Several months ago Hillary Clinton described the efforts of the Chinese Communist Party to maintain their firm grasp on power as a “fool’s errand.” I think her succinct statement was right on target. The gov’t’s attempts to limit freedom of speech only seem to be accelerating the causes pushed by China’s activists. Today we’ll be looking at how the Great Firewall is likely to create more problems than it solves.
First just a touch of history. Despite popular belief, the Great Wall as we know it (the brick one built after the Yuan dynasty), was built largely due to gov’t inaction. While the national gov’t bickered over whether or not military action should be taken directly against the northern nomads, local gov’ts began to reinforce the ancient fortifications. Ultimately the “barbarians” managed to breech the wall, and once they were inland, they dispatched the ruler, and established the Qing Dynasty.
The Great Firewall is not so different. The gov’t seems to be using it in an effort to keep information from beyond the borders from wrecking havoc on the masses, while the Party bickers over whether or not China should ever democratize (which many believe would address the country’s underlying problems). Ultimately, once information breeches the wall, it becomes increasingly difficult to contain.
Many of you might be thinking, “But Tom, what about the blocking of Facebook, Youtube and Twitter (along with countless other sites)?” While it is true that China has managed to keep these specific websites out of China, it hasn’t been able to stop similar formats from popping up on the Chinese web. The most influential of these now is Weibo.
While these sites are forced to employ censors to monitor the content that is posted on their pages, netizens are becoming increasingly clever in how they avoid the regulations, and are managing to spread information faster than the censors can press delete. My favorite example was when supporters of the Jasmine revolution were posting copies of former leaders singing the traditional folk song also known as “Jasmine”. Censors were unsure whether or not it was a sign of patriotism or rebellion.
The power of Twitter and Facebook-like sites isn’t that they provide an easy way of spreading information, their power lies in their speed. A post that “goes viral” can be shared thousands of times in a matter of minutes, forcing the gov’t to attempt to apply clumsy blocks, like banning the word “tomorrow” (which was the case before the first Jasmine protest). However, Chinese is an incredibly nimble language, full of homonyms and synonyms, which is far more agile than the operators behind the GFW. The wall provides a false sense of security, in the same way the original Great Wall did.
In spite of gov’t efforts to keep Weibo sterile, it has become an increasingly important source of information for those who don’t believe CCTV or the People’s Daily (in Nanjing it seems that few people believe much of anything from those sources). Recently there has been some signs that seem to imply that the gov’t has become fed up with this social site, but it is far more popular than the three big western sites I mentioned above.
They can’t simply block the site, instead they will have to apply increasingly tight restrictions on Weibo, and hope to kill interest in it. This is a fool’s errand, whenever a website dies, a new one steps in to fill its place. There is such clear demand for a Weibo type product in China that dozens of companies would fight for its market share. Once the new platform opened, netizens would again find a new way around the much tighter restrictions.
China has yet to completely kill a web service, but to cover up their increasingly apparent corruption, they would have to make a massively unpopular move. The Great Firewall may already be breached, now it’s time to see if the gov’t can actually try to close Pandora’s box now that it’s been opened.
This weekend will feature an interview with digital dissident 小米2020, and the daring jokes that poke fun at China’s problems.