Great Firewall of China Faces Online Rebels

Copyright The New York Times
By HOWARD W. FRENCH
Published: February 4, 2008
WUHAN, China — As an 18-year-old student with an interest in the Internet, Zhu Nan had been itching to say something about the country’s pervasive online censorship system, widely known here as the Great Firewall.
When China’s censors began blocking access to the popular photo-sharing site Flickr, Mr. Zhu felt the moment had come. Writing on his blog last year, the student, who is now a freshman at a university in this city, questioned the rationale for Internet restrictions, and in subsequent posts, began passing along tips on how to evade them.
“Officials in our country claimed that Internet censorship is done according to the law,” Mr. Zhu wrote. “If so, why not let people know about this legal project, and why, instead, ban the Web sites that publicize and examine those legal policies? If you’re determined to do this, you shouldn’t be afraid of criticism.”
Mr. Zhu’s obscure blog post and his subsequent activism is a small part of what many here regard as a watershed moment. In recent months, China’s censors have tightened controls over the Internet, often blacking out sites that had no discernible political content. In the process, they have fostered a backlash, as many people who previously had little interest in politics have become active in resisting the controls.
And all of it comes at a time of increasing risk for those who choose to protest. Human rights advocates say the government has been broadening its crackdown on any signs of dissent as the Olympic Games in Beijing draw near.
For a vast majority of Internet users, censorship still does not appear to be much of a factor. The most popular Web applications here are games and messaging services, and the most visited Internet sites focus on everyday subjects like entertainment news and sports. Many, in fact, seem only vaguely aware that China’s Internet universe is carefully pruned, and even among those who know, a majority hardly seems to care.
But growing numbers of others are becoming increasingly resentful of restrictions on a wide range of Web sites, including Flickr, YouTube, Wikipedia, MySpace (sometimes), Blogspot and many other sites that the public sees as sources of harmless diversion or information. The mounting resentment has inspired a wave of increasingly determined social resistance of a kind that is uncommon in China.
This resistance is taking many forms, from lawsuits by Internet users against government-owned service providers, claiming that the blocking of sites is illegal, to a growing network of software writers who develop code aimed at overcoming the restrictions. An Internet-based word-of-mouth campaign has taken shape, in which bloggers and Web page owners post articles to spread awareness of the Great Firewall, or share links to programs that will help evade it.
In almost every instance, the resistance has been fired by the surprise and indignation when people bumped up against a system that they had only vaguely suspected existed. “I had had an impression that some kind of mechanism controls the Internet in China, but I had no idea about the Great Firewall,” said Pan Liang, a writer of children’s literature and a Web site operator who first learned the extent of the controls after a friend’s blog was blocked. “I was really annoyed at first,” Mr. Pan said. “Then the 17th Party Congress came, and I received an order that my Web site, which is about children’s literature, had to close its message board. It made me even angrier.”
Like others, Mr. Pan used his Web page to post solutions for overcoming the restrictions to some banned sites, and then he used a historical allusion to mock his country’s censorship system.
“Many people don’t know that 300 years after Emperor Kangxi ordered an end to construction of the Great Wall, our great republic has built an invisible great wall,” he wrote. “Can blocking really work? Kangxi knew the Great Wall was a huge lie: just think how many soldiers are needed to guard those thousands of miles.”
A 17-year-old blogger from Guangdong Province who posted instructions on how to get to YouTube, overcoming the firewall’s restrictions, was no less philosophical. “I don’t know if it’s better to speak out or keep silent, but if everyone keeps silent, the truth will be buried,” wrote the girl, who uses the online name Ruyue. “I don’t want to be silent, even if everyone else shuts up.”
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