Mounting Criticism on Both Sides of the Great Firewall

China’s has come under renewed pressure from both ordinary Chinese web users and trade officials in the U.S. Last month, China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology posted a draft revision to internet domain rules whose ambiguous language raised fear of blocked access to all foreign registered domains. The MIIT quickly sought to assuage this concern, voiced widely by foreign media, claiming that it was a “misunderstanding.” The draft regulations remain online for public comment, and many usually apolitical Chinese are using the opportunity to voice their mounting frustration with China’s ever-fortifying Great Firewall. At The Wall Street Journal, Li Yuan reports:

A Shanghai-based marketing executive at an international trading company who does part-time translation work, Ms. Wang says the government’s existing practice of blocking many foreign websites already makes her work tougher. When she was translating an English book about Morocco last year, she couldn’t access Wikipedia and other foreign sites to check information in the book. A series of virtual private networks she had used—software that can circumvent the firewall—had been blocked. Facing a deadline, she asked a friend in Germany to look up the information she needed and email it to her.

“I was a hipster who didn’t pay attention to politics or social issues,” says Ms. Wang, 33 years old. “The restrictions of the Great Firewall changed me.”

In a country where citizens have few chances to communicate directly with the government, users like Ms. Wang see the comment session as a rare opportunity to be heard—even if it’s ultimately futile. […]

[The increasing isolation from the World Wide Web] has made aspects of life and work unnecessarily hard for more people beyond the pool of political dissidents and advocates who have long opposed government . One Internet startup founder in Shenzhen says tech companies like his have to build their own network infrastructure to access foreign sites out of business necessity, including popular coding sites Stack Overflow and GitHub that are hard or impossible to reach in China because of the Great Firewall.

[…] Hal Hao, a 40-year-old executive at a big insurance company in Beijing, is among those who are increasingly fed up. He was reminded of the limitations again this week, after the so-called “Panama Papers” were leaked and he couldn’t read coverage about offshore assets allegedly controlled by relatives of China’s top Communist Party officials. The topic has been heavily censored on the Chinese Internet [see CDT’s ongoing coverage of censors’ reaction to the leak].  […] [Source]

Ms. Wang’s account of censorship heightening her political awareness recalls a 2012 comment from China Media Project’s David Bandurski on why censors attempt to minimize the visibility of their activity: “Media control is a dirty business, and its mechanics are best kept hidden. […] Thanks to Weibo, China’s active censorship of ideas is something millions of Chinese experience daily and directly. […W]hile social media controls may be a matter of necessity for China’s jittery leaders, the very act could have a long-term corrosive effect on the Party’s credibility.”

Existing in some form since 1993, the Great Firewall—a nickname given to Beijing’s system of blocking foreign online content from view in China—has seen regular updates as internet users have found ways to scale it, and some have suggested that Chinese authorities are on their way to “perfecting” the system. Since Xi Jinping rose to the top of state and Party power in 2012, he has overseen the steady tightening of control over online and traditional media, and his administration has defended China’s practice of “internet management” from international criticism. Last year, China hit the bottom of Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net ranking; in years past it had been slightly further up the list.

Recently, Fang Binxing, also known as the “Father of the Great Firewall” for his role in building its initial infrastructure, was forced to publicly tunnel through the Firewall with a VPN while giving a speech. Fang has been a regular target of criticism from Chinese web users disgruntled with their lack of internet freedom.

Meanwhile, The New York Times’ Paul Mozur reports that U.S. trade officials have joined the chorus of criticism, adding China’s Great Firewall to a list of trade barriers:

trade officials have for the first time added China’s system of Internet filters and blocks — broadly known as the Great Firewall — to an annual list of trade impediments. The entry says that over the last decade, the limits have “posed a significant burden to foreign suppliers, hurting both Internet sites themselves and users who often depend on them for business.”

The move, which isn’t likely to have immediate repercussions, speaks to the American government’s growing concern about Chinese Internet regulations and could foreshadow more aggressive actions. It also underscores the opposing visions the world’s two largest economies have about how the Internet should work and be managed.

The United States argues against overt censorship and policies that block the flow of data across borders. China has been pushing its agenda that each state should have the right to closely control what websites are available within its borders.

The report from the Office of the United States Trade Representative said that over the last year, the “outright blocking of websites appears to have worsened,” noting that eight of the top 25 most popular global sites are blocked in China. […] [Source]