Evil Olympics, Opening Ceremonies: The Great Firewall Of China

On today, the day of the opening ceremonies of the Olympics, the People’s Republic China will do its very best to give the rest of the world a look at China and see something admirable. If only the leaders of the PRC would allow their own citizens to do the same with other nations. But because they understand that ideas are weeds that are very difficult to stamp out once they take root, China’s power-jealous leaders have placed their nation in an information quarantine. Winston Smith would have recognized it and shed a gin-soaked tear.

Although a technologically advanced country, filled with people familiar with computers, the internet, television, and video reports, it can be astonishing to learn what Chinese people do not know about the outside world — because their government will not allow them to learn these things. In particular, the internet would be a great way to disseminate information. But, the government of the PRC is well aware of that, and consequently has placed significant censorship barriers on the internet as it can be accessed from within China.

Centuries ago, the Imperial Chinese built the Great Wall of China to help keep Mongolian invaders out. So too has today’s PRC built the Great Firewall of China to keep out “subversive” information. This is officially referred to as the “Golden Shield Project.” News sources, blogs, or other sites containing offensive content are supposed to be accessible in mainland China.

“Subversive” material includes anything critical of the government of the PRC, for instance websites chronicling human rights abuses there. They also include sites that advocate or have open discussion of the issue of Tibetan independence or which refer to Taiwan as a politically distinct entity from the PRC. Historical discussion of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 are forbidden. Freedom of speech advocacy groups and websites of organizations advocating the spread of democracy are blocked. Nothing from Taiwan is allowed in from Taiwan at all. Groups related to Falun Gong or the Dalai Lama are also special targets for censorship, but anything trying to evangelize religion of any sort in China will be subject to great scrutiny. (I promise to discuss religion in China in a future post.)

Nearly 50,000 internet cafes have been closed since 2004, and it is not known how many people have been jailed or had their computer ownership privileges taken from them for accessing or distributing unauthorized information. It is known that at least 54 people were imprisoned for distributing information taken from outside China that was critical of the country’s response to the SARS outbreak of 2003. Further, internet service providers and other tech companies seeking to do business in China are required to cooperate with the government and permit the government a high degree of access, control, and investigation into how their services are used. Thus, warrantless searches of individual users’ internet use histories are available to the government on demand, and have been used to arrest human rights activists, artists, and religious figures thought to be dangerous to social stability or state security — with the collaboration of U.S. based ISP’s like Yahoo and Google.

Even the International Olympics Committee has bowed to the PRC’s demands for censorship of information on the internet. Despite the fact that IOC officials have said that internet censorship would “reflect very poorly” on the host nation, they have withdrawn their protests of inability to access certain kinds of websites including, among others, the entire website of Amnesty International.

The good news comes in two parts. First, the Golden Shield Project does not seem to apply in the special administrative areas of Hong Kong or Macau. The PRC seems content to let local governors there make censorship decisions, and those governors seem to appreciate the value of free debate and free exchange with the rest of the world (that’s how they got rich, after all) and the party leaders in Beijing may not be strictly comfortable with it, but they like the money just fine.

Second, the project itself is quite leaky. The government censors are overwhelmed with looking at all of the data and site names out there and have not yet figured out a way to get it all blocked. Additionally, determined internet users both inside and out of the PRC have figured out ways to circumvent the Golden Shield Project; unskilled users like me would have a problem but hackers can get their hands on a lot of information that the government doesn’t want them to see. That is, if they are interested enough in doing so to risk being detected committing a crime and to go to the trouble to get the information in the first place. Given that we’re talking about computer hackers here, I’m willing to bet that the stuff they’re going after are not the political sites advocating an independent Tibet or saying what a great dude the Dalai Lama is, but rather what they want is porn, glorious porn.

But, when the government makes things special targets of censorship, it seems to be pretty effective at keeping the information out of the hands of the internet user of average skill. Taiwanese media, Falun Gong, Tibetian separatists, and human rights monitors are the primary targets of the Golden Shield Project. You can tell if a site is banned or not by testing it against any number of test servers based outside of the PRC that try to tap the outside of the “Great Firewall of China”.

The pervasiveness of internet censorship in China is as sure a sign as I can point to that this is not an open, free society.

UPDATE: It’s beginning to interfere with foreign journalists covering the Olympics. And apparently restrictions on Chinese language websites have actually increased recently. More mind control.

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering litigator. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Recovering Former Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.