Table of Contents

Comment Icon0 China’s practice of monitoring and filtering networked information is often referred to as China’s Great Firewall (GFW). The GFW refers to the censorship system that controls the flow of information in and out of China. While technically elaborate, China’s panoptic censorship system is incapable of filtering every shred of sensitive information online. Instead, the Chinese government uses it to keep politically-charged issues from surfacing in national discourse, by rendering controversial online content inaccessible (James Fallows, 2008a). Rebecca MacKinnon elaborated on the Great Firewall by stating that it merely accounted for “a small part of Chinese Internet censorship“.

Comment Icon0 Lokman Tsui contributed his idea of the Great Firewall as being the Chinese equivalent of Iron Curtain 2.0. In reference the Cold War, his telephone survey showed that the Great Firewall myth is the belief that China’s efforts to censor the Internet must ultimately fail, and that the Internet will eventually lead to the country’s democratization. This myth was inadvertently established at a TED talk in June 2009, when prominent thinker Clay Shirky deconstructed the Great Firewall of China as he spoke optimistically about how online social networks were allowing citizens to report news while bypassing censorship. Acknowledging that China was probably the most successful manager of Internet censorship in the world, Shirky explained that the Great Firewall of China was a set of observation points, which assumed that:

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  2. Media are produced by professionals;
  3. Most media come in from the outside world;
  4. They come in relatively sparse chunks; and
  5. They come in relatively slowly.

Comment Icon0 Shirky noted that contingent to these four characteristics, the Chinese authorities were able to filter news as it arrived in the country. However, he said that the Great Firewall of China was facing in the wrong direction for this challenge, because not one of those four characteristics was true in this environment. In particular, he pointed out the reality of today’s citizen-produced news as:

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  2. Media are produced by amateurs;
  3. They are produced locally;
  4. They are produced in abundance; and
  5. They are produced very quickly.

Comment Icon0 Shirky then put forth the argument that because the media environment was so different from that of what the Great Firewall of China was designed to filter, there was no way for the Chinese authorities to filter news as it was produced and shared online by citizens. In reality, the Great Firewall of China is a mere deterrence, but one that is sufficient to steer most netizens towards more accessible, perhaps entertaining points of interest on the Internet. Lokman argued that this myth had affected the way we perceived how China, and how the United States formed policies around it, such as the development of network filter-circumvention and jamming tools. As such, the Great Firewall is not simply controlling web access; it is filtering the social and political discourse of Chinese netizens. To make matters more arbitrary in favor of the government, censored keywords have never been disclosed, leaving it up to ISPs and content providers to guess and filter accordingly. As such, a surprising move was made on 4 June 2009, when the Communist Party’s made its agenda clear through the Global Times newspaper, a subsidiary of the People’s Daily:

Comment Icon0 “Twenty years after the June 4 Tiananmen incident, public discussion about what happened that day is almost non-existent in mainstream society on the Chinese mainland. It’s still a sensitive topic. Scholars, officials and businessmen declined interviews with the Global Times on the subject. And searches for ‘June 4 incident’ on the Chinese versions of Google, Baidu and Yahoo were blocked” (Straits Times, 2009). It is worth noting that the English edition of the Global Times started publishing in April 2009, and represents part of a 45 billion yuan ($6.6 billion) push by China’s state media to have a greater influence abroad by counteracting what they see as biased reporting from the foreign press (WSJ Blogs: China Journal, 2009).

Chapter 8.4 – Myth of the Great Firewall of China


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