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.

Baidu’s advertising campaign has heavily stressed its role as the “real,” authentically Chinese search engine, while Google is the foreign interloper. Until recently this has given Baidu a big lead in the Chinese market, but Google appears at the moment to be making gains.

One of your sources explains that “every bank, every foreign manufacturing company, every retailer, every software vendor needs VPNs to exist.” Is that an exaggeration? Would it be impossible for any of these companies to survive by relying only on the Chinese network?

Let me put it this way. If I—in a one-person office of a foreign company, with no financial data to transmit to the head office and no truly urgent second-by-second transactions to conduct—feel that I need a VPN to operate, what must it be like for Citibank? Or Microsoft? Or Boeing? Or FedEx and Dell? Or any of the thousands of other foreign firms operating in China that are transmitting industrial designs, buy-and-sell securities orders, bank deposits, and so on? This is the one area in which China literally cannot afford to crack down. Foreign companies are the backbone of its export economy, and without VPNs they just couldn’t do their work.

What do you think will happen as more and more Chinese have access (through their work with Western companies or private VPNs) to the uncensored Internet?

This is a version of the one truly impossible-to-answer question about China: What’s going to become of it? Will it loosen up, as more people become more prosperous and better informed? Will it maintain the status quo, precisely because people are more prosperous and less inclined to rock the boat? I just don’t know. The one thing that is clear is that the simple faith of the 1990s—that communication would mean liberalization—just isn’t true. Maybe things will become more liberal in China, but despite the spread of communications technology no one can be sure that will occur.

About 70 percent of Internet users in the United States have used the Web to shop. How will the proliferation of credit cards in China affect the government’s ability to monitor Internet activity?

Online commerce in China is truly strange, by American standards. It’s both highly advanced and extremely rudimentary. Let me illustrate in two ways.

1) I very frequently use an online service called CTrip to book domestic airline tickets in China. I use its search systems to find the best schedules and the best fares. I place my order. And then, two hours later, a man from CTrip comes on a motorbike to my apartment to collect the payment in cash. Information is easily transmitted via the Internet in China. But the degree of suspicion about anything involving money is so vast that online payments are difficult and rare.

2) The Dell computer company is very successful in China, and I ordered a printer from its Web site. After choosing the one I wanted and clicking “Buy Now,” I had to go to a deposit office in the center of the city and hand over the cash. Again, e-commerce is sophisticated in China, except when money changes hands.

Do you think that Western companies (e.g., Skype, Google) doing business in China  have any alternative to abiding by the government’s rules?

No. If they defied Chinese law, they couldn’t operate here at all. What good would that do? More generally, if I were making a list of the forces that keep Chinese people from getting the information they might want, this “complicity” by U.S. firms would be far, far down the list. The purely Chinese media are very thoroughly controlled by the state authorities. Yes, Chinese media operations often scheme to find ways around the controls. (This is a vast topic for another time.) But if Google, Skype, etc. decided not to operate at all in China, the only effect would be to leave Chinese citizens less informed than they might otherwise be.

You mention that China tries not to antagonize important groups needlessly. Why? Has that approach backfired in the past?

This also is a vast topic for another time, but I think most Americans would be amazed by the difference between their standard image of the Chinese “regime” and what day-to-day life here is like. Most Americans think this is an all-powerful central government; most of the time, it looks like a relatively weak, remote titular leadership trying to tell the equivalent of warlords (provincial governors) what they should do. Most Americans think China is a thoroughgoing dictatorship that can squash its critics or tell them to shut up.

In fact, most studies of Chinese government suggest that it needs to maintain a kind of “legitimacy,” even without elections, both by keeping living standards up for most of its people and by not oppressing people any more than it thinks it needs to. The slogan of the current Hu-Wen regime, now entering its second five-year term, is “harmonious society.” Specifically, this means dealing with (or talking about) the environmental disaster that is modern China, the income extremes between billionaires of the cities and impoverished rural families, the plight of migrant workers, etc. Conceptually, it can be seen as a way of addressing the main sources of widespread discontent and therefore of potential upheaval.

The Western press has highlighted examples of the Internet’s power to influence or change Chinese public policy. Are such policy reversals aberrations? Publicity stunts? Or do you think these were examples of the Internet giving Chinese civilians some leverage?

Here I’m hesitant to draw any sweeping conclusion. Clearly, to some degree the Internet has put information outside the government’s ability to bottle it up. But case by case and issue by issue, it’s hard to say whether the authorities or “the people” will have the upper hand. My feeling in talking about China is that I’m happy to describe what I’ve seen, but I’m hesitant to say what “will” occur. Certainly the Internet offers one more way for Chinese citizens to organize and exchange information outside official channels. But what exactly that will mean, in terms of redress of grievances and shifts in power, no one really knows.

You explain that the Chinese government knows that people will find information if they really want it—that they’re just trying to make the quest for it enough of a nuisance that people won’t bother. What does this approach say about the Chinese government’s mentality as a whole? How does it compare, for example, to that of the GDR or the Soviet Union?

Great question! Without consciously using this term, most Americans (I think) view China as “totalitarian.” They imagine that the government is all-powerful, that citizens are all-controlled, that the regime is really set on interfering with all aspects of Chinese life. Certainly China was that way during much of the Communist era. And certainly today’s regime can be ruthless when dealing with people it views as political challenges.

But in general this regime is nothing like the those of Stalin-era Soviet Union or the North Korea of the past fifty years. The government’s guideline seems to be: it will control anything it feels it has to control, to maintain its monopoly on power—power over media, political organization, education, public assembly, etc. There are also extensive economic controls, as I tried to explain in my article “The $1.4 Trillion Question” in the previous issue of The Atlantic. But in general, if the government does not have to control some part of its people’s lives, it doesn’t. People do not walk around glancing over their shoulders to see whether they’re being trailed. I was here in the 1980s, when people did walk around in that cowering way. It’s a big difference.

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Abigail Cutler is an Atlantic staff editor.

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