Interviews March 2008

Penetrating the Great Firewall

James Fallows, author of "The Connection Has Been Reset," explains how he was able to probe the taboo subject of Chinese Internet censorship.

Never been to China? Consider taking a trip this summer. The country is bound to be on its best behavior.

Gone will be most of the amusing “Chinglish” signage made famous by foreign residents and guidebooks. (To the chagrin of many English-speakers, the “Dongda Hospital for Anus and Intestine Disease in Beijing” was recently corrected to read “Hospital of Proctology.”) Taxi drivers will greet their passengers in English. And beginning in June, the capital city will enforce traffic limits to cut down on congestion and pollution. Moreover, thanks to a campaign launched last year that aims to deter line-cutting, Chinese citizens hoping to score tickets to the Olympic Games in August will for once wait patiently in a queue with everyone else. Tourists might even witness a few smogless, “Blue Sky days”—so rare in the Middle Kingdom that the government counts and publicizes them.

And finally, when visitors log on to surf the Web or e-mail their impressions of China to loved ones back home, they may be surprised yet again, because they will be able to access sites like BBC.com, NYTimes.com, and Wikipedia. Even if they type “Falun Gong” into Google, they’ll likely get results. Indeed, the Internet will seem so free, writes James Fallows in the March issue of The Atlantic, that visitors may well wonder, “What’s all this I’ve heard about the ‘Great Firewall’ and China’s tight limits on the Internet?”

Unfortunately, as Fallows explains in his latest article on China, this technological openness will mostly be a façade, and one apparent only in a few hand-picked locations (like certain Internet cafés and high-end hotel rooms) expected to attract foreigners who are in town for the Olympics. Any loosening of Internet restrictions this summer will  be not only carefully calculated but also temporary, intended specifically for visitors and designed to last only for the duration of their stay.

To an outsider, this dual-track approach—open access through some channels, limited access through others—might seem overly complex and, ultimately, self-defeating. As Fallows writes,

Depending on how you look at it, the Chinese government’s attempt to rein in the Internet is crude and slapdash or ingenious and well crafted. When American technologists write about the control system, they tend to emphasize its limits. When Chinese citizens discuss it … they tend to emphasize its strength. All of them are right, which makes the government’s approach to the Internet a nice proxy for its larger attempt to control people’s daily lives.

But with 210 million residents online (only the United States has more Internet users), how is it possible to maintain such strict controls over who sees what and when? All Internet communication between China and the outside world is routed through a very small number of fiber-optic cables (located near Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou), Fallows explains, affording the government a rare opportunity to physically monitor all traffic into or out of the country. And its capabilities to do so are only improving with time. Currently, Internet content is blocked one of four ways, and users who disregard China’s Web-surfing etiquette (by searching for sensitive topics, for example) are punished with temporary blackouts, or “time-outs.”

Paradoxically, the most effective aspect of China’s “Golden Shield Project” is its unpredictability. The system’s components are “constantly evolving and changing in their emphasis,” Fallows writes, “as new surveillance techniques become practical and as words go on and off of the sensitive list. They leave the Chinese Internet public unsure about where the off-limits will be drawn on any given day.” This means Internet users must constantly be on guard in order to avoid trouble. But, with the right technology and the wherewithal, the Golden Shield is easy to evade.  

Good thing, too, because so many of China’s banks, foreign businesses and manufacturing companies, retailers, and software vendors rely on virtual private networks (VPNs) and proxy servers—the two dependable alternatives to operating within the Firewall—to survive. “To keep China in business,” Fallows writes, “the government has to allow some exceptions to its control efforts—even knowing that many Chinese citizens will exploit the resulting loopholes.”

These loopholes prompt an obvious question: What’s the point of maintaining a firewall that’s so easy to thwart? The aim, Fallows notes, is to make it as inconvenient as possible to access information that could undermine the government. This includes, of course, details from China’s less-than-pristine past—the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, for example, and the Cultural Revolution—as well as current controversies, like the Three Gorges Dam project and the country’s food-safety issues. (During politically sensitive times, the government makes accessing foreign-press Web sites especially difficult.) The result is a user population conditioned to self-censorship and largely ignorant of “internationally noticed” issues. One cannot help wondering how much longer this can this go on.

In his latest report from Beijing, Atlantic national correspondent James Fallows draws upon both expert reporting and first-hand experience to explore these questions and others. We communicated by e-mail in January.

—Abigail Cutler


Your story is replete with specific and technical details about how the Chinese Internet works. How did you gather this information? And how did you persuade people to talk to you about it?

As a byproduct of my interest in the tech world over the years, I’ve met a lot of people who work in a lot of major international software, hardware, and Internet companies. Through the ones I’ve known in America I’ve met their counterparts in China, and I’ve actually visited quite a number of these companies all over China—hardware manufacturers in the south, software developers in Shanghai, Hangzhou, Beijing, and elsewhere, and Internet companies in several cities.

I made these visits before I knew I would be writing about the “Great Firewall.” Their activities were simply interesting to me, as proxies for the way China was developing generally. But when I realized that I wanted to know more about the Great Firewall situation, I went back to several of these people and said, “Okay, can you walk me through this and tell me how it works?” As a condition of our discussion, I told each and every one that I would not use his or her name. The value that named sources would add to the story is considerably less than the risk to real people of being identified in this way.

One software engineer who works for a major international company made a point that has stuck with me, and that underscores something Americans don’t take seriously enough. If my article were coming out a few months later, then I would have been able to use her name, she said. By that point her application for U.S. citizenship would have come through (she had spent years in the U.S. as a graduate student). Most Americans don’t think very often about what their citizenship means. It’s no accident that every person I quoted in the story is an American citizen and therefore not really subject to retribution from Chinese authorities.

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Abigail Cutler is an Atlantic staff editor.

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