The Great Firewall of China : A Battle Over Ideas
Reference Tool On Web Finds Fans, Censors
Monday, February 20, 2006
BEIJING -- When access to Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that anyone can edit, was disrupted across China last October, a lanky chemical engineer named Shi Zhao called his Internet service provider to complain. A technician confirmed what Shi already suspected: Someone in the government had ordered the site blocked again.
Who and why were mysteries, Shi recalled, but the technician promised to pass his complaint on to higher authorities if he put it in writing.
"Wikipedia isn't a Web site for spreading reactionary speech or a pure political commentary site," Shi, 33, wrote a few days later. Yes, it contained entries on sensitive subjects such as Taiwan and the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, but users made sure its articles were objective, he said, and blocking it would only make it harder for people in China to delete "harmful" content.
Shi was hopeful the government would agree. When the site was blocked in 2004, he had submitted a similar letter, and access had been quickly restored. Since then, the Chinese-language edition of Wikipedia had grown, broadening its appeal not only as a reference tool but also as a forum where people across China and the Chinese diaspora could gather, share knowledge and discuss even the most divisive subjects.
But today, four months after Shi submitted his letter, Wikipedia remains blocked.
The government has declined to explain its actions. But its on-again, off-again attempts to disrupt access to the site highlight the Communist Party's deep ambivalence toward the Internet: The party appears at once determined not to be left behind by the global information revolution and fearful of being swept away by it.
Officials tolerated Wikipedia at first, perhaps because it seemed to be exactly what the party had in mind when it began promoting Internet use 11 years ago -- an educational resource that could help China close its technological gap with the West, encourage innovation and boost economic growth.
But as the Chinese Wikipedia flourished, the authorities apparently came to see it as another threat to the party's control of information, and an example of an even more worrying development. The Internet has emerged as a venue for people with shared interests -- or grievances -- to meet, exchange ideas and plan activities without the party's knowledge or approval.
With 111 million people online and 20,000 more joining them every day, the landscape of Chinese cyberspace resembles a vast collection of new and overlapping communities. Although Chinese write less e-mail than Americans, they embrace the Internet's other communication tools -- bulletin boards and chat rooms, instant-messaging groups and blogs, photo-sharing and social networking sites. A popular feature of the Chinese search engine Baidu lets users chat with others who have entered the same keywords.
Studies suggest this digital interaction is changing the traditional structure of Chinese society, strengthening relations among friends, colleagues and others outside family networks. In a multinational survey, a much larger percentage of Internet users in China than anywhere else said online communication had increased their contact with people who shared their hobbies, professions and political views.
The Communist Party polices these emerging Internet communities with censors and undercover agents, and manages a Web site that it said received nearly a quarter-million anonymous tips about "harmful information" online last year. But the methods the party uses to control speech and behavior in the real world have proved less effective in cyberspace, where people get away with more, and where the government is often a step behind.
When authorities catch up, citizens often have already weakened the party's grip on public life and succeeded in expanding civil society. They have organized charity drives for rural schoolchildren and mobilized students for anti-Japanese protest marches. And they learned to work together to write an encyclopedia.