Cracks In the Wall

Cracks In the Wall

Richard C. Morais, 02.27.06

With engineering help from half a dozen Western firms, the Chinese Communist Party has erected a huge apparatus to censor free speech. A ragtag crew of hacker dissidents may succeed in tearing it down.

In a windowless room in New York City, a computer engineer with owlish glasses--call her “Jenny Chen”--peers at a color-coded bar graph on her PC screen… Her group, and like-minded “hacktivists” (as they call themselves) spread around the globe, are chipping away at the Golden Shield, the term that describes the filtering system that censors the Internet and e-mail of China’s 110 million Internet users. The invaders slip contraband words and ideas in and out of the country via such means as mass e-mails, proxy servers that aren’t yet blacked out and code words that aren’t yet on government blacklists.

Arrayed in battle against the hackers are the Chinese Communist Party and an assortment of Western firms that provide the hardware, software and search services that make the Chinese Internet run: Cisco, Google, Microsoft, Nortel Networks, Sun Microsystems and Yahoo. These companies are in a bind. They cannot do business in China except on terms dictated by the Chinese authorities, and that means zapping Web traffic that strays too far from the party line. But if they comply they become, in the eyes of Chinese dissidents, collaborators with an oppressive regime.

Reporters Without Borders fumes on its Web site: “It is one thing to turn a blind eye to the Chinese government’s abuses and it is quite another thing to collaborate.”

On Dec. 31 Microsoft shut down Zhao Jing’s popular blog, penned under the pseudonym Michael Anti. Zhao, who writes from Beijing, had fiercely criticized the firing of an editor at a progressive newspaper in Beijing. Microsoft says it had to shut down the blog based on the “explicit government notification” it received. “[The U.S. Internet companies] argue they have to follow local laws,” says Corinna-Barbara Francis, China analyst for Amnesty International in London.

“But when Microsoft took down the Michael Anti blog--what was the law they were following? Chinese laws protect freedom of expression and freedom of the press. And the Yahoo case hits home really hard. We have asked Yahoo whether they were presented with a court order; the company has not said that it was. So it seems Yahoo simply went along with a political request.”

The dissidents, though, have one very big thing in their favor, and that is the dispersed nature of the Internet. There are approximately 800 million Internet users on the globe, and potentially any one of them can serve up offending documents. Something like 35 million Chinese live abroad, beyond the reach of the thought police. They have news-thirsty friends and relatives back home.

The government can issue a decree to Google and it will be obeyed. How does it go after
Wikipedia? This is the lay encyclopedia, authored by anyone who wants to chip in. It’s available in 100 languages and its documents are on almost 100 servers spread across the globe. It has no income source in China to protect.

By throwing up their hands at trying to sort the innocuous Wikipedia info from the political and choosing to block the site in toto, the censors have created new enemies--the citizens who used the encyclopedia for academic work. In a short time, say China-watchers, the government has made millions of ordinary citizens into document smugglers.

Remarkable what a little suppression can do to turn a small disgruntled group into a large, angry mob.

Heilongjiang, a remote province bordering Russia, suddenly has become a hotbed of hacking refuseniks. Why? Last November an explosion at a chemicals factory--followed by a classic Chinese cover-up--resulted in a toxic spill that poisoned the Songhua River and left millions of the province’s citizens without water.

Could the party’s hold on China indeed be imperiled--not years down the road, after the kind of gradual transition to capitalist democracy that many outsiders hopefully expect, but by a precipitous upheaval of the sort that demolished the Soviet bloc? Not likely--but it could happen.

“The bloggers in China are really angry,” says Amnesty International’s Francis. “Virulent. Let’s say, hypothetically, the Chinese government was out of power in five years--these people will remember that Microsoft took [the blogger Zhao] down.”

What are Google’s and Microsoft’s and Yahoo’s strategies for dealing with this mess? Beset on one side by a mob of freethinking, pro-democracy bloggers who denounce them, and on the other by the totalitarian government censoring them, the companies issue only guarded statements about the Internet war. So we don’t know exactly what Google’s Eric Schmidt, Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Yahoo’s Terry S. Semel are thinking. But it could be something close to this: that the censorship is not just asinine, but doomed to failure; that Western companies can make a show of cooperating with the authorities while leaving in place plenty of loopholes for the dissidents to exploit; and that the complete collapse of the censorship regime can’t come soon enough to suit them.