By Mo Zhixu, published: July 3, 2014
China has severed Google services for several weeks now and there are no signs of service returning. Blocking Google has inconvenienced many people, among them Gmail users, teachers and students who use Google for academic research, and more. To this day, China has completely blocked the world’s four most visited websites: Google, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.
For a long time, Chinese civil society saw the internet as the foundation for civil society development that would in turn help China’s transition to a democracy. The first ten plus years of the internet in China seemed to have attested to this hope to some extent. But as the regime has steadily escalated its censorship of the internet, this expectation is becoming ever more unattainable. The question that has been hovering in people’s minds these days is: Will there be a day when China completely shuts down the internet?
Such worries were raised again when, at one point during the recent martial law period in Thailand, there were rumors of the internet being shut down there. After all, the Chinese government shut down the internet in the Xinjiang area for more than six months when violence erupted in Urumqi on July 5th, 2009. The Chinese government will no doubt do the same regionally or even nationally in emergencies.
But, with the waves of internet cleansing being carried out in recent months, the question is, to what extent exactly does the Chinese government want to control the internet? I believe that the authorities will continue to test boundaries of internet control, with a real possibility of turning it into a regional or national LAN in mainland China. This will mean that, when a personal user accesses the network, he or she will not be automatically connected to the internet. Instead, a connection to the world-wide internet will be something one has to apply for and get approval for.
How likely is such a prospect? Those who think it is impossible cite that the impact of closing the internet will be too big and too broad. However, I would argue that, in the current internet ecology in China, there is nothing that the government cannot overcome to keep personal users from directly accessing the global internet. Instead, as stability maintenance and social control step up, this prospect is increasing becoming a real possibility.
First of all, after years of restriction and blockage by the Great Fire Wall (GFW) of China, the mainlanders’ demand for internet applications from outside China is rather low. In the recent blockage, Google said only 3% of mainland China’s internet traffic is to sites outside China, and google is one of the primary destinations. This is to say, under the confinement of the GFW, most Chinese netizens have accustomed themselves to indigenous websites without a particular need for global internet applications. Closing down the internet will not be as consequential as some would imagine. I heard someone joking: perhaps the people who will be pained most are the caoliu (草榴) users. (caoliu is a Chinese-language adult site with servers in the U.S. – the editor)
Secondly, applications developed by Chinese companies are more than enough to meet the needs of most users. For years, the Chinese government has encouraged the development of alternative applications to reduce dependence on global internet applications. Almost all of China’s major websites are clones of their overseas prototypes: Baidu vs. Google, Weibo vs. Twitter, Renren vs. Facebook, youtoo vs. YouTube. In order for these replacements to take root, the authorities have adopted a relatively relaxed stance to allow innovations, the best example of which is the rise of Weibo. Despite the pressure to maintain stability and control the information flow, the Chinese government tolerated and even encourage Weibo to some extent out of the desire to confine the public’s need for social media to Weibo, effectively reducing the attraction of international platforms such as Twitter.
Walking into any internet bar or asking friends and relatives, you will find that, for most of mainland Chinese netizens, the needs are games, movies, music, social, and information. And all of them can be met with indigenous websites. In fact, most Chinese netizens are not even aware of the existence of the Great Fire Wall. If the government turns off the internet, it will matter very little to these netizens, and there will be no such thing as unacceptable consequences.
Finally, business, academia and information services that cannot operate without the global internet can be granted special permits. After 1989, to rid the shadow of Tian’anmen crackdown and rebuild its governance foundation, the Chinese government adopted more market reforms and further opening up policies to develop the economy, and opening up the internet was part of it. The role the internet has been playing in China’s economic development over the last two decades gives people reason to believe that the regime will be very cautious to shut it down.
But this view ignores the fact that business, academia and information services that require the internet use it for mostly organizational activities. China will minimize the effect of shutting down personal users’ access to the internet by issuing permits to companies, schools and organizations that allow them to be connected to the internet and enjoy overseas services (of course this will leave backdoors for information smuggling) while personal users can only acquire similar services through China-based agents.
Before, there were communication service providers that provided special portals to a small number of government agencies and business users for them to use the internet without restriction. Under China’s “marketplace neo-totalitarianism” (市场新极权) , nearly all cultural, educational, research and media organizations are still under the direct control of the party-government, and businesses, whether state-owned or private, are also closely tied to the system. By allowing organizations to connect to the internet, the government will be able to keep its grips on the information flow without seriously hurting economic activities.
In December 2010, the Iranian Minister of Communications Reza Taghipour proposed plans to build a “national internet.” According to the design, Iran would go through stages to implement its national LAN. At the beginning stage, the new network will run side by side with the standard internet, and banks, government agencies and large corporations will still be able to connect to the standard internet. In the next stage, over 6,000 schools across Iran would be connected to the national LAN. And finally, internet access services in Iran would all be switched to its “national internet.”
If the Chinese government wants to test how far it can go to clamp the internet, a national LAN is not as unlikely as some may think. Once the regime becomes determined and China is technically capable of such a separation, the day will come when personal users in mainland China will turn on their desktops, laptops, or cellphones only to be connected to a national network. The overseas websites that can be accessed by circumventing the GFW will become unreachable. This might sound like too pessimistic, or even desperate, a vision, but what force could prevent it from coming about? There are no technical barriers too great, nor social consequences too severe, to stop it from happening.
On September 20, 1987, the China Weaponry Industry Computer Application Institute (中国兵器工业计算应用研究所) sent out the first-ever email in China, and it read, bilingual, “越过长城，走向世界 (Across the Great Wall we can reach every corner in the world).” Ironically, in the near future perhaps, we will be completely imprisoned inside the Great Fire Wall of China.
Mo Zhixu (莫之许), pen name of Zhao Hui (赵晖), is a Beijing-based Chinese dissident intellectual and a frequent contributor of Chinese-language publications known for his incisive comments on Chinese politics and opposition. He is the co-author of “China at the Tipping Point? Authoritarianism and Contestation” in the January, 2013, issue of Journal of Democracy.
The Coming Information Totalitarianism in China, by Mo Zhixu
(Translated by China Change)