The vacillation surrounding China’s view on public censorship is a troubling harbinger for the future of Sino-global affairs. 2012 saw a series of political scandals involving the communist regime: From the ambitious escape of blind dissident Chen Guangcheng to the government cover-up of British diplomat Neil Heywood’s murder. Yet it is the latest revelation in China’s fight on its people that exposes the most substantive issue for its future.
On early Friday morning, China blocked access to the New York Times website in both the Chinese and English versions. This comes less than a day after the renowned paper published an article comprehensively dissecting the opaque past surrounding Prime Minister Wen Jiabao. In the article, the newspaper revealed Wen’s history of backroom dealings and nepotism throughout his ascension in the Party. While the banning of the Times is not the most inflaming exhibition of censorship in China’s history, it does highlight a cause for concern.
Since introducing the internet to the public sphere, China has kept a close monitoring of its citizens’ browsing activity. It instituted what is referred to as “The Golden Shield” or “The Great Firewall” (unsure if the pun is lost in translation), which uses a sophisticated system primarily consisting of IP blocking (an outright denial of access to a website), DNS filtering (a hacking mechanism used to reroute websites) and URL filtering (banning links based on keywords of the website’s address). It is the path towards this intricate structure that is the most alarming for the United States.
In order to achieve such a complex network, China recruited technological giants Cisco, Google, Yahoo and Microsoft to create the virtual censor. They used these companies for every aspect of its grand plan, from the hosting servers to the filtering tools. It is these same organizations ergo that report any dissident information and are the accomplices to the repulsive human rights violations rampant throughout the country. Countless intellectuals and critics of the government today are unfoundedly detained, imprisoned and killed, conjuring imagery from the Great Purge in the Soviet Union. It is clearly the time for change.
This call to arms is irrespective of China’s maintenance of their communist identity. Rather it an ethical issue wherein American companies knowingly support the violation of basic human rights. They have an opportunity to create transparency in the Chinese government and promote the growth of democracy to over a billion people. The Chinese internet structure is heavily dependent upon the assistance of American companies, and this is a sector in which the country can have a direct impact. These companies must reject the government-mandated reporting of dissidents, remove the government’s access to email clients and disallow the government from blocking using their services to block access to websites. In doing so, the companies pressure China into complying with general standards of personal liberty or be forced into self-sufficiency. It certainly has negative economic implications for the companies, but the long-term goals of a free world (and future economic opportunity of a liberated state) would outweigh any shortsighted loss.
Nevertheless, the road to liberalization will not be accepted easily because of the Soviet precedent set decades ago; it is apparent that the Chinese government wants to avoid replicating the repercussions of ending Zhdanovshchina. The ease in censorship was met with intellectuals who sought to push the boundaries of literature and art, leading to a discrediting of prior Soviet laws. Moreover, the more advanced mediums of dissemination nowadays could prove disastrous for the regime. The idea of writing outlawed fiction is now supplanted with the unveiling of maltreatment and corruption to the masses; however, this is the very reason such a change is necessary.
While this is not the first time China shut down an American news website (it is not even the first ban for the New York Times), it should signal an opportunity for change. American companies must step up and prioritize ethical standards over respecting the laws of corrupt regimes. It is baffling that China wants to be considered with the likes of the free nations of the West, yet do not want to adhere to the same standards— and yet we have the power to change that, even 7000 miles away.