The Great Firewall of China


In its June 2004 report Internet Under Surveillance, the NGO that defends imprisoned journalists and press freedom around the world, Reporters Without Borders (RWB) estimated that China had nearly 600,000 websites approved by the authorities, a 60 per cent increase over 2002. And, in a population of 1.3 billion, China in 2004 had 78 million internet users, up from 45 million in 2003.

Now for the bad news.

On a scale ranging from ‘good’ to ‘serious’, RWB assessed the situation for freedom of the press in China as ‘very serious’ basing this assessment on the number of ‘murders, imprisonment or harassment of cyber-dissidents or journalists, censorship of news sites, existence of independent news sites, existence of independent ISPs and deliberately high connection charges’.

Not a lot has changed since the 2004 RWB report. As of early 2006, China still sits in RWB’s ‘very serious’ category along with Cuba, Libya, Burma, Zimbabwe, Iraq and a few others. The 2005 RWB round-up of freedom of expression around the world found that China not only imprisons more cyber-dissidents than any other country, it also has the most developed technology for email interception and internet censorship in the world.

Thanks to Clay Bennett

In 2003, with the help of a journalist from the Chinese service of the BBC World Service, RWB conducted a month-long survey of China’s internet discussion forums. It found:

the discussion forums, which bring together hundreds of thousands of Chinese every day, represent both a space for expression unequalled in any other media and a trap for internet users.

Taboo areas include ‘the three Ts’ (Taiwan, Tiananmen, Tibet), Falun Gong, separatism amongst ethnic Uighur Muslims in Xinjian province, talk about the national leadership and their families, and history a touchy subject, as the recent ban on comment on the 40th anniversary of the Cultural Revolution showed.

Nevertheless, the next two years may be a watershed for China. Burgeoning interest from the outside world will culminate in an influx of foreign journalists covering the Olympic Games in 2008. The Chinese people show increasing sophistication in evading the Great Firewall of China that the authorities have erected and staffed with an estimated 30,000 cyber-police of one sort or another.

Notwithstanding the recent tightening of censorship the harassment and arrest of bloggers, purchases of technologies from Microsoft, Cisco Systems, Nortel Networks, Sun Microsystems and Websense that make it easier for authorities to crack down on internet activities, not to mention Yahoo and Microsoft providing information about Chinese users of their products, and high-profile arrests of journalists like Zhao Yan and Ching Cheong, experienced observers resident in China nevertheless believe information flows in and out of the country cannot be effectively constrained by its government.

Zhao Yan

The trial of Zhao Yan, the Chinese assistant at the New York Times’s Beijing bureau who has been accused of leaking State secrets and of lesser fraud charges, is expected to begin on 8 June. In July 2004 Zhao wrote a four-line note for the New York Times sketching out a reported conflict between President Hu Jintao and ex-President Jiang Zemin over senior military appointments. On 7 September, of that year, the New York Times published an article predicting that Jiang would step down from his position of head of the military. A reference to political jockeying between Jiang and Hu was included as background material in one of the final paragraphs of the article.

In the same month, Zhao learned that a high-level investigation had been launched to find the source(s) of the leak of the 7 September story and that he was the principal suspect. State Security investigators contacted Yan to discuss the article and invited him to Shanghai where he was arrested. On 19 September, Jiang Zemin’s resignation from the Central Military Commission was officially announced. Yan has been in custody since 17 September 2004.

Ching Cheong, a Singapore-resident Hong Kong journalist, was arrested by Chinese police in Guangzhou, southern China, on 22 April last year. He faces a possible charge of ‘stealing State secrets’ for trying to collect documents connected with the former Communist Party Leader, Zhao Ziyang, who died in January 2005 while under house arrest for negotiating with the Tiananmen Square demonstrators in 1989.

Jane Kinninmont reports in the South China Morning Post of a meeting of mainland-based senior writers and broadcasters at London’s Frontline Journalists’ Club last week. The meeting heard that China’s domestic media are becoming more daring. The change, that these observers see as irreversible, is due to a variety of factors including: profit-driven newspapers seeking a larger market among more, better-educated readers who are interested in good stories; journalists encouraged by the role of the press in other countries; people becoming more aware of the rights they don’t have but which are normal in other countries; and the variety of information sources now widely available in China including online news, satellite TV and international travel.

The sheer number of internet users means that when Chinese journalists courageously blog stories onto the internet, they are picked up and reproduced on other blogs prior to editing or censorship.

It may be nothing more than exaggerated rumour, but could next year’s 17th Chinese Communist Party Conference herald a relaxation of censorship? The current ‘fourth generation of national leaders’ (numbering the Hu leadership as the fourth after Mao, Deng and Jiang), now more secure in its position after its formal accession to power four years ago at the 16th Party Conference, may have to contemplate international norms for freedom of expression, and loosen censorship.

Could this happen, notwithstanding the leadership’s sense of the long arc of Chinese history rooted in Confucian conformity and Communist precepts? It’s a good bet that, in the run-up to the 2008 Olympic Games, and with the exponential increases in online and new media participation by its citizens, the Chinese central government will turn increasingly to sophisticated media management rather than merely relying on censorship.

By the same token, the leadership must be keenly aware of how the loosening of censorship and the discursive deconstruction of the Soviet system in Eastern Europe under Gorbachev’s perestroika presaged that system’s political collapse from 1989.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.