Interview with a socialist blogger in China
In January the world’s largest internet company declared it had been targeted by organised hackers from China and was therefore prepared to quit the Chinese internet market. What is at the root of this conflict and how could it develop? Chinaworker.info spoke to socialist blogger Zhao Jiangang.
Chinaworker: Is Google now seen as a force for democracy and internet freedom in China?
Many young people, especially students and office workers, have illusions in Google as a force for democracy, namely US-style bourgeois democracy. At the moment, approximately 384 million Chinese (nearly 30% of the 1.3 billion total, the world’s largest internet population) use the internet. The largest search engine is Baidu.com, which was mainly used for searching Chinese information and accounts for approximately 60% of the search market in China. It was founded by several overseas Chinese in the US and is a NASDAQ listed company. Baidu.com has a long history of being the most proactive and restrictive online censor in the search arena.
Baidu.com’s censorship team does not only use censorship for its own “commercial security”, but also regularly reports other websites and search engines’ “illegal” information to the Chinese government as a “competition method” and uses “blocking-up” for commercial purposes. In 2008 Sanlu Dairy Corporation, through a PR company, Tell International, offered Baidu.com three million RMB to filter out negative news about the melamine-poisoning milk scandal.
As the second largest search engine in China behind Baidu.com, Google.com and Google.cn have around 30% of the search engine market in China. Google.cn (the Chinese version of google.com search engine), which is especially developed for the Chinese market, has a much smaller market share, compared to google.com (mainly used for searching English information). The key issue for Google is that only persons with at least basic English skills will use it regularly; most Chinese netizens will stay with the Chinese search engine Baidu.com.
Chinaworker: Bill Gates of Microsoft, who has distanced his own business empire from Google’s stand, says censorship in China is “very limited” – is he right? How does the Chinese government police the internet, give some examples of how the “Great Fire Wall” works?
Microsoft and Bill Gates have a long-term history of cooperation with the Chinese regime, and have voluntarily offered source codes of various Windows operating systems in the past. In addition, MSN has its own search engine “Bing.com”, but only a few people use it in China. If Google.com was banned from China, it would provide a potential market, especially for English searches, for Microsoft. Bill Gates obviously looks at his company’s economic interests as far more important than “democracy”.
The Chinese government has set up a complicated censorship and monitoring system, the “Golden Shield Project”, since 1998. This project is officially operated by the Ministry of Public Security and linked with the Ministries of Industry and Information Communication, State Security, Propaganda Committee of CCP (Communist Party) and even the Military Intelligence Service. The whole project covers fields including law/regulations, technologies and manpower for censorship and monitoring. According to official figures, until 2002, total investment for the project was already over 6.4 billion RMB (nearly 1 billion USD). It is estimated that 30,000 – 50,000 professional internet police and 200,000 – 400,000 paid or voluntary internet commentators are working for the Chinese government to fight cybercrime, to conduct propaganda, censorship and monitoring and to “guide public opinion”.
The “Great Fire Wall” (GFW) is specially designed as a set of technical tools for the “Golden Shield Project”. It includes methods of IP blocking, DNS filtering and redirection, URL filtering, packet filtering and connection reset. Many global IT companies, such as US-based Cisco, Yahoo and top universities in China, such as Beijing University, are all involved in this project. In 2004, Yahoo!’s Hong Kong office provided the personal information of one of its users’ to the Chinese government on request. This led to a journalist and another writer being sentenced to 10 years in prison for spreading pro-democracy information.
To give an example, if you search “1989 64” as key words through google.com outside of China, you will get 83.2 million related results. Many of them are directly linked with information or articles on the 1989 Tiananmen Square movement; if you search the same words through google.cn, you can only get 86,600 results, some of them are still linked with the Tiananmen Square events; but if you search “1989 64” through baidu.com, you cannot find any information directly related to the movement. If you search “1989 64” through google.com in China, usually it will show “websites cannot be displayed”.
In addition, in mainland China, you cannot directly visit Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, Flicker, Blogger.com or many other communication websites. Needless to say, you cannot visit many specific news websites – economic or political – including chinaworker.info or even the BBC Chinese version. Frequent internet surfers in China are used to using proxy software, online proxy websites and VPN to bypass the “Great Fire Wall”.
