Inside the Great Firewall

The Publicity Department of the Communist Party of China (read: China’s Ministry of Truth) is well-known for its successful monitoring and censorship of Chinese media and internet.

China Digital Times, a California-based website managed by a UC Berkeley professor, maintains a list of leaked ‘censorship instructions’ issued by Minitrue. If you spend some time browsing the links, you’ll find recent examples such as “Delete All Content Related to Panama Papers” and “Don’t Hype, Speculate, or Comment on Brexit.” State run newspapers and media outlets that want to survive  within China obediently follow Minitrue’s directives. For those companies such as Facebook, Google, or NYT, CNN, the Economist etc., that keep servers outside of China’s sovereign borders, China employs the most effective filtering and censorship apparatus to date. Packets traveling both into and out of the country must pass through routers along the border that constantly filter out keywords related to the June 4th Incident or Ai Wei Wei. At times, entire websites accessible to the rest of the world simply do not load within China’s borders. Here stands the Great Firewall.

There’s a saying in Chinese: “You’re not a true man until you’ve climbed the Great Wall.” As a visitor in China who paid for ExpressVPN, I got to personally experience the Great Firewall myself and replaced the old adage in my mind with a 21st century injection of technology and gender-neutrality: “You’re not a true netizen until you’ve climbed the Great Firewall.”

This is a screenshot of my phone when I Baidu’d “Panama Papers.”

In English, the autocomplete results are:
“What are the Panama Papers”
“Panama Papers Leak”
“Panama Papers, China’s Secret”
“Panama Papers situation”

And when I press enter, I see:

As someone who believes in the power of data, increased access to information, and connectedness, I’m pretty sad about the situation of China’s censorship.

Recently, the CCP has slowly begun replacing economic prosperity with nationalism as a way to legitimate its own rule; symptoms of this emerge in “My China Dream” campaigns and tension in the South China Sea. Ideologically, Chinese concerns with subsistence rights over political rights extends back to ancient times (Perry, 2008). So even college graduates, who ought to champion free access to information, levy the argument that while liberal democracy might be a nice end-goal, it would trigger instability in China and threaten economic prosperity. Chinese history unlike the United States’, they’d say, consists of millennia of warring states and questionable claims to Inner Mongolia, Tibet, the South China Sea, Taiwan. Going to college, finding a job, and buying a house in cities such as Beijing are so tough, a generation of Chinese may choose to trade political freedoms for stability. It’s not wonder that Emily Parker in her book about internet censorship (Now I Know Who My Comrades Are) describes China as apathetic.

For me in these discussions, a useful way of asking for increased access to information would be to separate it fully from a debate about the relative benefits and dangers of Western liberal democracy. In fact, terms like “Freedom of Speech” itself code values of American democracy promotion and immediately conjure images of Western Imperial powers. Instead, I ask for access to information and data. Restricting this flow of information available to people outside of the Great Firewall may seriously impact the China’s grip on reality.


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