The Great Firewall

May 22, 2004|By Robert Benjamin

BILL XIA, who came from China eight years ago to study in this country, is waging part of the war to liberate Chinese cyberspace - and perhaps even China itself. Mr. Xia's North Carolina firm developed software enabling mainland computer users to evade Beijing's extensive Internet censorship without detection. Chinese-language news sites run by the Voice of America and others are among Mr. Xia's clients, but his technological arms race with China's well-funded security apparatus aims to deliver the whole Internet unbound. His side may not be winning.

Fifteen years ago in June, China's war between freedom and authoritarianism reached a bloody head in the Tiananmen Square massacre. These days, that struggle increasingly has gone digital - as Beijing's free-market Communists try to connect the world's fastest-growing computer market with the Internet without yielding information control. This is, says China watcher Orville Schell, only the latest of Chinese efforts over of the last century to absorb Western technology, but not Western values.

This time, though, optimism abounds for the prospects of this technology to break down political walls. President Bill Clinton once likened Beijing's efforts to censor the Internet to "trying to nail Jell-O to the wall." And it's tempting - if only based on China's rapidly proliferating Internet users (80 million at latest count) and cell phones (200 million) - to foresee Beijing's grip dissolving.

Indeed, Chinese dissidents circulate news and manifestoes ever more widely via e-mail. Tens of thousands of Chinese Internet cafes have sprung up, even in far-flung villages. Blogs, personal Web journals, are popular. Last year, Beijing's initial news blackout on SARS was swamped by hundreds of millions of phone text messages. And there were several cases in which news of injustices spread wildly on the Internet, including one that involved the beating death of a student by police and that led to changes in China's national laws on police treatment of migrants. It was, some proclaim, China's year of the Internet.

But as of now, China shows no sign of following the Soviet empire, which crumbled after its state media were unshackled. Chinese media remain firmly under the state's hand, the Internet included. And Beijing has been investing millions of dollars in the latest technologies, often from big-name Western firms, to increase the thoroughness of its Internet censorship and fend off such low-budget "hacktivists" as Mr. Xia.

The Chinese Internet is called the Great Firewall in large part because of its unique architecture: Mainland users are funneled through just a handful of state networks that connect to the world through remarkably few portals - in contrast to the richly woven Internet networks criss-crossing much of the world's political boundaries.

With so few gateways, China can simply pull the plug any time it wants to. Short of that, this design enables Beijing to more easily block thousands of foreign Web sites and filter e-mails according to such charged keywords as, say, Tiananmen. At the subscriber edge, the regime has enlisted access providers to report suspicious activities, installed surveillance gear in Internet cafes, and, not least, arrested over the last few years dozens of cyber-dissidents. As in daily Chinese life, self-censorship is the norm; most Chinese go online for just fun and games. China's most popular blog has not been political but sexual, an adventure journal, of sorts, by a young woman in Southern China.

Still, sophisticated Chinese users report that it takes only some will and creativity to freely travel the Internet, thanks partly to Mr. Xia and other digital liberators. At the same time, he's sober about the forces amassed against him and very cautious about overtly declaring any set political agenda. "All we want is for information to freely flow," Mr. Xia says, "so that people have a fair chance to make their choices."

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