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Will the Great Firewall Stand?

The government is cracking down on dissent in advance of the Olympics, but China's Internet users are fighting back—often at great risk to themselves.

By Howard W. French in Wuhan, China


As an 18-year-old student, Zhu Nan had been itching to say something about China's extensive online censorship system, known as the Great Firewall.

So when China's censors began blocking access to Flickr, the photo-sharing site, Zhu felt the moment had come. Writing on his blog last year, he questioned the rationale for Internet restrictions and began passing along tips on how to evade them.

"Officials in our country claimed that Internet censorship is done according to the law," wrote Zhu, who is now a freshman at a university in Wuhan. "If so, why not let people know about this legal project, and why, instead, ban the Web sites that publicize and examine those legal policies?"

Zhu's blog post and his subsequent activism are part of what many regard as a watershed moment. In recent months, China's censors have tightened controls over the Internet, blacking out sites that had no discernible political content. In the process, they have fostered a backlash, as many previously apolitical people have become active in resisting the controls.

At the same time, the government has begun cracking down on dissent in advance of this summer's Olympics, jailing 51 online dissidents and blocking more than 2,500 Web sites last year, according to Reporters Without Borders.

"This is a coordinated cleansing campaign," says Teng Biao, a legal expert in Beijing. "All the troublemakers, including potential troublemakers, are being silenced before the Olympic Games."

Does Google Do Evil?

Starting in 1978, China's ruling Communist Party began freeing up the economy, leading to the economic boom of the last few decades. But China remains an authoritarian state with little political freedom. The Internet has proven particularly vexing for its leaders, who try to keep a tight grip on information.

"The Internet is just too big and too complex for State Security to control," says Times columnist Nicholas Kristof.

Across the Pacific, some U.S. companies have been criticized for helping China police cyberspace. Some search results on Google China, for example, don't include material the government doesn't want its people to see: A search for, say, "Tiananmen Square," where the Chinese army gunned down hundreds of civilian protesters in 1989, is likely to yield very different results on Google.cn than on Google.com.

For most of China's Internet users, however, censorship still does not appear to be a big problem. The most popular Web applications in China are games and messaging, and the most visited sites focus on subjects like entertainment and sports.

But a growing number of users are becoming resentful of restrictions on a wide range of Web sites, including Flickr, YouTube, Wikipedia, MySpace, Blogspot, and others the public sees as sources of harmless diversion or information. The mounting resentment has inspired a wave of increasingly determined social resistance not common in China.

'I Had No Idea'

This resistance is taking many forms, from lawsuits by users against service providers to software writers who develop code aimed at getting around the restrictions. In almost every instance, the resistance has been fired by the surprise of people who bump up against a system that they had only vaguely suspected existed.

"I had had an impression that some kind of mechanism controls the Internet in China, but I had no idea about the Great Firewall," says Pan Liang, a writer who runs a Web site about children's books.

When the government ordered him to shut down his site's message board in October, Pan posted ways to get around the restrictions, and then used a historical allusion to mock the censorship.

"Many people don't know that 300 years after Emperor Kangxi ordered an end to construction of the Great Wall, our great republic has built an invisible great wall," he wrote on his site. "Can blocking really work? Kangxi knew the Great Wall was a huge lie. Just think how many soldiers are needed to guard those thousands of miles."

A 17-year-old blogger from Guangdong Province who posted instructions on how to evade the Firewall to get to YouTube was no less philosophical. "I don't know if it's better to speak out or keep silent, but if everyone keeps silent, the truth will be buried," the girl wrote.

Yuan Mingli, a Wikipedia fan who created a Firewall-evasion group, says the government will ultimately fail at insulating China's Internet users from the rest of the world. The system will "eventually break down precisely because China cannot be completely disconnected to the outside world anymore."