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October 23, 2007

The Great Firewall

China's Misguided — and Futile — Attempt to Control What Happens Online

I didn't know I was a surveillance target until the day I walked into a hotel in China's Fujian province. I was pushing past half a dozen workmen changing lightbulbs in the glum but busy lobby when a uniformed man stepped in front of me. Blue jacket, creased trousers, braided epaulets, peaked cap: government security officer. Politely, he asked whether I would mind answering a few questions. He stood erect, with the manicured swagger of a corporate CEO. Next to him, a gangly plainclothes colleague gave me a so-you-thought-we-wouldn't-catch-you look.

How had they known I would be here? The only people who had my itinerary were my editors in London. A few days earlier, I had sent them an email outlining my trip, and I'd been updating them daily by phone. I could only assume that the authorities had been monitoring my email and calls. I had been chasing down leads on the whereabouts of Lai Changxing, China's most-wanted man. Lai had cheated the government out of $3.6 billion by smuggling oil, cars, and cigarettes. Embarrassed, Beijing wanted to hinder any reporting of his case.

The two officers in the hotel demanded to see my passport and asked what I knew about Lai. Then they withdrew to a corner of the lobby to confer. Eventually, they took me to a police car, drove me to the airport, and put me on a plane to Beijing.

It was, in short, impressive evidence of the government's ability to monitor and control electronic communication. And my experience only hinted at the Chinese government's appetite for control. Beijing has recently added a new weapon to its arsenal of surveillance technologies, a system it believes to be a modern marvel: the Golden Shield. It took eight years and $700 million to build, and its mission is to "purify" the Internet — an apparently urgent task. "Whether we can cope with the Internet is a matter that affects the development of socialist culture, the security of information, and the stability of the state," President Hu Jintao said in January.

The Golden Shield — the latest addition to what is widely referred to as the Great Firewall of China — was supposed to monitor, filter, and block sensitive online content. But only a year after completion, it already looks doomed to fail. True, surveillance remains widespread, and outspoken dissidents are punished harshly. But my experience as a correspondent in China for seven years suggests that the country's stranglehold on the communications of its citizens is slipping: Bloggers and other Web sources are rapidly supplanting Communist-controlled news outlets. Cyberprotests have managed to bring about an important constitutional change. And ordinary Chinese citizens can circumvent the Great Firewall and evade other forms of police observation with surprising ease. If they know how.

October 18, 2007

Big Red Checkbook

Big Red Checkbook

"The glory of Our Empire shines on this universe with brilliance," a ruler once declared in a letter to courtiers in London. "Not one single person or country is excluded from Our kindness and benevolence." He had good reason to be pleased. His country sat astride the global economy. His army was large, his domains vast. He believed his country to be the center of the world, and a good chunk of the world agreed.

And yet, despite the fulsome satisfaction of this 1805 letter, its author, the head of the Manchu Qing dynasty and emperor of China, had cause for anxiety. Less than twenty years before, China had suffered a humiliating defeat in Vietnam and continued to have difficulty besting the Burmese, Tibetans and Zunghars. Trade with Europe was still expanding rapidly. But the European powers were quickly getting the upper hand by controlling shipping and financial flows, and China was developing a dangerous dependency on silver and opium. Until the late nineteenth century, China's economy was the largest in the world, but then it headed precipitously downward. The Chinese knew practically nothing about the modern firearms with which Europe was taking over the world.

Did the advisers to the Jiaqing Emperor warn him of the coming conflict with Europe and the potential collapse of the Chinese Empire? Perhaps some courageous and far-seeing mandarin spoke of Europe's rise, of the dangerous trajectory of the terms of trade, of the military modernizations of Britain, of the equally pernicious soft power of missionaries and merchants. The documentary evidence makes no mention of such a pundit. In 1816, after dealing with barbarians from Britain who refused to kowtow to the emperor, the Chinese court sent another letter to London: "The Celestial Empire has little regard for foreign things." By the time China learned the value of foreign things and adopted the Japanese approach of "Eastern thought, Western machines," it would be too late. The Chinese Empire had been carved up like a crisp Peking duck.

Two hundred years later, the roles are reversed. As John Quincy Adams once accused the Chinese of "arrogant and insupportable pretensions," so now America is subjected to the slings and arrows of the world's disgruntled and disaffected. Yet the US President surveys his realm and sees only cause for satisfaction: America is God's country and Americans his chosen people. There are barbarians at the gate, of course, repudiators of American benevolence who must be crushed. A small clutch of imperial cheerleaders, the Max Boots and Niall Fergusons, thrill to the President's muscular stance. Pundits, meanwhile, play the latest intellectual parlor game: name that imperial analogy. Will the US empire end with a Roman bang or a British whimper? Or, blind to the desperate need for reform and a tempering of arrogance, will the United States suffer China's nineteenth-century fate? In place of opium, there are the distracting pleasures of Chinese goods for sale at Wal-Mart. Instead of the redoubtable Vietnamese, there are the recalcitrant Iraqis.