Foreign sites such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, blocked by censors in
the run-up to the 60th anniversary of Communist Party rule on Oct. 1,
remain inaccessible to most Chinese users. Several prominent critics of
the state who used the Internet to spread their message have been detained
Yet this list of casualties obscures a larger truth: The censors are
The dozen or so years since the Web came to China have seen repeated
rounds of crackdowns and detentions, aided by a steady growth in scope and
sophistication of the government's filtering apparatus that critics dub
the Great Firewall. Still, the Internet has enabled more Chinese to have
more access to information today, and given them greater ability to
communicate and express themselves than at any time since the founding of
the People's Republic.
The censors "are winning the battles everywhere," says Isaac Mao, a
blogging pioneer based in China and Chinese-Internet researcher, "but
losing the war."
In 2009, Beijing lost a big battle, too, in the so-called Green Dam
episode. It was the most dramatic illustration of the limits of the
censors' power. The government's plan to quietly compel all
personal-computer makers put Web-filtering software known as Green
Dam-Youth Escort into new PCs shipped into China was indefinitely shelved,
amid anger from global technology companies and Chinese citizens alike.
The government said the software was meant to block children from
accessing pornography, but critics said that it was unreasonable to
require a specific program for all PCs, and that the software was
filtering a broad range of content, such as social and political
commentary, and even health, among others.
What would have been the state's most extensive measure ever to cleanse
the Web instead awakened a new segment of society to the constraints
imposed on them. The Great Firewall's power used to be in the government's
ability to keep its vast Internet control system under the radar of
Chinese users, few of whom use the Web mainly for politics.
Now, "fan qiang"—a cyber dissident's phrase meaning to "scale the
wall"—has become standard lingo for Chinese Internet users of many
This year, the domestic backlash against Green Dam spread through the
Internet, as did much lively discussion over matters long off-limits for
public debate. It carried word of a young woman prosecuted for the
self-defense killing of a local-government official who had tried to rape
In another case, it spread awareness that officials blamed the death of a
man in police custody on a game of hide-and-seek with other inmates that
turned deadly, which in turn led to accusations by Internet users of a
cover-up. A relatively small—and growing—group of savvy Internet users
have been able to able to access blocked social networking sites such as
Twitter to express defiance over Beijing's Web restrictions and to share
More broadly, the Internet has given citizens a chance to discuss and
organize action on sensitive issues.
"The Internet has been very important. You can express yourself; you can
distribute information to change other people's views; you can
communicate; you can organize," says Wan Yanhai, a prominent Beijing-based
AIDS activist, who started his organization with the help of email and the
Web. "In the past 10 years, it has affected people's lives so much. It has
given people courage to change society."
To say that the censors are losing isn't to say they have lost. If the
Communist Party's grip over information is loosening, it is far from clear
whether its hold on political power in China is ultimately threatened by
To the extent authorities allow more freedom to vent on the Internet, they
may even help preserve party power by providing a necessary release valve
The Communist Party has always been acutely aware of the power of
information. From the start of its rule, it barred foreign news sources,
and propaganda officials tightly controlled the content of every
publication and broadcast in the country. A brief period of liberalization
came in the late 1980s, when college students and other members of the
elite were allowed greater leeway to gather and discuss ideas. But that
freedom was limited by technological and other constraints on the spread
of information. The period ended with the government's crackdown on the
Tiananmen Square pro-democracy demonstrations in 1989.
Less than a decade later, the Web's advent in China posed a conundrum for
the party that has never gone away. Officials recognized the Internet's
utility as access to the outside world and a tool for commerce, even if
they fretted about its risks. From the start, they shaped plans to control
it. In 1996, they said all Internet subscribers had to register with their
local police bureau—a mechanism that might have seemed feasible when there
were less than one million users, but quickly became untenable as the
number grew to the tens, and then hundreds, of millions.
In 2003, China announced a large-scale plan to regulate the Internet
called the Golden Shield Project, with the expressed purpose of letting
public-security officials do online monitoring.
Today, multiple government agencies oversee a slew of Internet controls
that include regulating locally run Web sites and forcing them to filter
out illegal content, such as pornography or sensitive political topics.
