Book Excerpt: China Airborne

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James Fallows newest book, China Airborne, takes a look at Chinese ambitions, illustrated in part by China’s ambitious commitment to building new airports. More than two-thirds of the new airports under construction today are being built in China. In this excerpt, Fallows discusses the Chinese government’s “Great Firewall” — used to control and monitor Chinese internet users — and how it might be holding the country back.

The Internet as indicator

Women walk past the Google logo outside the Google China headquarters Beijing, China. Citing the sensitivity of the talks, Google officials won't say how the negotiations have gone since the company issued its Jan. 12, 2010 threat to shut down its China-based search engine and possibly leave the country altogether if the government doesn't tear down the so-called 'Great Firewall' that blocks certain information and images. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan, file)

Women walk past the Google logo outside the Google China headquarters Beijing, China. Google threatened to shut down its China-based search engine and possibly leave the country altogether in 2010 if the government didn't tear down the so-called "Great Firewall" that blocks certain information and images. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan, file)

The clearest modern indication of a society’s confidence or insecurity, and by extension its readiness for modern creative industries like aviation, is its policy toward the Internet. The Chinese government’s steady attempt to throttle its people’s connection with the outside world is a dramatic sign of its nervousness, and a profound threat to the future of any advanced industry, including aerospace.

What matters to expats, especially in still-developing countries, is an unreliable guide to what matters to local citizens. While living in China, I hated the beer, which like most beer in Asia is “light,” weak, and watery. But my taste was clearly at odds with that of Chinese customers, who bought the beer so avidly that China has become by far the world’s leading beer-drinking nation. Craft breweries, tailored to expats’ taste, keep opening up in big Chinese cities, and most often keep closing down.

A similar-sounding foreign complaint in China — that Internet access is so slow, unreliable, and often interfered with — might seem to be similarly detached from locally important reality. Many Internet problems in China arise from attempts to reach sites located somewhere else. If, like most Chinese users, you are mainly looking for information that is written in Chinese and is on sites and servers within China, you have fewer complaints. Over the past decade, the Chinese media have consistently presented the message that the “uncontrolled” Internet is a wild and dangerous place, full of criminals, perverts, and other threats to the well-being of “netizens,” notably youths. Surveys of mass Chinese opinion, as opposed to outspoken “netizen” minorities, have consistently shown large majorities saying that they are grateful for government monitoring of this potential menace.

But even from a purely Chinese perspective, the increasing state controls on electronic communication represent something important. They symbolize an increasing divergence in the post-Olympic years between China’s path and that of most other “first rate” nations, and they matter in practical terms.

Why did the government allow the loophole? For a long while, the confident assumption by most foreigners was that the government didn’t really care what the foreigners or even the English-fluent Chinese elite might read.
At the time of the Olympic Games, the genius of China’s “Great Firewall” system might have been described as its flexible repression. The guiding principle seemed to be that Chinese censorship would make it just difficult enough to find unauthorized material that the great majority of Chinese citizens wouldn’t bother — but would allow enough loopholes and pressure valves that people who really cared about finding something could manage to do so. The loophole mainly took the form of the government’s turning a blind eye toward VPNs — virtual private networks, which were in effect ways that anyone willing to spend one or two dollars per week could buy safe passage through, under, over, or around the Great Firewall. You signed up for a VPN service, you made your connection, and from that point on you prowled through the Internet just as if your computer were logged on from London or New York. (Indeed, the VPN worked by making the computer’s connection appear to be in one of those cities outside China.)

Why did the government allow the loophole? For a long while, the confident assumption by most foreigners was that the government didn’t really care what the foreigners or even the English-fluent Chinese elite might read. In fact, the creator of the Great Firewall, a computer scientist — and university president — named Fang Binxing, made waves in February, 2011 by telling a leading Chinese newspaper that he had six VPNs running on his computers at home. (Within a few hours, that report was removed from the paper’s Web site. Foreseeing this possibility, like a number of other foreigners I saved a copy of the page as soon as I saw it.)

Moreover, truly interfering with VPN operations would make it simply impossible for banks and big industrial firms to do their work in China. The survival of their business depends on the integrity of their data. Financial firms rely on accurate and secure transmission trades, transfers, and account information among their offices worldwide. Manufacturing firms are constantly exchanging shipping and production data. The threat that data will be intercepted, monitored, or altered is worrisome enough in the best of circumstances, which is why companies use VPNs for their private data even in Europe or North America. To entrust their information to the “public” Internet in China, for screening by the Great Firewall, would be inconceivable.

