China’s Great Firewall: Fight or Flight?

Over the last decade, it has become more and more difficult to imagine life without media giants like Google, Facebook, or Youtube. Embedded in our cultures, they provide innovative platforms for comprehension, connection and entertainment. Yet, for those in mainland China, access to such platforms are limited or even forbidden.

Censorship in China has long been a subject of controversy, but the development of China’s own media sources like Baidu, Renren, and Youku seems to have temporarily mitigated censorship concerns. However, this acclimation should not be tolerated, for it endangers the truth and freedom already oppressed by censorship. In the fight for empowerment, we must address the Chinese government’s reign on digital control and understand how we can resist it. But first, we must understand the historical and political context of censorship in China, beginning with the construction of China’s Great Firewall.

The Construction of the Great Firewall
When the communist regime first rose to power in China, censorship was a means to control its populace. As time progressed and technology advanced, the Chinese government had to adapt its censorship tactics with the changing world.

The internet was first introduced to mainland China in 1994 as a necessary tool for economic growth, but the government also perceived it to be a threat to its political stability. By opening their country to the cyber world, the government also felt vulnerable to the internet’s natural niche for diverse thought and ideas—ideas which could very well impact China’s social masses and political ideologies.

To strike down the threat of Western democratic political and social influences, China’s Ministry of Public Security (MPS) initiated the Golden Shield Project in 2000. This project marked the beginning of an extensive internet and surveillance crusade for information and digital control, the product of which became infamously known as China’s Great Firewall.

A Culture of Self-Censorship
The elaborate and complex technologies of the Great Firewall network maintain censorship through a defensive and offensive process. On the defense, the Great Firewall blocks users from accessing any sites the government deems threatening to its power. On the offense, it monitors China’s domestic websites and e-mail servers, scanning content that may challenge the government’s reign.

If any politically sensitive language or plans for collective action are found, China’s Public Security Bureau (PSB) would investigate and arrest those held responsible. No content is exempt—social media posts have even sent individuals to prison. In June 2015, a Chinese man named Miao used his Weibo social media account to criticize China’s land reform policy from 1950. His post was immediately blocked and deleted, and Miao was imprisoned for one year and six months on the grounds of “dereliction of duty”. This monitoring technique strikes fear into users, creating a culture of self-censorship to ensure one’s own safety.

On the corporate level, the government holds companies responsible for the content published through their portals. In this way, companies also take part in regulation of media, deleting and blocking any content that contains government-restricted subjects.

Such operational processes can slow down site-loading times. Research and university websites are especially effected, often taking up to 30 minutes to fully load. This makes it difficult for researchers and professors to conduct or discuss their findings.

The Resistance
China’s rigid censorship tactics have unintentionally motivated its people to devise new resistance methods. In response, many users circumvented censorship by using proxy servers outside the Great Firewall. Though many VPNs have now been blocked, users simply find other creative ways to evade China’s restrictions.

Companies, like Google, also resist complying with these policies. In 2010, the internet giant decided to leave mainland China because of growing tensions on censorship. While they initially adhered to China’s rules, they closed their operations after several of Chinese human-rights activists had their e-mail accounts infiltrated by the communist regime. To protect its users and stand by its values, Google turned away from the Chinese market and left. While this form of censorship opposition is noble, it did nothing to impede the Chinese government’s oppression of information and populace control. In some ways, this became a case of flight instead of fight.

Lee Rowland, an American Civil Liberties Union senior staff attorney, argues “If these companies do whatever they’re capable of doing to publicize that their content is being screened, monitored, and sometimes censored by governments, I think there’s a really good argument that maintaining a social media presence is inherently a liberalizing force.”

A liberalizing force. The internet is a powerful platform that can help change and improve freedom of information and speech. It is a force feared by governments practicing censorship, which is exactly why the Chinese government employs censorship to subdue the internet’s progressive challenges.

In recent years, Google has reconsidered its position and has been discussing its return to the mainland with Chinese representatives. Of course, the two parties must still discuss compliance regulations balanced with Google’s values for a fair and open platform, but it is a step towards the right direction.

Challenging censorship is certainly not an easy task. It sometimes requires living under tyrannical regulations, but ambitions for liberation should not be lost. Censorship must be attacked from a social, commercial, and political front. Individual resistance, as well as Google and other internet giants’ return to the mainland, may just be the key to emancipating fear, expression, and truth.

Jane Liu

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