Eleven years after its initial connection to the World Wide Web, China’s access to the internet is still guarded by firewalls, embedded in its proxy servers, which have proved to be more practical and impenetrable than the Berlin wall.
Moreover, an increase in the demand for broadband connection has triggered the launch of an US$800 million Jin Dun (Golden Shield) project, an automatic digital system of public policing that will help prolong communist rule by denying people the right to information.
The principle underlying the Golden Shield is that “as virtue rises one foot, vice rises 10”. Using systems developed by western intelligence agencies, China has forged a virtual sword that threatens to block the path to democracy.
Internet “gateways” mainly supervise and filter political information in China. Their technical functions include blocking overseas websites, filtering content and key words on webpages, monitoring e-mails and internet cafes, hijacking personal computers, sending out viruses, and interconnecting with the monitoring systems of the public security bureaus. Rather than heralding a new era of freedom, the internet is enabling the mainland authorities to perfect totalitarian control in a way that puts the rulers in George Orwell’s 1984 to shame. Since mid-April, Golden Shield’s advanced science and technology has been monitoring every thought and action of the Chinese people who use the internet. Today, China is the only country in the world that has enshrined in law the concept of a “web political criminal”. Publishing articles on the internet can amount to committing an offence, and “radical views” may result in imprisonment. The real criminals, the officers of the companies – Nortel, Cisco and Sun Microsystems – that built this sinister system of mind control, will never get closer to a prison than China’s five-star hotels.
Since the first Chinese web criminal, Lin Haiyin, was jailed for instigating subversive actions in 2000 to the recent arrest of writer Shi Tao , more than 100 independent intellectuals have been imprisoned for expressing their views. Internet monitoring is also behind the constant rise in the number of Falun Gong practitioners executed by the state – a total of 1,692 as of April 18.
Internet communication in China is filled with baits and traps: user-friendly webpage designs, easy-to-click icons and symbolised facial expressions, beautiful female stars in online ads, and constantly updated international news induce users to participate and express their own views. But once someone’s fingertips touch the keyboard, he or she may find themselves stepping into a trap, because the internet police monitor every word that is typed.
In a country where freedom of expression has been off limits for half a century, the internet had at first proved to be a godsend: people poured their enthusiasm into it by building websites and personal homepages. Now these people find themselves exposed to the public security bureaus.
Today, the average online lifespan of proxy servers in China is a mere 30 minutes, and 17,000 internet cafes have been shut down. The online filtering technology is capable of blocking or intercepting the e-mails of the 80 million or so “net citizens” in China.
Although the Golden Shield project is the Communist Party’s largest single investment in the ideological field since it came to power in 1949, it is also likely to be the last big bet before the party’s collapse. Like the Berlin wall, China’s internet restrictions may be technically sound, even as they defend the indefensible and sustain the unsustainable.
Ma Jian is the author of the acclaimed memoir, Red Dust, and the novel, The Noodlemaker. He now lives in exile.
Copyright: Project Syndicate