Jim Fallows on the Great Firewall [8:15 am]
They’ll likely be surprised, then, to notice that China’s Internet seems surprisingly free and uncontrolled. Can they search for information about “Tibet independence” or “Tiananmen shooting” or other terms they have heard are taboo? Probably—and they’ll be able to click right through to the controversial sites. Even if they enter the Chinese-language term for “democracy in China,” they’ll probably get results. What about Wikipedia, famously off-limits to users in China? They will probably be able to reach it. Naturally the visitors will wonder: What’s all this I’ve heard about the “Great Firewall” and China’s tight limits on the Internet?
In reality, what the Olympic-era visitors will be discovering is not the absence of China’s electronic control but its new refinement—and a special Potemkin-style unfettered access that will be set up just for them, and just for the length of their stay. According to engineers I have spoken with at two tech organizations in China, the government bodies in charge of censoring the Internet have told them to get ready to unblock access from a list of specific Internet Protocol (IP) addresses—certain Internet cafés, access jacks in hotel rooms and conference centers where foreigners are expected to work or stay during the Olympic Games. (I am not giving names or identifying details of any Chinese citizens with whom I have discussed this topic, because they risk financial or criminal punishment for criticizing the system or even disclosing how it works. Also, I have not gone to Chinese government agencies for their side of the story, because the very existence of Internet controls is almost never discussed in public here, apart from vague statements about the importance of keeping online information “wholesome.”)
Depending on how you look at it, the Chinese government’s attempt to rein in the Internet is crude and slapdash or ingenious and well crafted. When American technologists write about the control system, they tend to emphasize its limits. When Chinese citizens discuss it—at least with me—they tend to emphasize its strength. All of them are right, which makes the government’s approach to the Internet a nice proxy for its larger attempt to control people’s daily lives.