By Alex Pasternack and Lara Heintz
The Chinese Internet has been very busy recently in spite of itself. What’s trending is the unusually public political intrigue surrounding Bo Xilai, the showy former mayor of Chongqing whom Beijing has linked to massive corruption and the murder of a British businessman. Some say Beijing’s takedown of Bo is a promising sign for reform; others think it’s a decoy. It’s both: The chatter that’s lit up China’s web has led to a buffet of clampdown measures by a government that looks increasingly anxious.
Imagine a giant whac-a-mole game: Savvy netizens keep popping up to prick the powers that be with funny euphemisms that escape automatic censors (the recent Communist Party Congress was mocked as “Beijing Fashion Week” on Weibo) while the authorities keep coming back with enormous bats intended to make the world wide web safe for totalitarianism, much as as they’ve done with every other kind of media.
But the Internet is a different kind of game than print and TV media, with greater stakes, bigger weapons and more collateral damage. With every round of “pernicious” “rumor” purging, the rumor mill simply spins faster. As the Atlantic’s Helen Gao writes, “This hall-of-mirrors system can be confusing even for the officials who run it.”
Beyond the Golden Shield, which keeps the Chinese Internet sanitized, officials have been touting a new system that will require anyone who wants to use the Internet to register their real names with the government.
Vice meets JingJing and ChaCha, China’s cartoon Internet cops.
And last Thursday, Beijing showed off what might be a new tool in its war on information. At around 11am China time, Internet users on the mainland found themselves unable to access multiple foreign websites and a number of Chinese sites, including Sina’s popular portals and the website of the People’s Bank of China, which are normally un-blocked by the firewall. Even Virtual Private Networks, the subscription-based software that allows people to tunnel through the country’s firewall, were difficult to access. It was the first time the Internet had been throttled since one Sunday last year, when talk of an Egypt-esque “Jasmine revolution” drove people to gather at a popular Beijing shopping street.
According to a report by the Wall Street Journal, the sites were back up by 1pm, but the speculation around “who killed the Internet” played out like pre-apocalyptic conspiracy theorizing. The brown-out was initially blamed on a China Telecom cable damaged during an 8.7 magnitude earthquake that had occurred earlier in the day.
Both Telecom and Unicom (whose infrastructures manage much of China’s internet) have since released official statements denying that any cable-related or infrastructural glitches were culprits of the temporary blackout. Of course, a denial by China’s major telecommunication giants and no further explanation from the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology has had many buzzing in recent days about the possibility that Beijing was testing an Internet “kill switch”.
Photo by Matthew Niederhauser
In the hours that followed, a clearer picture of the brownout began to emerge. Based on reporting from the U.S. web services firm CloudFlare, which oversees Internet traffic around the world, smaller networks belonging to China Mobile and China Railway seemed untouched. And while HTTP traffic mostly stopped, other types of traffic that flow through different ports like Skype calls, email transfers and DNS traffic continued to flow. An unnamed engineer at CloudFlare guessed that “someone made a mistake when filtering something and likely they filtered the entire internet.”
Even if such a single big red switch is highly improbable for technical reasons, China’s proven its ability to throttle the Web before. Arguably, however, it’s never been so thorough. Occasional brownouts aren’t going to shock anyone living in China’s weird, restricted cyberspace, which is now the most populous in the world. But a persistent clampdown on web access – or some severe upgrade to the Great Firewall’s technology – could lead to instability far greater than the kind such a clampdown is meant to prevent.
The Twitter and Weibo responses were more luke-warm. Here’s a sampling from Josh Chin at the Journal:
To some of those with the know-how and resources to circumvent the Great Firewall – foreign journalists, businessmen, hackers, and presumably, government officials – the outage was another inconvenience, but a bizarre one. While some reported that VPNs were also not working, others had some luck circumventing the problem. “It was a bit strange, though the Internet here is always a bit off,” Bill Bishop, a media analyst in China, wrote by email. Living with “One world, two internets” means his desk has two computers, one connected to the rest of the world via Virtual Private Network (“I have 5 VPNS, as they don’t all always work here”), and one connected to the restricted “Chinternet.” “Each worked fine as long as they stayed with their respective networks; it was the crossover that caused problems.”
An internet cafe in Lhasa, Tibet.
Ai Weiwei weighed in too of course, arguing that controlling the Internet was like building a dam as water levels rise. “In the long run, they (the government) must understand it’s not possible for them to control the internet unless they shut it off – and they can’t live with the consequences of that,” he wrote on the Guardian’s website. “The people will always have the last word – even if someone has a very weak, quiet voice. Such power will collapse because of a whisper… But in the long run, its [China’s] leaders must understand it’s not possible for them to control the internet unless they shut it off – and they can’t live with the consequences of that."
The freedom meme isn’t limited to dissidents. Government officials are paying more lip service to net democracy too. At a recent press conference, the outgoing premier Wen Jiabao – who did a White House-ish web chat with citizens last year – seemed to be referencing Wukan, the southern Chinese village where residents tossed out their Communist Party secretary and held transparent and open elections. “If a people can run a village well, I like to think that they could run a town, and if they can run a town, they can manage a county,” Wen said. Without “urgent” reforms, chaos could reign.
Still, when the government talks about teh internets, it often sounds naive, which makes it all the more menacing. During last year’s Party Congress, a statement published in the People’s Daily recognized that the Internet “not only represents the demand and expectations of people, but poses a choice to democratize the government decision-making process and governance.” But, it added,
“Netizens should also see to that online ideas call for mature expression and scientific absorption as a matter of course while giving heed to the cyber. Internet users also need careful mulling or considerations and strive to make their commendations more valuable. And the way of deliberating state affairs should be continue to be explored, so as to shape an online mechanism of seeking the views, ideas and concerns, etc. of netizens in a multichannel and systematic manner.”
There you have it: the hardships facing China’s Internet summarized in a paragraph.
China Daily, the government’s English-language newspaper, picked up the meme yesterday, sort of, with a piece titled, “Web becomes strong force in public opinion”. The reporter – whose name is almost certainly a pseudonym, a standard practice in the thorny world of Chinese journalism – describes how Weibo has brought hot button issues to China’s giant Internet audience. But it’s also drawn the attention of officials who are worried about the kind of “rumors” that can “harm social order.” “In the latest crackdown on online rumors,” writes Zhao Yinan, “authorities have removed more than 210,000 online posts and shut down 42 websites since March, Liu Zhengrong, a senior official with the State Internet Information Office, said at a news briefing on Thursday.”
The most likely explanation for last Thursday’s hiccup looks like someone pushing buttons on China’s firewall filtered out the entire web. Accident or not, the uproar around a two-hour loss of already restricted web surfing suggests that, if China were to lose the web for any significant amount of time, the breakage won’t just be virtual.
See Motherboard’s documentary about the Internet and Occupy Wall Street, Free the Network
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