China’s Great Firewall

The "Golden Shield Project" is blocking access to great swathes of the web, but Chinese netizens are fighting back

Last month, the Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize but few in his own country will ever have heard of him. 

The awarding of the prize to Liu, who is currently serving an 11-year jail term for “inciting subversion of state power”, was roundly denounced by state-run media outlets and after the announcement was made in Norway, Chinese access to the BBC and CNN was instantly blocked. The Chinese Foreign Ministry declared: “Liu Xiaobo is a criminal. The Nobel Peace Prize is meant to award individuals who promote international harmony and friendship, peace and disarmament.” But China is involved in a different kind of “harmonising” — the euphemistic term used by governmental departments to prevent access to, or change the content of, certain websites which may “undermine national unity” or “infringe upon national honour”. Information about Liu is almost impossible to find behind the Golden Shield Project, the $800 million internet filtering system nicknamed the Great Firewall of China, other than that he is said to be a traitor, aided by the criminals of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee.

 Liu Xiaobo: Nobel cause

Nowhere on China’s super-intranet can you find any information about Taiwan’s independence. After the Urumqi riots in July 2009 — of which, again, not a trace can be found — the social networking sites Twitter and Facebook, as well as local versions Fanfou and Youku, were permanently banned. The 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre last year coincided with a four-day shutdown of China’s entire social networking capability: all blogs, forums and discussion boards. The official rationale? “In order to improve the internet content and provide a healthy environment for our netizens, we have designated 3-6 June as the national server maintenance day. This move is widely supported by the public.” Search for the Dalai Lama, or type “Tiananmen Square” into Google China, and they will yield no results. Ditto “democracy”, “dictatorship”, or “Communist Party”.

The Chinese government will point to the fact that many international news agencies and reference sites, including BBC News, the Huffington Post and Wikipedia, are no longer banned by the Golden Shield Project. Information is available, they will say, from a variety of worldwide sources. But China’s highly sophisticated filtering system can block individual pages within websites. Articles on the BBC News website about Tibet, or an Amazon page profiling the biography of Mao by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday are inaccessible.

But Chinese netizens are fighting back. A vast number of volunteers are engaging in highly popular translation projects, disseminating American and British magazines, TV shows and university courses to huge numbers of followers. You can even download the Chinese version of the Economist directly on to your smartphone. 

These translation collectives, who make no profit for themselves, are motivated by a desire to embrace Western culture and to access non-censored news items. This practice is not illegal — yet. But if China legislates against these volunteers — and as Amnesty International notes, it “has the largest recorded number of imprisoned journalists and cyber-dissidents in the world”, this is likely soon — these cyber pirates have ways of circumventing the Great Firewall, which they pejoratively term the “Red Crab”.

The internet has created an insatiable appetite for young Chinese to learn about the West. But it has also provided a window into that world, one which the Chinese government will struggle to shut. As the Chinese artist and dissident Ai WeiWei put it, “They are going to want to know who Liu Xiaobo is and why he won this prize. They are going to learn who he is and this way they are going to learn more about freedom, democracy, justice and about the Tiananmen generation.”

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