China’s self-defeating war with information

China’s desire to become a dominant global economy while being disconnected from the global information society is a self-defeating proposition.

Andy Yee
14 February 2013

On January 25, 2013, a petition appears on Whitehouse.gov calling for the US government to refuse entry to people who help build China’s internet filtering system, known as the “Great Firewall of China”. It points to a detailed list of alleged censorship architects, hosted on GitHub, the world’s largest social programming and code hosting website. The list includes the address and ID number of Fang Binxing, Principal of Beijing University of Posts and Communications and often called “Father of China’s Great Firewall.” Normally, such provocations would be promptly blocked by the Chinese censors.

But because GitHub is an HTTPS-only website, only the end user and GitHub server can read the encrypted communications. Without the ability to read the information, the Great Firewall would only know that a user is trying to connect with GitHub’s servers. As a result, authorities cannot block individual pages. Their only option is to completely block the website. This is indeed what they have chosen to do. The next day, GitHub was blocked in parts of China. A huge backlash from the technology community ensued. For China is the fourth largest source of traffic for GitHub, and many domestic companies rely on the open source platform for their work. Prominent technologist Kai-fu Lee, former head of Google China, has been vocal about the blockage on the twitter-like Sina Weibo service, with his post receiving over 97,000 re-shares and 20,000 comments.

GitHub’s combination of social interaction with a critical business service – collaborative coding – presents a unique challenge to China’s censors. And as the Chinese government maintains its authoritarian grip in an economy that is increasingly connected and information-driven, we will only see more and more examples of this dilemma. Recognising the inherent contradictions of China’s desire to become a dominant global economy while being disconnected from the global information society, the consultancy Eurasia Group sees China’s war with information as one of the top risks in 2013.

Ever since China connected to the World Wide Web in 1994, it has become a notable counter-example to predictions that digital communications technologies would liberate and empower people under repressive regimes for progressive political changes. It seems to be able to reap the economic benefits of the internet while keeping the political challenges at bay. The result is what Rebecca MacKinnon, a leading expert on internet censorship, calls “networked authoritarianism”. More specifically, UNC Charlotte media scholar Min Jiang describes China’s approach as “authoritarian informationalism”, an internet development model that combines elements of capitalism, authoritarianism and nationalism.

Early on, China is aware of the internet’s potential to effect fundamental change. At the turn of the century, its Tenth Five-Year Plan (2001-2005) set out ambitious targets for China’s ICT industry, devoting an important section to “accelerating national economic development and popularizing information technology throughout society.” In June 2010, the Chinese State Council Information Office released The Internet in China, the first policy paper of its kind issued by the government. The development of the internet sector is seen as indispensible for global economic competitiveness, as well as achieving social goals like poverty alleviation. Furthermore, the Innovation 2020 strategy, announced in 2011, designates information technology as one of the seven “strategic” sectors in which China seeks global leadership.

Here is China’s innovation dilemma. Accompanying this economic focus is the world’s most sophisticated internet censorship system. The well-known Great Firewall of China, a technical filtration system that blocks foreign, “harmful” websites, such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, is only part of it. Within the firewall, there are a myriad of controls that attempts to steer and manipulate information flows. This includes content censorship demands on commercial platforms, internet policing, employment of “online commentators” to shape public opinion, and promotion of self-censorship through surveillance and intimidation. It is estimated that up to 50,000 internet police and 300,000 online commentators participate in this huge effort.

This censorship regime is hurting China’s competitiveness in the internet age. Very often, it is commercial firms that bear the collateral damages. Online portals are frustrated about the energy and time wasted on outsourced censorship tasks from the propaganda department. Chinese web giant Tencent has to work hard to deal with censorship concerns connected with its globally popular chat app WeChat among international users, who are accustomed to sharing information freely. Chinese telecom giants Huawei and ZTE, flagged by the US Congress as security threats on flimsy evidence, are victims of China’s perceived opacity. And investor uncertainty about censorship and over-regulation mean that market performance of Chinese internet companies will never achieve their potential.

More importantly, to the extent that web technologies become essential platforms for learning, collaboration and innovation, China runs serious risks of underachieving its information technology ambitions. Chinese talents are robbed of learning possibilities simply because many foreign websites and tools are blocked. According to a UNESCO report, some open educational resources are out of reach for students and educators in China because they are filtered by the Great Firewall.

Contrary to the Chinese government’s desire, political and economic freedoms on the internet cannot be separated easily. Vint Cerf, one of the founding fathers of the internet, thinks that the architecture of the internet is inherently political. From the protocol point of view, all interlocutors on the network are equal, no matter if you are a supercomputer or a laptop. At the early stage of the internet’s development, a highly democratic, meritocratic, open and collaborative culture was embedded. In 1989, Tim Berners-Lee, another inventor of the internet, used the web to communicate with fellow computer scientists and made foundational elements of the web available to anyone, anywhere in the world. If Cerf or Berners-Lee had to negotiate with the government for permission to create the web, or other people had to negotiate with them to build on top of what they have created, the internet would not have evolved into the most powerful infrastructure known to human kind for the creation, exchange and implementation of ideas.

Information control introduces inefficiencies and frictions. Ultimately, China’s attempt to separate the political spirit from the economic benefits of the internet runs counter to the philosophy of the system. The free flow of information would undermine the authoritarian regime, but too strong a crackdown could hurt China’s desire to develop an innovative economy and the stability of the state, which is critically dependent on delivering economic growth for its legitimacy. The GitHub incident is only a small slice of this dilemma. But as the censorship machine will not disappear anytime soon, we can only expect the dilemma to continue into the foreseeable future.

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