History can be erased in a matter of keystrokes. As I was sitting down to write this review, a message flashed across my screen from a well-known Chinese data analysis expert, announcing he was about to delete all of his Twitter posts. “It is not my intention to subvert state or Party authority,” he wrote.
The previous month, he had published a data analysis of government officials’ plagiarised academic work. Now, not only are his tweets gone but also his volumes of code on GitHub, a Microsoft-owned code-sharing platform. Over the past year, Beijing’s censors have for the first time tried to scrub Twitter of posts that they find unpalatable, hacking into dissidents’ accounts and forcing some to delete their own content. That is all despite the fact that Twitter is already blocked in China.
China has been mounting a concerted attack on freedom of speech online for over two decades. For most non-Chinese contact with Beijing’s censorship controls, typically occurred, if at all, on trips to the country where lack of access to Google or Facebook is a routine and frustrating experience. But in recent years China’s attacks on internet freedoms have expanded beyond its borders, as the Hong Kong-based journalist James Griffiths writes in The Great Firewall of China.
Chinese state-sponsored hackers, he writes, have temporarily brought down GitHub, extensively phished Tibetans in India, and according to US indictments allegedly stolen business secrets from American companies. Moreover, China has lobbied for its vision of cyber sovereignty and a walled internet internationally and helped Russia as well as Uganda build its internet controls. Those concerned about digital rights in the west would do well to heed Griffiths’ warnings that China’s system of internet censorship is not for internal consumption only but is being exported as part of a campaign by Beijing to legitimise its approach to the world.
China learnt from the best to build its firewall: US tech companies, such as Cisco, that had developed basic internet traffic-filtering tools that gave corporations control over their employees’ browsing. But Beijing took these tools to a new level and scale, and today operates the world’s most sophisticated censorship and surveillance system. To stop people from connecting to websites or services the Communist party does not like, the Great Firewall blocks website names, misdirects traffic and can even shut off encrypted communications by figuring out to what kind of service the user is trying to connect.
This book comes at a time when governments around the world are worrying over China’s expanding technological capabilities and its ability to conduct cyber espionage. Griffiths explains a technical subject — Beijing’s internet controls — through the lens of Chinese politics and the logic of social movements. Chapters on tech companies and regulation are interleaved with deeply moving stories of the accidental activists who became the victims of China’s censors: Falun Gong mystics, satirical cartoonists and Uighur Muslims, among many.
As he delivers an expansive history of the Chinese internet, Griffiths bundles various theses, the first of which is that the internet threatens China’s rulers not because “it risked undermining their control over information, but because it threatened to create a platform for organising against them”. Using this framing, one can much better understand the decisions of Beijing’s censors.
It illustrates why, for example, regulators tolerate complaints over air pollution and disgraced politicians, but last year closed down a video-sharing platform that was almost entirely populated by lewd jokes, called Neihan Duanzi (“Implicit Stories”). One sample sketch runs: “My father told me that I couldn’t date this girl because he’d been unfaithful and she was actually my half-sister. But my mother reassured me it was OK — he wasn’t my real father.”
Young-to-middle-aged urban men were so dedicated to sharing such jokes that they formed fan groups to meet offline en masse, with the social bonding habits, such as coded greetings, of a fraternity. Long after the ban, one could still find bumper stickers advertising the platform (none of which appear to be officially issued by its maker, ByteDance) in the nightlife district of Beijing.
The over-reaching ambition of Beijing’s censors has been cause for some in the west to expect China’s internet controls would become ever looser, due to a sheer inability to control a flood of information. The opposite has happened: China’s technological ability to control the internet at home, and attack tech platforms abroad, has grown. Even in the half year since the book was finalised, so much has happened — espionage allegations against telecoms giant Huawei; the exposure by the news outlet the Intercept of Google’s attempts to re-enter China; the attacks on Twitter users — that several new chapters could be added.
Nor has China’s internet been opened up by western social-media platforms, as some had hoped. Despite the best efforts of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, who famously asked President Xi Jinping to name his first child, any progress appears to have been halted by a trade war with the US and personnel moves at the head of the Cyberspace Administration of China that saw the removal of a top official judged sympathetic to American tech interests.
The history of US tech companies in China means that one cannot take the “western liberator” model for granted, Griffiths argues. Companies’ profit motive and desire to stay on the right side of the Communist party has conflicted with the need to protect users. In the early 1990s, Cisco started selling internet surveillance gear to China. In 2004 Yahoo handed over email data that led to the jailing of a Chinese journalist. The following year, Microsoft deleted the blog of a famous dissident.
In a slightly rushed epilogue, Griffiths concludes that the capitalists of “Silicon Valley won’t save you”, but nor can western governments (sometimes hypocritically) propounding the virtues of a free internet abroad, given the suspicion that governments such as China’s attach to anything the US defends. Instead, what we need is a “user controlled, transparent and democratic internet”, Griffiths concludes. Writing this in Beijing, struggling to send even this review outside the Firewall, I lose sight of what that looks like.
The Great Firewall of China: How to Build and Control an Alternative Version of the Internet, by James Griffiths, Zed Books, RRP£20, 385 pages
Yuan Yang is the FT’s Beijing correspondent
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