The Great Wall of China, often cited as the ultimate measure of border security, was not, in fact, all that effective. Just ask Kublai Khan and his Mongol hordes who rode south through the original Great Wall fortifications to establish the Yuan Dynasty in 1279.
China’s “Great Firewall,” which blocks access to many websites, however, appears to be an entirely different matter.
China’s Internet crackdown gained new momentum following a February tour of media outlets by Chinese President Xi Jinping. Xi ominously warned during his tour that journalists must give absolute loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party. The Associated Press reported on March 30th that “China is consolidating its ability to censor the internet by drafting rules requiring that businesses that serve domestic internet users to register their Web addresses inside the country, a move seen as targeting Chinese companies but that has raised concerns among foreign businesses.” The AP went on to note that the move “appears to be the latest step by the ruling Communist Party to erect cyber barriers in the name of what some officials call ‘internet sovereignty.'”
The AFP reported on March 11th that the website of the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the venerable 113 year-old Hong Kong based newspaper, was blocked in mainland China during a “series of high-level government meetings in Beijing.” SCMP was also reportedly muzzled on the Chinese Mainland after it ran an article on Xi’s behind-the-scenes political maneuverings.
Of even greater concern, BBC reported a story on March 29th that “China editor resigns over media censorship.” Yu Shaolei, an editor at the Southern Metropolis Daily, posted a letter of resignation on his Sina Weibo microblog account announcing, as his reason for resignation, “unable to bear your surname.” Yu added that “I am getting old and my knees can’t stand it after so many years (of kneeling.)” He was obviously making reference to Xi Jinping’s February media tour and his admonition to journalists to “bear the surname of the Party.” Yu’s post was quickly deleted. The BBC went on to report that “in recent weeks China detained more than 20 people following the publication of an anonymous letter calling on President Xi to resign on state-backed website Wujie News.” Those detained included prominent columnist Jia Jia, who has been subsequently released.
China’s censors have, of course, periodically blocked access to foreign news organizations such as the New York Times. In 2014, access to Instagram was also blocked to prevent access to photographs of Hong Kong’s then-ongoing “Umbrella Revolution.” When the South China Morning Post was purchased by Chinese Internet giant Alibaba in December 2015, the company pledged to maintain SCMP’s editorial independence. Alibaba Chairman Jack Ma, however, has actively abetted the enforcement of former Chinese President Hu Jintao’s dictum, as recorded in Peter Navarro and Greg Autry’s 2011 book, Death by China: Confronting the Dragon – A Global Call to Action, that “(We must) further strengthen and improve controls on the information web, raising our level of control over virtual society, and perfecting our mechanisms for the channeling of public opinion online.”
Peter Navarro and Greg Autry had a further comment on Beijing’s state-orchestrated blockage of access to on-line information: “To see China’s Great Firewall in action, you can also try this: Go to an Internet café in any Chinese city and try typing into your web browser actual phrases like ‘freedom of speech’ or ‘Tiananmen Square demonstrations.’ The resulting links will be blocked. Try it again, and your computer shuts down. Do it repeatedly, and you are likely to get a personal visit from one of China’s cyber cops.”
The most famous case of a cyber cop arrest involved Chinese reporter Shi Tao, who was arrested in 2004, according to Associated Press, for “sending details of a government memo about restrictions on news coverage of the Tiananmen Square massacre anniversary to a human rights forum in the United States.” Shi Tao was sent to prison in 2005 on charges of “disclosing state secrets” and was released in 2013. The email which led to his conviction was provided to Beijing authorities by the California-based Yahoo, which, according to the AP, claimed it “was obligated to comply with Chinese government demands for information.”
At a November 2007 Congressional hearing, then-Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Lantos harshly criticized Yahoo and its chief executive Jerry Yang. Lantos urged that Yahoo apologize to Shi Tao’s mother, who was seated in the Committee hearing room. Jerry Yang and Yahoo General Counsel Michael Callahan then turned around and bowed to the weeping woman. Yahoo turned over control of its email and other services in China to its local partner, the Alibaba Group, in 2005. Yahoo also at the time reportedly bought a forty percent stake in Alibaba. It subsequently closed its email service in China in 2013 and recommended users switch to a service run by the Chinese Communist Party-sanctioned Alibaba.
Even though Yahoo got burned due to its Internet business with Beijing, this has not prevented other Silicon Valley entrepreneurs from attempting to break into the huge Chinese market. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg just made a well-chronicled sojourn to Beijing.
Zuckerberg was criticized for publicly jogging through Tiananmen Square, site of the 1989 massacre, and under the portrait of Mao Zedong. The Zuckerberg visit included meetings with China’s propaganda chief Liu Yunshan as well as Alibaba’s Jack Ma, two of the main spiders who spin the web of China’s state sponsorship of internet censorship. Zuckerberg has also reportedly spoken admirably of a book he read by Chinese leader Xi Jinping, The Governance of China, laying out Xi’s “China Dream.” Whether all of this will finally result in Facebook gaining its long-sought access to the lucrative China Internet market, despite its arcane censorship rules, remains to be seen. But Zuckerberg has certainly been willing to “friend” some extraordinarily repressive people.
Dennis P. Halpin, a former adviser on Asian issues to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is a visiting scholar at the U.S.-Korea Institute (SAIS) and an adviser to the Poblete Analysis Group.