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.
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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.

You mention early on that you didn’t go to the Chinese government for their side of the story because Internet controls are never discussed in public. What would have happened if you’d asked the government about this? Would have put yourself at risk in some way?

The worst risk I would have encountered—I think!—is just being ignored. Realistically there was zero probability of being granted an interview with an official of the relevant ministry, and a less-than-zero chance that he or she would have anything to say beyond the equivalent of “no comment.” In the story, I quote several observations by Andrew Lih, now of Hong Kong University. Something I didn’t quote from him was a view he obtained from a Chinese official on this very topic:

"In China, we don’t have software blocking Internet sites. Sometimes we have trouble accessing them. But that’s a different problem. I know that some colleagues listen to the BBC in their offices from the Webcast. And I’ve heard people say that the BBC is not available in China or that it’s blocked. I’m sure I don’t know why people say this kind of thing. We do not have restrictions at all.”

This was from Yang Xiaokun, First Secretary, Permanent Mission of China to the United Nations Office at Geneva. You see the problem.

The Western press is full of stories about civilians in China (and reporters in particular) being confronted for their inappropriate use of the Internet. Have you run into similar problems? Do you find yourself taking extra precautions when using the Internet?

When living in Shanghai, and now in Beijing, my wife and I have lived in “serviced apartments” where perhaps many of the residents are foreigners. In some ways, the Internet services there have been better than those enjoyed by typical Chinese people. For instance, after the Christmas earthquake, in 2006, that dramatically affected connections between most parts of Asia and the rest of the world, our apartment building in Shanghai was up and running comparatively quickly because it rented (expensive) satellite connections.

But when it comes to firewalls and other forms of interference, we’ve been subject to the same problems as other users within China. The precautions I’ve taken have been these: first, I operate through a VPN (in my case, WiTopia), which as I explain in the story encrypts transmissions through the Firewall. Second, I rely on Skype for online chats since those too are safely encrypted. And, although this probably isn’t necessary when I’m using a VPN, when using webmail I go to secure sites—for instance, https://gmail.com rather than normal http://, for an extra layer of encryption. As I say, this is probably overkill. I never use Internet cafés in China—I can use my Blackberry for e-mail in a pinch.

How does the Chinese search engine Baidu differ from Google.cn?

There is an important technical difference between the two operations. Baidu’s servers are physically inside China. This makes them very fast—queries don’t have to go overseas or be processed by the cumbersome Great Firewall filters. Moreover, Baidu pre-scrubs its search contents to meet the strictures of the Chinese government. So there is no question of some troublesome material—say, about Taiwan—showing up in Baidu’s results. Google, meanwhile, is using its “real” index from servers outside China. This means that Google’s searches are often slower than Baidu’s and more likely to run into problems because of touchy material.

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.

Abigail Cutler is an Atlantic staff editor.
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Abigail Cutler is a staff editor at The Atlantic.

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