During the heyday of the “engagement” movement in the 1990s, then-President Bill Clinton was being briefed on how the Chinese Communist Party was hoping to regulate the internet within its borders. After the now-forgotten aide explained with the cadres had in mind, Clinton let loose a famous, derisive remark, “That’s sort of like trying to nail jello to the wall.” To be fair, Clinton was merely articulating a widely held view that censorship would be impossible in the world-wide-web era. However, he was also very, very wrong. Rebecca MacKinnon, who has been following the state of the internet in Communist-controlled China for many years, details in the National Post how the CCP has succeeded in turning the information superhighway into a gelatinous decoration.
She starts with the usual, the “great firewall,” i.e., the cadres’ attempt to block anything problematic to the regime from even entering China. Impossible, you say? Not quite:
This blocking is easily accomplished because the global Internet connects to the Chinese Internet through only eight “gateways,” which are easily “filtered.” At each gateway, as well as among all the different Internet service providers within China, Internet routers — the devices that move the data back and forth between different computer networks — are all configured to block long lists of website addresses and politically sensitive keywords.
Ah yes, but one can get around the firewall with the right software, right? Well, yes. Here’s the problem: 99% of internet users in Communist-controlled China don’t have it, so while a large number of Chinese can see around the firewall, it’s “not enough percentage-wise to shape majority public opinion” as MacKinnon notes (to give an idea, over 5% of the entire population on the mainland is a member of the Chinese Communist Party).
MacKinnon then goes to show why the firewall is so important by recounting the story of Google: why it chose to create a Chinese-only version of itself to get in the firewall, what it had to do to stay, and why after four years it gave up and left again.
The result is, literally, two internets: a mainland-China-web and a rest-of-the-world-wide-web. The former version has its own Facebook (more than one, actually) and Twitter (use the real one and risk prison); it ensures that every resident of the mainland is connected to . . . each other and the CCP. The rest of us are locked outside, and only allowed in if we say the right things, at the right time, about the right people.
One of the hallmarks of “engagement” thinking was that the economic “reforms” the CCP unleased would, eventually lead to political freedom. For those of us on the right, the classic example of Augusto Pinochet – who dramatically lessened the state’s role in the economy, than responded repeatedly to pressures inside and out to shrink his own power base until he lost his own referendum on extending his leadership and stepped down – shined in our eyes. However, the CCP was not an anti-Communist general. Their reforms merely changed the Party from factory manager to holding company, and the cadre went from foreman to trust runner.
Many may argue with my interpretation of the economics, but on the political side, it goes without question that the regime has become more restrictive against dissenters, more aggresive abroad, and more interested in dominating its neighbors, including the “breakaway province” (Taiwan).
These trends had their beginnings in the 1990s, but one of the standard “engagement” responses was that the internet would force the CCP to loosen up. To the contrary, the cadres have managed to create their own information cul-de-sac.
They really did succeed in nailing jello to the wall.