Breaking the Great Firewall of China

Here is the translation of an article by Wang Dan, a student leader of the 1989 June 4 movement.


Violent suppression and opinion monopoly are used by all totalitarian political systems for the purpose of perpetrating their immoral rule.  Today, we still do not have a good way of countering the brute violence used by the Chinese Communist government.  Even from the viewpoint of the inevitable democratic reform that will come, we cannot predict how the broad masses will deal with the government's violence in China.  But we can say that it is optimistically clear as to how the government's monopoly on opinion expression can be broken.

The Chinese Communists are relentless and unsparing in their efforts to shut out information on the Internet coming from outside the country.  Currently, the people in mainland China cannot access the so-called sensitive websites from within the country.  Based upon our investigation, the Chinese netizens are rarely able to access foreign-based Chinese-language websites.  Even those very active dissidents inside China mostly cannot bypass the information blockage by the government to access the blacklisted websites with political themes.

But we must say that the free dissemination of information is a problem that still has a lot of space for us to fill.  The people of China have the right to see the real world and listen to real voices.  The more effective methods of spreading information, other than email, is to use software such as Dyna*pass, Free*gate and Ultra*surf to directly access foreign-based Chinese-language websites that deal with current politics.  Through these software, the netizens can browse all sorts of information of foreign-based electronic media, and then form a relationship with them.  These software -- Dyna*pass, Free*gate and Ultra*surf -- will become the new transfer points and accelerators of the free transmission of information in Chinese society.

We believe that as more Chinese netizens can access foreign website, the Internet discussion groups will increase geometrically.  At that time, the Chinese government will face much more severe pressure and make them leery of political oppression.  The pace of democratic reform will increase as a result of the free dissemination of information.  The accumulated political problems will not be permitted to continue indefinitely.  A growth of an Internet discussion community will enable discussants all over China to link up and communicate, and make them more effective and coordinated to sketch out the future democratic society.

Therefore we think that all those who are interested in promoting social progress and democraticization in China should promote these three pieces of software -- Dynapass, Freegate and Ultrasurf -- to all netizens inside China whenever and wherever they could.  Promoting these software is not criminal under Chinese law, so the action would carry no political risks on its own.

I don't think that you have to do a lot just by movements on the keyboard and mouse, but the contribution towards the democraticization of China may be immeasurable.

With such a declaration, Wang Dan ought to have clarified that he is not associated financially or otherwise with the three named software proprietors (note: I have no idea if he does or not, and I think that there is nothing wrong even if he does).  It would have cleared up some unnecessary speculations and insinuations.  But that is not what I wish to discuss. 

The message of the article here is that The Medium Is The Message: if the road is built, the people will come and then good things will happen.  But what will they see once they get there?  Here is where I see some huge problems.

The first assumption is that all free information is good to see.  No, that is not true.  As an example, I was repelled by this story on the Fuxin mining disaster.  It is an example of how some overseas Chinese-language websites carry false information for which the overseas Internet community seemed quite tolerant.  There are plenty of similar examples.  When the newly liberated Chinese netizens see an overseas website that carries this article next to one of Wang Dan's, they will be appalled and turned off completely at everything. At a minimum, the overseas Internet community should make clear that not all information is to be believed.  If they won't do that in the belief that "the enemy of the enemy is my friend," they risk losing credibility and effectiveness.  (Note:  This will be particularly troublesome if the Chinese government resorts to a disinformation campaign as suggested in this post].

The second assumption is that people will want to read the newly available information.  This is a much bigger problem in fact.  Who are these people?  Secondary school students would seem too young to be politically active.  How about university students?  Look at this post about Beijing University students when Zhao Ziyang passed away, and there does not seem to be too much enthusiasm these days as the university students are more concerned about getting employment.  How about working professionals who are recent university graduates?  Look at today's other post about the dilemmas of the Chinese middle-class.  The foreign-based Chinese-language websites with political themes have no resonance with these people.  But there will no doubt be a great deal of interest in using the recommended software to access banned pornographic sites, and that would be an unfortunate side-effect of the popularization of the software.

Now the fallback position is that the software will benefit those people inside China who are interested in developing democracy.  These people will act as the vanguard who will lead the rest of the country down the path to democracy.  While the notion of a elite vanguard is Leninist in origin, there is nothing wrong with it.  After all, the Chinese Communist Party was a Leninist vanguard once upon a time before sweeping to hold power in China.  

Still, the vanguard cannot accomplish everything on its own.  Eventually, the messages must be found to gain the support of the masses.  The Chinese Communist Party found their message through the Eight Year War of Resistance against the Japanese and then the war to oust the corrupt KMT government of Chiang Kai-shek.  Those messages resonated with the masses, and they were so compelling under the historical circumstances that the masses had no real choice (that is, who was going to argue for letting the Japanese rule?).

But, at this current moment in time, I have no idea what can be said to win over the university students and the middle-class professionals.  To insist on pushing for a democracy without delineating the details and likely benefits of the democratic state and a peaceful transitional path will in fact cause these people to reject and resist.  And these are the only mass groups out there, because a mass peasant rebellion will not be incited through an Internet-based campaign.