EDITORIAL: The Great Firewall of China

The communists can’t keep 1.3 billion offline forever

When it comes to the Internet, the People's Republic of China (PRC) would rather be safe than sorry. Beijing is taking new steps to make certain the social networking-fueled contagion of freedom that is sweeping the Arab world will not penetrate mainland China’s great firewall.

Rather than risk another Tiananmen Square uprising, the communist government is mobilizing to ensure that spontaneous stirrings of liberty won’t take root among its 1.3 billion people. On May 4, Beijing announced the formation of the State Internet Information Office, which centralizes the duties of a dozen other government agencies to rationalize the system and promote “healthy development” in Chinese cyberspace. Officially, the office will secure “the people’s right to know, to participate, to express and to supervise,” but in practice it will be a one-stop shop for content control and censorship in the Middle Kingdom. The Internet crackdown is a helpful reminder that the world’s largest country is still controlled by a Maoist totalitarian cabal.

For decades, the PRC has been in the forefront of Internet censorship, which is simply an extension of all the other forms of thought control Beijing has imposed since the 1940s. Criticism of Mao Zedong or the communist apparatus - words like “democracy,” “dictatorship,” “corruption” and “dissent” - are all banned. The word “jasmine” was recently added to the list lest anyone use it as a code word for freedom after Tunisia’s recent “Jasmine Revolution.” Twitter and YouTube are unavailable. The party calls this “promoting harmony,” which is a characteristic euphemism used by those who will not tolerate any independent thinking.

The Internet has become much more than a source for information; it’s increasingly an avenue for individual interaction. Beijing’s new Internet office will monitor and control social networking, online gaming, online chat and video services and any other way people might attempt to commit thoughtcrime. Facebook, currently blocked in China, is reportedly entering into an agreement with the state-approved search engine Baidu to break into that market. This would be a good business opportunity for Facebook, but it should be the going-in premise of any user of the service in China that everything they post will wind up in an Interior Ministry file. Whether this will present an increased privacy and security risk for Facebook’s users outside of the People’s Republic remains to be seen.

Maoists have reason to fear freedom. The Chinese communists face significant risks as Internet connectivity grows in their country. For every censorship tool deployed or channel of free expression the authorities shut down, Chinese hackers and dissidents find ways to foil the heavy cyberhand of the state. Like other fortifications, the Chinese firewall is defensive; it can be undermined, vaulted or broken. Dissidents post images of text rather than text itself to thwart automatic machine-reading censors. Democracy activists post Chinese characters sideways or backwards, alter or substitute parts of them to frustrate the filters. They spontaneously come up with code names or phrases to discuss forbidden topics or people without attracting attention.

Beijing’s censors will have a hard time staying one step ahead of those striving for free expression. The anti-regime website China Digital Times has posted the “Grass-Mud Horse Lexicon” (the name in Chinese is a vulgar play on words), a compilation of “politically-charged terms which represent the [Chinese] netizens’ ‘resistance discourse.’ ” For example, because criticism of the PRC is forbidden, dissidents instead excoriate “West Korea.” Most online verbiage has similar double-meanings in Chinese. That’s why when someone from China posts that all the decisions made by the Communist Party are “great, glorious and correct,” you know they mean none of the above.

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