The Great Firewall of China: Citizen-Seditionists and Digital Territories

The Great Firewall of China (GFOC) is a comprehensive censorship and surveillance regime, considerable as a digital counterpart to the physical Great Wall. It acts to demarcate a digital territory and protect it from external threats and reflects the wider, much-reported authoritarian tendencies the Communist Party of China is famous for.

Tianamen Square
Tanks en route to Tienanmen Square, 1988 (Source: Britannica.com)

The GFOC in particular was built in response to fear of overseas cultural influence taking hold in China as it opened itself to international economic relations in the latter half of the 20th century. As former premier Deng Xiaoping is famously quoted as saying:

‘If you open the window to fresh air, you have to expect some flies to blow in’.

This post is about infrastructure as it relates to security in two ways. Firstly, the creation of digital territories in the concept of a ‘Chinanet’. Secondly, how it configures the relationship between the state its citizens.

Following Collier and Lakeoff (2008), we can consider the GFOC as a ‘critical infrastructure’, contributing to ‘total preparedness’ in the defence of these ‘vital systems essential to the economic and social well being of the nation as a whole’ (ibid, p.25). However it is not military installations or economic facilities which required defence; but state authority and cultural identity. By ‘walling off’ the internet and creating a distinct ‘territory’, geo-politics enters into and reconfigures the digital realm.

This sense of territoriality is captured in an interview with Chinese internet entrepreneur Xai Hong in Wired magazine at the time the GFOC was being built:

There’s no question about it: the Internet is an information colony. From the moment you go online, you’re confronted with English hegemony.’ (Barme and Sang Ye, 1997).

What, then, does life on the other side of the GFOC look like? It is not quite as simple as a cyber-dystopia classic cyber-utopians pre-emptively attempted to liberate themselves from (Perry-Barlow 1996). This TED talk by Michael Anti gives a nuanced set of insights on the bloc of an estimated 500 million internet users he describes as the ‘Chinanet’.

Things are striking for their recognisability. Chinese-state endorsed social networks boast over 300 million active uses, whilst Chinese celebrities boast enormous success. The actress K. Yao Chen, for example, considered to be one of the most influential women in the world by Forbes has 77.9 million followers on Weibo, putting her between Rihanna (71.1m) and Taylor Swift (84.3m) on Twitter. This underscores the tension between daily life and government surveillance, where citizens are on real-time trial to protect themselves from themselves – or as I think of them, ‘Schrodinger’s seditionists’. Whilst some do brave a game of cat-and-mouse with the hulking, distributed apparatus of the GFOC, many others participate in the Chinanet without a thought.

As an infrastructure of security, it creates digital territories through enclosure – making culture a critical resource to be protected, but also putting citizens who embody it in a paradoxical position subject to the continuous exercise of state power.

Bibliography

Anti, M. (2015) Behind the Great Firewall of China, video, TED Talks [Online] Available at: https://www.ted.com/talks/michael_anti_behind_the_great_firewall_of_china [Accessed On: 03/02/2017]

Barme, J. and Ye, S. (1997) – The Great Firewall of China in Wired [Online] Available At: https://www.wired.com/1997/06/china-3/ [Accessed On: 03/02/2017]

Collier and Lakeoff (2008) ‘The Vulnerability of Vital Systems: How ‘Critical Infrastructure’ Became a Security Problem’ in The Politics of Securing the Homeland: Critical Infrastructure, Risk and Securitisation, eds. Dunn, M. and Kirstensen, K., Routledge

Forbes (2017) ‘Yao Chen’ [Online] Available at: https://www.forbes.com/profile/yao-chen/# [Accessed On: 03/02/2017]

Friendorfollow.com (2017) ‘Twitter: Most Followers’ [Online] Available at: http://friendorfollow.com/twitter/most-followers/ [Accessed on 03/02/2017]

Perry-Barlow (1996) ‘A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace’ [Online] Available at: https://www.eff.org/cyberspace-independence [Accessed on 03/02/2017]

 

 

 

 

 

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