Chinaworker: Last year, the government passed a law that all personal computers must install blocking software called “Green Dam”, much of which seems to have been stolen from a US company. And finally the use of “Green Dam” was limited to within schools. Can you tell us what happened with that?
“Green Dam Youth Escort” is pre-installed software for personal computers; its purpose is to filter pornographic pictures and articles, but it is also used to filter any politically sensitive words. According to information encoded by hackers, “Green Dam” has a list of sensitive words that total nearly 10,000 Chinese and English words. Of these, only 2,700 words are directly or even indirectly related to pornography; the others are all political words. Based on some internet surveys, 80% of internet surfers in China were against installing “Green Dam” in personal computers. Facing public pressure and protests from PC manufacturers over the costs and other problems, the government retreated from its stance that each new computer be required to install “Green Dam”, but all schools, internet cafés, libraries and other public computers are required to install this software.
Chinaworker: Will this affair result in Google withdrawing from China and if so, where will that leave the internet in China, will it mean any change?
Google withdrawing from China is more like a “political show”, just as when Hillary Clinton supposedly spoke out. It reflected trade and political i.e. power conflicts between the US and China. Recently, Google’s CEO said that they would continue operating their business in China and talking with the Chinese government on the issue of censorship. So actually, it cannot fundamentally change anything in China. As a business, Google will still put its economic interest as the priority.
Chinaworker: When the internet was blocked completely in Xinjiang, after last July’s clashes, many businesses pulled out of the province because they couldn’t operate. Doesn’t the Chinese economy lose out by the restrictions on the internet?
Yes, it has really impacted the local economy. In Xinjiang, internet access, SMS, and international phone calls were completely blocked for nearly 180 days from July to the end of December last year. It caused massive difficulties in communications, the economy, healthcare and education. In order to maintain international trade, some businessmen in Xinjiang on a regular basis took the train, bus or even airplane to neighboring provinces or countries (Kazakhstan) to get internet connection. Capitalists are against restrictions on information for business, but they support the dictatorial regime in China for keeping a “stable environment” for their commercial activities, especially preventing disruption to business by workers’ struggles and mass unrest.
By the end of last year, the Chinese government forced all websites to re-register and filter “unhealthy” information on domestic websites. As a result tens of thousands of web servers were cut off, and it probably resulted in unemployment for tens of thousands of web-based professional workers and bankruptcy for thousands of companies.
Chinaworker: Some voices in the US are urging Obama to get the WTO to act over China’s internet controls being illegal under trade liberalisation rules. Is the Google affair part of a wider conflict opening up between China and the US?
I believe that the Google affair is a part of a wider political and trade conflict between China and the US. Although Google probably will not quit from China, the issue of information censorship can turn out to be a hot topic for the US government and Congress to put pressure on China. If the US economy cannot escape from the economic crisis, such conflicts will become more and more common and serious. Recently, tension between the Obama administration and China over the Taiwan defence deal has flared up, with the Chinese government threatening sanctions against US companies that supply Taiwan’s military. This is also a part of the same conflict.
Chinaworker: What should socialist says about this? If there is a deeper conflict, whose side are we on?
Socialists explain that the working class keeps an independent stance towards all conflicts between capitalist powers and always focuses on the working class’s interests.
On the one hand, in China, we fight for democratic rights – freedom of expression, freedom of association, freedom of the media and information. We fight for the rights of the Chinese working class and other oppressed layers, and against state repression. The increasingly powerful Chinese dictatorship is challenging US capitalism’s hegemony in the world, but it is not any “evangel” for the working class in China or elsewhere. The Chinese government is actually serving the interests of its own bureaucrats and capitalists by the brutal exploitation of the working class globally. We put forward a socialist solution, to be against the CCP regime’s one-party dictatorship and its anti-working class policies.
On the other hand, we are also against US imperialism and its expansion globally. In history and now, the US government has never hesitated to cooperate with any dictatorial regime such as in Indonesia, Chile and Saudi Arabia, if they are to its taste. Internationally, US imperialism’s wars and economic exploitation have caused poverty, chaos and disasters in many other countries, especially in the neo-colonial world. And its alleged “bourgeois democratic” system has also not resolved domestic issues; the working class and young people still have to struggle against the bosses, against racism, against environmental destruction. Thus, there should be no illusions in US democracy.
International organisation and the unity of the working class are the only way to be able to create a democratic and fair socialist society for all human beings.