The Great Firewall

Joshua Kurlantzick · China and the Internet

At the time of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, history seemed firmly on the side of the demonstrators. The Soviet Union was on the verge of cracking apart, and soon after its fall most other one-party states would collapse as well. Many in the Square, and most outside observers, assumed the Communist Party of China would soon take its place in the dustbin. Beijing’s leaders certainly feared so: as revealed in books like The Tiananmen Papers and Zhao Ziyang’s memoir Prisoner of the State, Deng Xiaoping knew that the Party could well collapse.

Even after the regime crushed the Tiananmen protests, the idea persisted that the Communist Party could not possibly survive. ‘China remains on the wrong side of history,’ Bill Clinton said in 1998. Two years later, he warned that the Party’s attempts to control the internet in China would be like ‘trying to nail Jell-O to the wall’.

And yet, sixty years after its founding, the Communist Party has done just that – defied history and nailed the Jell-O down. Urban Chinese, the leaders of protest in the 1980s, appear relatively content with their government: one poll taken by the Pew Research Center found that more than 80 per cent of people were satisfied with current conditions in China. The Party has successfully co-opted China’s elite, most of whom have bought into the regime. And instead of the bloody purges of the past, the Party has developed ways to transfer power peacefully from one generation of leaders to the next, as Jiang Zemin handed the reins to Hu Jintao, and Hu will probably step down for his heir presumptive, Vice President Xi Jinping, in 2012.

In part, of course, the Party has survived through force. The security forces have shown no compunction about firing on protestors, arresting thousands of Falun Gong demonstrators or torturing prisoners. Yet Beijing has also pioneered the most thorough internet filtering and monitoring techniques in the world, which are now being copied by other countries, including Vietnam and Saudi Arabia. The ‘great firewall of China’ blocks certain content so effectively – independent news in Chinese, articles on hotspots like Taiwan and Tibet, some Western news sources – that most web users there don’t even know what they’re not allowed to see.