The Google China headquarters is seen behind a surveillance camera in Beijing, 2010. (Jason Lee / Courtesy Reuters)
The Chinese Internet is becoming a walled garden -- an Orwellian environment, separated from the rest of the global Web, where information unfavorable to the government simply disappears, public discussions are shaped by undercover agents, and censorship and surveillance are built into the most popular online services.
This system is bad for the United States, not just because it contradicts American values and holds back China’s political liberalization but also because it harms U.S. businesses. Part of the problem is that U.S.-based online services, such as Facebook and Twitter, are blocked from reaching Chinese consumers, but the true stakes are much larger: Every American business that operates in China needs a secure, fast, and reliable Internet connection. And China’s censorship system puts these connections at risk.
The core of China’s repressive online system is its so-called Great Firewall, which makes large sections of the Internet unreachable from the Chinese mainland and steers Chinese users toward censored domestic sites. As part of its worldwide “Internet freedom” agenda, the United States has funded the creation of special software tools to help Chinese dissidents, journalists, and other users for whom privacy is paramount sneak through their government’s barriers. This focus on human rights, high-risk users, and customized software has worked well in some countries, but in China, U.S. policymakers need to take a broader view.
The existing U.S.-supported tools aim to give high risk users the protection they need -- protection far beyond what mainstream computing tools provide. But such cloak and dagger methods tend to be too slow and unreliable for most users. And each time these tools improve, Beijing’s army of censors adapts in response. China has bottomless reserves of high-caliber engineering talent to devote to shoring up its barricades, and it has developed advanced techniques to identify the distinctive signature of particular censorship circumvention programs, blocking them automatically or leaving them barely usable. Tools built explicitly to support free expression, which lack a broad commercial footprint, are ultimately no match for this pressure.
At the same time, the U.S. focus on China’s digital dissidents neglects a much larger group of Chinese Internet users. Most Chinese citizens want Internet access for personal, not political, reasons -- think of young workers in the technology industry and students in Chinese universities. They want to watch popular videos more than to read anti-regime material, to tweet more than to plan protests. They do not expect or need their activities to be clandestine -- they just want a fast and unrestricted connection. Chinese students try to circumvent censorship in roughly the same way that American students share pirated movies: it’s against the rules, and the authorities warn against it, but by itself it seldom gets people into serious trouble.