The great firewall of China will fall

The great firewall of China will fall

Opinion piece (The Daily Telegraph)
Mark Leonard
26 January 2006

Google, the popular search engine that floated on the stock market last year, has not abandoned its corporate motto: "Don't be evil". But the global media have delighted in exposing the ethical contortions it has faced in setting up its new Chinese website. This company - founded by anarchists who believe that "information just wants to be free" - has done a deal with the world's biggest censor, and agreed to censor itself.

Until this week Google held out from doing a deal in China, while rivals such as Microsoft and Yahoo opened up Chinese sites and collaborated with Beijing. Embarrassed Google executives now reassure loyal users that they haven't sold out.

They say, with some justification, that their three-point plan - to show on the site where censorship has occurred; to restrict services so that no lists of names will be handed over to Beijing; and to maintain a Chinese-language site beyond the firewall - is a subtle response to an ethical dilemma. But these fine words cannot hide financial motives. Two years ago, Google's market share in the Middle Kingdom was 50 per cent. Today it is just 20 per cent. And with user surveys showing that the Google users are predominantly old and English-speaking, the writing is on the wall.

Less entertaining, but more interesting, is what this saga tells us about China. Obscured by the Schadenfreude at Google's fate are three important lessons. First, never underestimate the Chinese. When Sars broke out, the virus that closed many of the world's airports and annihilated business trips to Asia produced barely a blip on China's growth figures.

As for the internet, most dictatorships see it as akin to the weather. You can cover yourself when it rains, but you can't control the seasons. Only a few have had the audacity to try. Robert Mugabe shuts down domestic websites when they criticise the government, but his crude intimidation does not change the flow of information in and out of the country. Burma, Iran, Vietnam and Tunisia have tried to build a wall around their countries, but their protection is more like a sieve than a barrier.

Only Saudi Arabia has had a measure of success, bringing all traffic on to a single internet provider and screening out sites that offend its clerics with a web-link that explains the content is "un-Islamic".

China is 60 times the size of Saudi Arabia, and most experts agree that the sheer volume of traffic would be impossible to police. But Beijing has risen to the challenge, throwing people, money and technology at the problem. The more lurid accounts talk of an e-police force of 100,000 people employed to scour the net, blocking sites and checking e-mails. The numbers are exaggerated, but analysts agree that teams of computer scientists run a firewall with at least four different kinds of filter.

Second, look at what the Chinese are censoring. Much of the commentary suggests that China is an iron-clad Stalinist state, shielded from global events by the "great firewall of China".

But analogies with Russia and eastern Europe in the 1980s are misleading. The governments of the Soviet bloc looked on powerlessly as their grey world of propaganda was eclipsed by Technicolor images of a better life in the West.

But China is already part of the capitalist world. It is awash with information, products and all the baubles of the consumer society. With every year that passes, the number of people with access to these goodies grows.

What Google has been asked to censor are perennial political taboos: articles on Tibet, Taiwan, Tiananmen Square and Falun Gong - as well as pieces criticising the Communist Party's rule. But this kind of censorship is relatively subtle, aimed not at shutting China off from the world, but zeroing in on political controversy. Google estimates that less than two per cent of internet searches will be affected.

The third lesson is the most profound. What worries China the most is not information coming in from outside. It is Chinese people talking to one another. China's laws on the freedom of assembly are Draconian. Charities, trade unions and religious groups are kept under close surveillance and regularly banned. The ferocity with which the Communist Party suppresses the herbivorous and mild-mannered Falun Gong has puzzled many outside observers. But Beijing is not afraid of the content of their meetings; it is afraid of them meeting at all.

China's history of revolutions organised by secret societies and religious sects has taught the government to be careful. Its greatest fear is that, in a country where political gatherings are restricted, the net could provide a virtual meeting place for the masses to organise.

That explains the Chinese behaviour towards American companies that have already opened sites in Beijing. In December 2005, Microsoft controversially closed down the political blogger Michael Anti's site, following a request from the authorities. Yahoo went even further and provided information that helped to jail a dissident for 10 years, after he used a Yahoo e-mail to relay the contents of a secret government order.

But however impressive the Chinese mastery of the internet has become, it is hard to see how the profusion of information circulating around China can fail to leave its mark on the country's politics. The great firewall is already springing leaks. When Michael Anti's blog was shut down, its content was copied and distributed across the net.

Many Chinese are also taking refuge in the world of digital images, which can be sent between mobiles or e-mailed as attachments, escaping the filters of the censor. Finally, there is the ingenuity of the Chinese people, who often write to each other in coded language (using stories as allegories). This has led many cyber-pundits to predict that, although Google's avant-garde credentials have been tarnished, the dream of a democratic China has not been deferred.

Mark Leonard was director of foreign policy at the Centre for European Reform (2005-2007)