Back in 2008, when I had been in China for a couple of years, I wrote an Atlantic article about the repressive shrewdness of the "Great Firewall," the Chinese government's system for censoring the Internet. The Firewall was repressive in that it tried to eliminate any site or discussion the ruling Chinese Communist Party found inconvenient. But it was shrewd, even brilliant, in that it applied an amazingly light touch.
Anyone inside China who really cared about reaching forbidden zones of online discussion could do so easily enough, by paying a few dollars a month for a Virtual Private Network (VPN) or using a free-though-slow anonymizing service like Tor. But most of the Chinese public was not likely to go to the expense or bother just to reach outside sites, most of which were not in the Chinese language anyway. So in those good old days the Great Firewall found a sweet spot, effecting nearly as much censorship as a complete ban might have, while generating a minimum of disgruntled protest.
That was then. In the last few months, Internet censorship has clamped way down. "Is This North Korea?" was the title of a good Washington Post story yesterday. The NYT also had one yesterday, to similar effect.
But if you want to consider the whole implications for China, I encourage you to read this multi-part exchange in ChinaFile, from the Asia Society, about both the technical underpinnings and the political ramifications of the current, much more draconian crackdown. For instance, from a lawyer named Steve Dickinson:
From my perspective, the recent moves shutting down VPN services are a natural product of the desire of the [Chinese] regulators to create an entirely closed Internet system. It appears to me that they have largely succeeded. The effect is quite remarkable. I am writing now from a hotel in the suburbs of Phnom Penh. From this small hotel I can access the Internet with no restrictions of any kind and with uninterrupted, fast service. I will return to China next week and settle down to an Internet that simply does not work.
He is describing a contender to be a "leading" economy and civilizational force in the world. To mention one of countless implications: How many first-rate international scientists will want to move to Chinese universities if the Internet "simply does not work" there?
Back in the good old days of the porous Great Firewall, Chinese authorities also practiced what I thought of as a principle of "minimum surplus repression." They would strike without compunction against any person or group they considered threatening, but otherwise seemed inclined to let the normal ferment of life churn on. Now we're seeing surplus, gratuitous repression as well. I have no idea where this trend ends, but at the moment it doesn't seem to lead anyplace promising.
I'll have a chance to try the new firewall myself pretty soon—if I can get a visa.
More resources: GreatFire.org, which monitors censored and blocked sites in real time; an NYT profile of Lu Wei, head of the Great Firewall censor team; GreatFirewallOfChina.org, another monitoring site; and a WSJ report by Te-Ping Chen on how the Great Firewall has been an odd kind of industrial policy for China. (The author is an in-law of mine.)
I'd like to find a bright side in this news, but I can't.