Google was evicted from China in early 2010, and within a year doing business over the Internet anywhere in the country became significantly harder. VPNs suddenly stopped working. The leading ones sent out messages to users in China suggesting new IP addresses to use, with new settings; almost immediately many of those were blocked as well. If you have used the Internet while in South Korea, Japan, or Singapore and then tried it from America, you know that the load time for Web pages in the United States seems shockingly slow. In countries with ubiquitous high-speed broadband, pages load practically as soon as they are selected. By comparison, the half second or so it might take for a complex page to load over a slow U.S. connection can seem an obstacle. In China, during the crackdown, you could wait five, ten, thirty seconds for a page to appear — if it appeared at all.

Google, with its range of services, was a special target, for obvious reasons. One study found that it took forty-four times longer for a Gmail screen to come up than the domestic Chinese system QQ, and eight times longer than Yahoo. The government’s Google-specific filtering and interference techniques became sophisticated enough that sometimes users would see a list of messages in their inbox or documents they had stored as “Google Apps,” but if they clicked to open a document or send a message they had been composing, the screen would freeze. Eventually it would display the message that in the rest of the world meant an actual connection failure but that in China usually meant that the firewall was at work: “The connection has been reset.” When I was grumbling during this period to a foreign tech expert who was on long-term assignment in China, he said that he had been wrestling with the same problem. “If I hadn’t spent years in this field, I’d never be able to reconfigure my home network in Beijing simply to connect to Gmail,” he told me.

And Google was in a better situation than Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and many other services, which much of the time were blocked altogether. “I have to say, Twitter, Facebook, Google Earth, and the rest didn’t do themselves any favors by telling the world they were responsible for Egypt and Tunisia,” a Western businessperson who had worked in China for decades told me during the Arab Spring. “What do you expect China’s response to be? You have given a gun to the hard-liners — not that there is any ‘soft-liner’ in the government, but you’re playing to the deepest fear of everyone in the government by saying there is a force outside China that they can’t control, and that will fundamentally change politics here. That, they will stop.”

Just after the disastrous 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, I corresponded with a Western journalist who had returned to his home in Shanghai from the devastated areas of northern Japan, where he was reporting on the villages that had been obliterated and the families whose loved ones were still lost. The Japanese government was being criticized for not saying more, faster, about its problems, he pointed out — but then he drew the contrast with China. “One of the more helpful sites to those of us trying to get a sense of what might be happening at the stricken Daiichi Fukushima plant has been the Union of Concerned Scientists’ [site],” he wrote in a note. “The folks there have been almost unerringly — and depressingly — accurate in their postings. Yet upon returning home to Shanghai last night for a few days, I find that the site appears to be blocked here in China (though accessible through my usual proxy).” Then the real reflection on China: “Anyone care to speculate as to why this site would be blocked? What are they” — the Chinese government — “afraid of ? Or is the answer simply that these days, they’re afraid of EVERYTHING. . .”

A prominent blogger in China sent out this tweet (using a VPN to escape firewall controls) in the summer of 2011: “Anyone bullish about China should come and try to use the Internet here.”
For many puzzling events in China, like the variation in what laws are enforced in different parts of the country, or the varying messages about foreign policy coming from different branches of the government, I assume an “accident rather than conspiracy” explanation. Coordination is so difficult, divergences are so great; internal friction among rival or disconnected entities is often more significant than any concerted effort to deal with the outside world. But in this case, I came to believe the hypothesis that the Internet controls were a purposeful trial run, an experiment to learn exactly what it would take to close down the VPNs altogether if it came to an emergency. Indeed, I interviewed enough tech officials, from enough companies from enough different parts of the world, to be confident in a conclusion I generally resisted about China: that there was a deliberate plan to cut off all access, that it was being tested, and that it would certainly be used if conditions became tense enough.

“There is a widespread sense of anger and malaise among the foreign community here — myself included,” one long-time resident wrote me in an e-mail message. “I suspect it’s because this is a reminder that whatever rights we thought we enjoyed here were merely privileges, granted and rescinded by the government.” A prominent blogger in China sent out this tweet (using a VPN to escape firewall controls) in the summer of 2011: “Anyone bullish about China should come and try to use the Internet here.” Or to put it as the head of an American Internet company did in an e-mail to me during the crackdown, “Ultimately, if they want to take the country’s Internet connections ‘Third Word,’ none of us can prevent that.”

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