criticized by name. Criticism of the Chinese Communist Party used to be “a sensitive area,” Cheung says, “but now, somehow, the authorities will tolerate that.” In general, “if you have the courage to raise your voice, then you may be able to get something out of the Internet and Web 2.0,” she adds.
The Exploding Growth of China’s Web
The number of Web users in China is surging–by one estimate it will hit 900 million in 2014–and the number of Web pages is also rising sharply.
A swiftly growing Chinese Internet; restrictions by the central government; a degree of collusion with those restrictions among Web companies and the public, so long as they are not onerous to business; a calculation by the government that permits some dissidence: all this might amount to an Internet version of the Beijing Consensus, a catchall term for alternative models of economic development that take China’s success as an example. The Chinese government has a long tradition of managing dissent. And Cheung thinks the two trends–growing governmental control of the Web on the one hand and online growth, creativity, and activism on the other–will continue pushing and pulling on each other for some time. Progress toward Internet openness “may be incremental, not moving in a linear direction,” she says. “I would say this is consistent with Chinese style–loosening sometimes, but tightening sometimes. You can’t really predict.”
To break the stalemate and tear down the Great Firewall, some activists and members of Congress have advocated that the West push on two fronts. One is purely technological: make available far more proxy computers, those neutral IP addresses in other countries from which users in China can access an entirely open Internet. But that would be costly–and in any case most Chinese use only Chinese sites, which are subject to self-censorship, not network-level blocking. The second tactic is to apply pressure through Western companies that are deeply involved in the Chinese Internet–companies that provide the routers, the filtering software (variations on the technology that filters pornography and other content in other countries), and the PCs that Chinese consumers buy. The Global Network Initiative (GNI), a consortium of corporations, academics, and human rights groups that formed in 2008, is working on a voluntary code of corporate conduct to support free speech and human rights, but to date only Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo have signed on (the latter company after it gave Chinese authorities data on activists named Li Zhi and Shi Tao, resulting in their imprisonment). “It’s better to join the GNI before you get stuck with a Yahoo case … rather than wait until they are yelling at you in Congress and calling you moral pygmies,” says MacKinnon, a cofounder of the GNI. But as MacKinnon pointed out in a recent blog post, these ideas go only so far; the only Chinese anticensorship techniques that will work on a large scale will be ones generated by the Chinese themselves. Zuckerman adds that well-meaning Westerners would do well to at least become familiar with Chinese online norms and customs. “Until we understand what Chinese users like and want and use, it’s hard for us to understand how we would design alternatives to censorship that are likely to succeed,” he points out.
Chinese Web users are more participatory than their U.S. counterparts.
That’s where activists such as Xiaomi fit in. “Some people will wonder who is doing this, and why,” she said, speaking to me through her secure Skype connection. Her motivations, she explained, are the same as those that drew her, as an undergraduate in 1989, to the democracy protests in Tiananmen Square. She recalls a Woodstock-like experience, with people singing and falling in love as they camped out. She left on May 28, 1989–one week before the crushing response by Chinese tanks and soldiers–and went on to earn an MBA at a U.S. school and prosper as a software consultant. “In my generation, most of us have done well. We caught the opportunity of China’s booming economy,” she said. “But there are dreams that are not fulfilled yet. We had them for more than 20 years, and things are still getting even worse and not better.”
Huang, of MIT, argues that the protestors of Tiananmen might never have imagined seeing the criticisms of policies and officials that are online today. “We should measure progress in China not by protests on the streets and availability of news on protests, but by the involvement of the Chinese citizens in policy discussions,” Huang says. “By the latter yardstick, China has made huge progress, thanks largely to the Internet. The Internet is already changing China, and it will change the country for the better in the future.” China’s Internet, like its society and economy as a whole, might move fitfully and incrementally toward greater freedom. Because as activists like Xiaomi grow more creative–and the Great Firewall grows more sophisticated–the Chinese Internet is simply … growing. And even Xiaomi, who experiences the Great Firewall firsthand and is less optimistic than Huang, believes that the wall “eventually will fail.”
David Talbot is Technology Review’s Chief Correspondent.