple levels of legal regulation and technical control. It involves numerous state agencies and thousands of public and private personnel.5
A question one could ask, then, is whether this kind of censorship practised by the Chinese government is a sign of repression. What does the incredible growth in the number of Internet users in China mean in the face of a filtering regime that is “the most sophisticated effort of its kind in the world”? One might argue that the more sophisticated the censorship effort, the less repressive it is. Or perhaps we are all thinking within the wrong box that the Great Firewall metaphor suggests, one in which freedom and control are antagonistic and constitute a zero-sum game: an increase in one means a decrease in the other. The stunning empirical findings about the growth and extent of Chinese Internet use, findings we are still struggling to make sense of, seem to indicate that both freedom and control are increased by the Internet. It is time to consider new ways of understanding the Internet in China.
Misreading the Chinese Internet
The main limitation of the Great Firewall metaphor on our thinking is that it conceptualises the Internet as a place, and in particular one kind of place, that of a news medium, somewhere you go to find information. But what about conceptualising the Internet as a school (e-learning), a shopping mall (e-commerce), a post-office (e-mail), a social meeting-place (online chatrooms), a bank (online banking), or even somewhere “just to have fun”? This list is by no means exhaustive and is an invitation to think beyond the Internet in China as being a place just to get your news. The Internet has known many metaphors, including one as space, but also as a way of being or a tool.
What are the myths we have about the Internet here in the West? In a wonderfully eloquent book called The Digital Sublime, Vincent Mosco identifies at least three interrelated Western myths about cyberspace: the end of history, the end of politics, and the end of geography.6 The end of history argues that the Internet is a revolutionary technology responsible for a rupture in time: there has been nothing like it before. The end of geography is the claim that distance has become irrelevant, that the Internet has remade space and place so as to render it hard if not impossible for sovereign entities to maintain territorial barriers—such as, one might imagine, a Great Firewall. The end of politics is the claim that the Internet will be all-inclusive, that it will bring power close to the people and transform politics as we know it.
We can see, then, that the Great Firewall myth—the belief that Beijing will be unable to control or censor the Internet effectively, and that in fact the Internet will lead to the democratising of China—is a natural extension of how we in the West make sense of cyberspace ourselves through the three myths we have about it, what Mosco calls the end of history, geography and politics. We are making a classic mistake in trying to understand what is happening in China through our own fantasies and dreams about cyberspace.
These fantasies have real-world implications when they affect public policy. I mentioned earlier the funding of Safeweb and Triangle Boy, the Clinton administration’s granting to China of permanent normal trade relations, and the proposed Global Internet Freedom Act to defeat Internet jamming. The Internet, as a technology, did not just materialise out of thin air, but was created in the socio-political context of the Cold War, during which the doctrine of the free flow of information was particularly influential in shaping US communications policy. That doctrine has a political and an economic component. The political component promotes Western, and in particular US, values of democracy, freedom of speech, and antipathy to media regulation and censorship by the state. The economic component, as part of free-market discourse, holds that media companies should be able to sell whatever they wish, wherever they wish.
The free flow of information doctrine today continues to govern US communications policy regarding the Internet in China. Thus, the Western media constantly harp on how the Internet will pose an insurmountable threat to authoritarian governments such as China’s, which futilely attempt to maintain their information monopoly. The Internet is seen as an unstoppable force, distinct from and outside society, not a part of it. However, as Mosco points out, it is only when technologies “enter the prosaic world of banality … that they become important forces for social and economic change”.7 Technology will not have a big impact in China until it becomes banal, invisible and infused in the many layers of society. The enormous growth of the Chinese Internet indicates that it is well on its way to banality. It will change and is already changing Chinese society. However, its impact is inconsistent with what the Great Firewall myth predicts. To assess its true impact on the social and political life of China, we as scholars need to think beyond the Great Firewall metaphor.
As symbolised by the title of the first e-mail sent from China, “Beyond the Great Wall, Joining The World”, China’s intention was to open itself up to the world, but ironically, Western observers have been focusing solely on its efforts to enclose itself with metaphorical walls. Caught in a binary where freedom and control are considered a zero-sum game, we are extremely confused by China as a case-study, as the Internet seemingly increases both freedom and control. When faced with complex situations, we often rely on metaphors to create meaning. One particular metaphor, the “Great Firewall”, continues to shape, affect, but ultimately limit, our understanding of and subsequent policies on the Chinese Internet. The Great Firewall as a symbol of China’s xenophobia is a kind of cultural anthropological positivism that creates grounds for misunderstandings and partial views about the Internet in China at various levels. If we want to make a start at understanding the Internet in China in all its complexity, the first step we need to take is to think beyond the Great Firewall metaphor, and second, to consider the situatedness and materiality of the Internet in China, what Mosco calls the prosaic world of banality. Paraphrasing the first e-mail ever sent from China, we need to think “beyond the Great Firewall (in considering how China is) joining the world”.
1. Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996), p. 51.
2. Lawrence Lessig, “Creatives Face a Closed Net”, Financial Times (London), 28 December 2005.
3. Links to transcripts of the roundtable talks are available at [http://www.cecc.gov/pages/roundtables/110402/index.php].
4. Guo Liang, The CASS Internet Report 2005: Surveying Internet Usage and Impact in Five Chinese Cities (Beijing: Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, 2005).
5. OpenNet Initiative, “Internet Filtering in China in 2004–2005: A Country Study” [http://www.opennetinitiative.net/studies/china/ONI_China_Country_Study.pdf].
6. Vincent Mosco, The Digital Sublime: Myth, Power, and Cyberspace (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004).
7. Ibid., p. 6.