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Why China's Leaders Need to Worry About Recent Events in Iran: Twitter Trumps the Great Firewall

As Iran has its Tianenman moment, no other government is watching events there with more anxiety than China--and with good reason. Both Iran and China are modernizing autocracies committed by a combination of ideology and fear to maintaining control over their peoples' access to information. And, to a remarkable degree, they have been successful in doing so.

Until now.

Iran's lesson for China's leaders is that the technologies of censorship, despite their increasing sophistication, may not be sufficient to prevent determined citizens from using technologies of communication to organize dissent and political opposition on a mass scale. Twitter trumps China's "Great Firewall." For the elites in China's national government, this development must be highly disconcerting.

China has embraced the internet as essential to the country's rapid economic development. With nearly 300 million persons connected to the web, China has already surpassed the United States as the world's biggest internet market. But China has gambled that it can have it both ways: it can achieve the high growth rates that a wired economy makes possible, and it can do so without putting at risk the government's monopoly on political power.

Despite the conventional wisdom that the internet is beyond the control of any government, China's leaders have placed their faith in technology to maintain their power and to protect against the democratizing "excesses" of the internet. The technology of censorship has included the ability to:

  • Block access to foreign websites containing content deemed objectionable;
  • Monitor domestic websites, search engines, blogs and social networks, and to coerce them into submission to self-censorship
  • Engage in wholesale eavesdropping on data communications (email, phone, Skype calls, text, etc.) for hints of views deemed subversive.

By design, this system of censorship is imperfect. Chinese citizens who speak foreign languages, and those who go to the trouble to use proxy servers and other devices for bypassing the government firewall, are connected to the outside world via the internet (albeit at sometimes painfully slow speeds). But this is a very small number, relatively speaking. China's censorship strategy focuses, rather, on channels of communication--among its citizens and between them and the outside world--that pose a threat of dissent going "viral."

China understands the potentially awesome power of an amateur video depicting a lone student standing his ground against a tank, or the beating of a Tibetan monk, or the violent suppression of peaceful protesters by police. It is for this reason that access to YouTube is subject to frequent blocking in China, as are Flickr, Hotmail, Blogspot, Live, Wordpress and social networking sites, among many others both inside and outside the firewall.

The experience of Iran, which employs censoring technologies very similar to China's, is that, in times of domestic crisis, these technologies may not work as advertised. Twitter and Facebook, which many users in Iran access by cell phone over communications pathways different than the internet, managed to escape early efforts by Iranian authorities to shut down access. Words and images on these services galvanized opposition, served as communication tools for organizing the expanding street protests, and provided a window through which the outside world could witness the crackdown.

Chinese authorities should be worried about their own vulnerability. Although they will diagnose and fix the glitches that allowed Twitter and Facebook to escape blocking by Iranian censors, there will be other glitches, different and unpredictable glitches, in the event of popular unrest in China. And even a small glitch will be exploited by legions of hackers and cybersleuths, both in China and in western countries, determined to circumvent the firewall for millions of Chinese citizens.

This is the necessary context for viewing China's recent, and rather bizarre, directive to computer manufacturers, issued without notice or consideration of alternatives, mandating installation of government-approved anti-pornography software on all new PCs sold in China. The mandated software (the "Green Dam," produced by a Chinese company), which can be adapted to screen out officially disapproved ideas as well as X-rated images, is a new instrument of control in China's ever-expanding system of censorship. In addition to restricting the internet sites that its citizens may see, China can use the Green Dam software to control the computers with which its people view the internet.

Although the software project was presumably in the works before the disputed election in Iran, the urgency surrounding the directive (which applies to all PCs sold in China after July 1) and the government's inflexibility (refusing to allow the use of alternate programs that cause fewer technical problems while meeting the government's pornography-screening specifications) can best be explained by China's anxiety over events in Iran.

China's leaders should worry about the limits on their capacity to preempt challenges to the government's control of political power. Censorship technology will not insulate the current regime from demands for change. In the end, China must transition--peacefully, one hopes--to a world in which its people are given a choice about how to be governed, and by whom.
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Peter Scheer is executive director of the California First Amendment Coalition (CFAC), which has petitioned the office of the US Trade Representative in Washington, DC, to challenge China's internet censorship before the WTO. CFAC contends China's censorship system is an unlawful trade barrier.

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