The May Day Firewall of China

Tuesday, 1 May, 2012

In mid-April, China’s “great firewall” system that blocks blacklisted foreign websites temporarily blocked all foreign websites. This was followed by an increase in website-blocking across the country. Then came the news that posts by weibo users with more than 10,000 followers will be individually vetted, and it is said that Beijing is also pushing the weibo companies to implement a “real name” registration system by the middle of the year, which means that it will become much more difficult for weibo users to disguise their identity from the authorities. “If it is really implemented,” says China-based Internet investor Bill Bishop, “the real effect will be a reminder to people that the government is watching and they should be careful about what they say.”

Power to the Web!

In a Foreign Policy article titled “The Not-So-Great Firewall of China“, Rebecca MacKinnon points out that, “The paradox of the Chinese Internet is that despite all of these measures, weibo remain a lively place, where most Chinese Internet users feel freer to debate and discuss matters of public interest than ever before. A wide range of policy positions, political loyalties, and ideologies can be found throughout Chinese society, and thanks to the Internet those differences have become publicly visible for the first time. Millions of Chinese Internet users engage regularly in public-policy debates because they feel that at least in some cases, the weight of public opinion can make a real difference.”

Despite the repression, people have become very adept at clambering over, under and through the “great firewall”. MacKinnon says China’s chattering classes “have outsmarted the system, using literary allusions, code words, and innuendo to pass around juicy leaks and tidbits from the foreign media about the alleged murder of English businessman Neil Heywood by associates of Gu Kailai, wife of the former Chongqing Communist Party Secretary Bo Xilai, whose fall from grace has precipitated the biggest leadership crisis in China since the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989.”
On the positive side, she quotes the artist Ai Weiwei as saying that China’s leaders need to understand that in the long run “it’s not possible for them to control the Internet unless they shut it off.” But she adds that “While the Chinese government’s tactics may be ham-handed and likely doomed to failure in the long run, they are working well enough to keep the Communist Party in power for the short to medium term.”

Despite the crackdown, MacKinnon ends on a hopeful note: “These trends in the long run are great cause for optimism about what the Internet means for China’s political future.”

Happy May Day!

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