These agencies might ask sites to provide information on users, may block
overseas sites with sophisticated keyword-filtering technology, or at
times even attempt to sway public opinion by planting comments on various
The government took more drastic measures when ethnic violence erupted in
Xinjiang in July, and panic spread in part through rumors dispersed in
text messages and in social media that a spate of syringe stabbings were
an effort by Uighurs to infect Han Chinese with HIV. Beijing blocked
Internet access in the entire province. On Tuesday, officials announced
the blocks would be partially lifted, with access restored only to the Web
sites of two state-run media agencies.
The vast majority of people in China use the Web for entertainment, not
unlike what people elsewhere do: playing games, listening to music,
getting celebrity gossip or reading about sports. That trend is encouraged
by Beijing's efforts to curtain off certain subjects.
Web users in China who gain too much attention or strike at especially
sensitive subjects are sometimes jailed. That's what happened to Zhao
Lianhai. After his young son was sickened by tainted milk in 2008, he
started a Web site to help other families and share experiences.
From a dimly lighted office in his home, Mr. Zhao compiled information
from around the country into a database of children affected by the
tainted formula, and published it on his Web site. He kept his
instant-messaging program open at all times to keep in touch with dozens
of parents to track lasting effects of melamine poisoning, and to remind
them to submit medical records for his database.
Running the site and getting past government barriers on the Internet
became a full-time activity for Mr. Zhao, who stopped running the
advertising company he had before his son got sick. Mr. Zhao learned to
outsmart China's censorship system by moving his site to different
servers, using special software that circumvents government filters and
registering Web domains outside of China.
"I'm not doing anything wrong, and I say that to anyone who tries to stop
me," Mr. Zhao said in an interview during 2009.
Mr. Zhao's activities so alarmed officials that they detained him in
November, and formally arrested him in December.
But for each critic the authorities stop, more rise. "There are simply too
many people," says Xiao Qiang, a scholar who studies the Chinese Internet
at the University of California at Berkeley. "They can do that to a very
small group … but the approach certainly is not good enough to intimidate
all the voices online."
Mr. Xiao points to the example of Liu Xiaobo, detained in December 2008
for his role in creating Charter 08, a sweeping call for political and
legal reform in China. Mr. Liu was sentenced on Christmas Day to 11 years
in prison for subversion. But since his detention, thousands more Chinese
have signed Charter 08 through Internet sites that disseminate the
The government is getting better and faster in its effort to control
content on the Internet, but it simply can't keep up with the
proliferating moves to use the Web in more ways. In the first six months
of 2009, an average of 220,995 Chinese a day started using the Internet
for the first time, according to official figures. That represents 153 new
Internet users a minute.
That the Internet threatens, fundamentally, the party's information
monopoly is one of the few facts that China's liberal activists and its
government enforcers agree on. In an essay published in December in a
government magazine, Minister of Public Security Meng Jianzhu warned that
the Internet "has become an important means for anti-China forces to
engage in infiltration and sabotage, and to enlarge their power of
destruction, which brings new challenges to the public security agencies
to maintain national security and social stability." He pointed to the use
of the Internet to spread word of unrest before the government has a
chance to control it.
For Mr. Xiao at Berkeley, "essentially, the Internet is mainstream media.
Whatever happens on the Internet, the whole nation knows, and that also
gets on the government's nerves."
From his perch in California, Mr. Xiao and his team spend most of their
time scanning the Chinese Web, and documenting numerous cases of dissent
Censorship is "more sophisticated, and its capacity is very powerful, but
it is full of loopholes," he says. As the government tries to close them,
"the main result is to create more resistance and backlash from Chinese
Internet users," Mr. Xiao says. "They are creating a whole lot more
enemies to the censorship system."
> Four months into a crusade against Internet pornography, the
> government is closing thousands of sites� "some pornographic,
> some not� "and tightening rules on who can register Web
> addresses inside China.
China is looking at it from the wrong angle. People are anxious
not only to record every mundane aspect of their existance onto
social media sites, but also equally anxious to rat out anyone they
don't like. All any government needs to do to track people is give
away free glasses cameras that record everything and upload it to
face book. People will thank them for the gift and government will
get what they want, total surveillance.