For a few hours on Monday the strict controls that China exerts over domestic access to the internet – known as ‘the great firewall’- disappeared. Chinese internet users could twitter, Facebook, read about Tibet - you name it. But was it a harbinger or a glitch? Chinese media expert Rebecca Mackinnon explains the rules and misconceptions that surround China’s internet.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield. The Internet in China is highly restricted by the so-called “great firewall,” the government’s complicated and constantly evolving system of filters to block websites and searches on topics the government doesn't like. Well, in the middle of the night earlier this week the great firewall collapsed. Websites like Twitter, YouTube and Facebook could suddenly be accessed without the aid of cloaking software. News quickly spread and millions of videos were uploaded, photos downloaded and Tweets disseminated. But after a few hours, the great firewall went right back up. No one’s exactly sure what happened and the government hasn't acknowledged the incident, though some hypothesize that it was caused by a snowstorm and others think it was the result of updating the firewall and actually making it stronger. Rebecca Mackinnon is an Open Society fellow working on a book about how authoritarian regimes exist in the Internet age, and she joins me now. Rebecca, welcome back.
REBECCA MACKINNON: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: If anyone did harbor hopes that this was somehow presaging a loosening of restrictions on Internet usage, to your way of thinking, that’s just irrational exuberance. All the evidence is actually the opposite, is it not?
REBECCA MACKINNON: Well, yes, that’s correct. The trend over the past year has been toward tightening. And a number of Chinese officials, including the head of public security and other high-ranking officials, have been giving speeches and writing articles in the past few months about how it’s important to control the Internet; it’s a channel through which enemies of China may try to weaken the Chinese nation and that this needs to be safeguarded against. So the policy has been very much towards making sure that the Internet can't be used to foment unrest in any way. And one of the triggers for this, in the middle of last year, in July, there were riots in the far west province of Xinjiang. And in the wake of those riots, the Internet in Xinjiang was shut down for many months. And while it has been revived to a minimized extent, in that you can now access websites from within Xinjiang, you still can't access the global Internet from that entire province.
BOB GARFIELD: And this is a security apparatus that never uses a scalpel when a chainsaw will do just as well.
REBECCA MACKINNON: But I would point out that actually China’s controls over its population have grown much more subtle as compared to the classic totalitarian regime. China has many millions of bloggers, and most of them are not staying up late at night worrying about a jack-booted kick on the door. Basically what happens is that their content is censored, or they might get a warning from their blog hosting service.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, actually on that subject, I wanted to ask you, certainly for 50 years behind the Iron Curtain the populations of the Soviet Union and its satellites were only too well aware of what they did not have access to. Are Chinese citizens by and large aware of the degree to which their view of the outside world is restricted?
REBECCA MACKINNON: I think it varies. There are a lot of well-educated people who travel abroad who are aware of the extent of the censorship. There are many others who don't notice it because they've lived with it their entire lives. And the other thing is, too, the big difference between China today and the countries of the former Soviet bloc is that one of the big reasons why people in the former Soviet bloc were pushing for change is because they couldn't get their Beatles and they couldn't get their blue jeans and they weren't able to have any fun. You know, it wasn't all just about politics. And the Chinese people, of course, are able to buy whatever they want and are able to have quite a lot of fun. And the other thing, though, to point out is that actually a lot of Chinese people, even who study abroad and who read foreign media reports, have decided that they agree with their government’s view that the foreign media is spreading lies against China. And so, you actually get websites devoted to exposing what they feel are the anti-China conspiracies in the Western media.
BOB GARFIELD: It has been now more than a decade of this great experiment in economic and cultural liberalization in China, and corresponding, you know, almost perfectly with the expansion of the Internet globally. Do you believe now that this economic expansion can continue with the genie still sort of plugged up in the bottle, or at some point does it inevitably have to emerge?
REBECCA MACKINNON: Well, that’s the bazillion-dollar question. I worked as journalist in China from the early '90s till the early ‘00s, and during that time all kinds of pundits were constantly predicting that the system could not sustain itself ultimately without political change. And people are continuously being proved wrong on that. I think we would be naive to assume that the world is inevitably and inexorably, just because the Internet and Twitter exist, all moving in a democratic direction. There are a lot of trends in the West, as well, in terms of surveillance. You have politicians calling for greater Internet censorship in places like Australia and Germany. In India there’s a great deal of pressure on Google to censor content. Part of it is child protection. Some of it has to do with protecting intellectual property. Some of it has to do with concerns over hate speech. But there are real issues about how these measures are implemented, and are they going to be implemented even in democracies in ways that are not transparent, that end up giving greater advantage to whatever incumbent government is in power at the time? The jury is very much out whether authoritarian countries are all going to happily evolve in a democratic direction or whether if we're not careful we could actually all meet in the middle someday.
BOB GARFIELD: Rebecca, once again, thank you so much.
REBECCA MACKINNON: You’re welcome.
BOB GARFIELD: Rebecca Mackinnon is a fellow at the Open Society Institute.