How high can they build the wall? – The limits of the Great Fire Wall of China

If you aren’t familiar with the Great Firewall of China I would suggest reading this and this first.

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.

17 responses to “How high can they build the wall? – The limits of the Great Fire Wall of China”

  1. King Tubby says:

    That democritisation could solve many of China’s problems.
    An overblown, superficial western assumption.

    It is equally possible that the introduction of western democratic processes could further increase corruption, lead to breakaway provinces, modern versions of warlordism (ie Bo Zilia), etc.

    Furthermore, access to net information does not automatically lead to the democratic path.

    The underlying assumption here is that the Enlightenment Project, which took some 250 years in the West, is the end point or goal for all other nation states, and China in particular since its accelerated rise to global prominence.

    Wishful thinking at best, and in a philosophical terms, teleological reasoning.

    It is one thing to sink the boot into the CCP which I thoroughly enjoy. It is quite another thing to introduce unquestioned assumptions about China’s future historical trajectory viewed thru the prism of Western best practices.

    • Tom says:

      While I know many western countries are hoping that China will become more democratic, when I say it I simply mean a system that allows the Chinese people a chance to have a say in their gov’t beyond what they currently have. A system that is more open and transparent, by any system that the Chinese people choose. I am not so much pro-democracy as anti-dictatorship/oligarchy.

    • Jimmy says:

      India is a democratic political system but suffers corruption worse than China. Same happens in many African countries.

      Democracy is not a healing-all patch to many problems.

      • Tom says:

        Democracy is not an automatic healing patch, but I think it offers a chance for countries to correct many of their problems. There are democracies that are corrupt, but are there dictatorships/authoritarian regimes that aren’t corrupt? Looking at the results from transparency international, it seems that Democracy is the best chance, but no, it is not automatic “”.

        Also after the Wenzhou train crash, it’s very hard to say which countries corruption is “worse”.

  2. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    Great Post Tom. People like me with negligible Mandarin need explanations of Chinese jokes and homonyms. Understanding Grass Mud Horse meaning is about my limit. Look forward to next Post. Cheers!

  3. Andrewthe(not so [but occasionally manifesting qualities just above mediocrity])great says:

    For my part, I don’t feel that every society needs to be a democracy, Western or otherwise. I’d be perfectly content with to see a freer and more open society–particularly in the area of religion, with regard to which the gov’t has made no secret that the long term goal is elimination.

  4. Baobo says:

    I’m happy to see Weibo and other native businesses do what the foreign interests were rightly blocked from doing. Google, Paypal, and other services all have unsettling ties to US spy agencies.

  5. Varun says:

    Beware what you wish for, Chinese saying goes.
    Democratic China would not necessarily be a cute & cuddly Panda, a highly Nationalistic and patriotic society where Gov’t and people within it will bow to people’s demands which could include war and aggression of all sorts.

    Hamas was democratically elected as well.

  6. Votter says:

    The prevailing current brand of chinese nationalism wouldnt have come about in a free and open information/ intellectual environment. Democracy would mean the flourishing of internationalism within china, which at the moment is stifled and halting.

  7. I was buying orange juice from a Guangzhou corner store when I noticed about 6 Chinese men gathered around a little laptop at the counter. They looked really interested in it so I maneuvered around to see what it was. It was porn. If you need it bad enough, you’ll find a way.

  8. Simmy Takasoh says:

    Which “Weibo” is this talking about? Or it it all of them?

  9. Democracy for the current hodgepodge of provinces won’t work. Too many different people. Especially as people here said warlords recurrence is plausible during democracy, as you can’t stop revolts anymore. I think eventually in the next few decades China will split up. One main country comprising of over 80% of land mass, rest small countries, just like Russia did. Tibet may get it’s chance at independence after all.

    • Varun says:

      That would be temporary as well, 100 years down the line, someone would again unify them.
      Though China disintegrating now is unlikely for another few centuries, thats their cycle.
      Unified–Stable & Powerful–Disintergrate–Unified

  10. […] 中国见红博客:墙能建多高?中国防火长城的极限——虽然脸书、推特被封在墙外,但是国内类似功能的网站还是令监管者疲于应付。潘多拉的盒子一旦打开,还关得上吗? […]

  11. […] There are a few issues that will always draw the attention of China’s web monitors, like articles about Taiwanese or Tibetan independence or vivid descriptions of what happened in Tian’anmen Square. During the riots in Tibet back in 2008 I would read an article on CNN and email it to another foreign teacher who then wouldn’t be able to open the link. Stories were blocked almost as quickly as they went online. This visible line is useful for censors, but is easily skirted by netizens. […]

  12. […] of course is not to say that China has been democratized, stories are still scrubbed from the forums, and many movements are deemed a threat to social harmony. However, I believe that we are seeing […]

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.