Nov 11, 2009

East Turkestan: Battles Over a New Wall

Active ImageTwenty years after the toppling of the Berlin Wall, another "wall" is facing intense public scrutiny in China. The so-called Great Firewall of China, the online filtering and surveillance program run by the communist government’s Ministry of Public Security, is alive and well and censoring freedom of expression for millions of Chinese.   

But over the past few months, Chinese discontent with the Great Firewall has bubbled over with increasing frequency and fervor.


Below is an article published by MSNBC:

Chinese netizen's ire was recently sparked by the Green Dam censoring software that was proposed last summer and the blocking of popular social media pages like Facebook and Twitter during the Uighur riots in Xinjiang in July.  

The censorship during the Uighur riots caused such consternation online, it sparked one bitter Chinese Twitter user to mournfully tweet that day, "Today, two ‘140s’ were killed in China – 140 people in Xinjiang and 140 character micro-blogging service Twitter."

It is perhaps fitting then that the Great Firewall should find its opposition in another online medium: Twitter.

The Berlin Twitter wall

The most recent incident occurred late in October when organizers for the Culture Project Berlin, a non-profit organization in Germany that promotes art and culture, created an online "Berlin Twitter Wall" where German tweeters were encouraged to share their memories of the tumultuous times surrounding the fall of wall 20 years ago.

However, when organizers also asked tweeters to write about, "which walls still have to come down to make our world a better place," the global response was sudden and overwhelming.

The site was soon flooded by over a thousand comments from China complaining about the infamous Great Firewall. Chinese netizens, who circumvented the government’s usual blocking of Twitter by using proxy servers, had suddenly transformed the online memorial site into a protest against 21st century forms of censorship.

Chinese censors were relatively slow to respond to the swift outpouring of anger, taking a couple days before finally blocking the website hosting the Berlin Twitter Wall. By then though, the damage had been done. Prior to the blocking, Carsten Hein, a director of the project estimated around 1,500 of the around 3,300 comments posted on the page were in Chinese.

Showing the resourcefulness and the doggedness of China’s netizens, even after the site was blocked, posters in China were still visiting the website and leaving messages on the Twitter wall.

One user wrote, "Mr. Hu Jintao, Tear Down the Great Firewall!" putting a twist on President Ronald Reagan’s famous words to his Soviet counterpart Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987 imploring him to "Tear down this wall!"

Another poster, appealed to President Barack Obama to take action during his visit to China later this month writing: "Mr. Obama please ask Mr. Hu to tear down the GFW, insure Chinese people use Internet free."

Shifting plates of change

The outpouring on the Berlin Twitter Wall are representative of how over the past 20 years, the Internet has not only unequivocally changed how the world communicates, but how it perceives freedom of expression.

For China though, perhaps the more interesting storyline is the quiet, but increasingly frequent clashes that occur between two large, disparate groups that make up of China’s social, economic and political bedrock: China’s youth and its government.

In the 20 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, China internalized the shocking collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe and its own scary brush with democracy with the Tiananmen Square protests the same year.

In the past two decades, economic prosperity and the incremental opening of personal freedoms has silenced the calls for greater democratization that was at the center of the 1989 student movement in China. Today’s Chinese youths have largely shifted their focus on improving their social and financial condition and are mostly passive about expressing any misgivings they may have with government restrictions on individual freedom.  

To that point, China’s public security minister, Meng Jianzhu, recently held a press conference calling for even greater security over the country’s Internet network.  

The idea of even tighter control seems shocking when one considers that Internet access in the vast Xinjiang region was effectively cut off for months after the Uighur riots this past summer.

Still, things like the  Berlin Twitter Wall and the outrage over the proposed Green Dam censoring program show that when China’s censorship mechanisms impinge on the freedoms now expected by China’s youth, the two societal plates push against each other and with increasing frequency, the government is being pushed back slightly. (Examples here and here).

It is likely that today will be just another day here in China and one shouldn’t expect mass demonstrations calling for the toppling of China’s Great Firewall anytime soon.

But, 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the spirit of those heady days still resonates here and burns bright deep behind China’s other Great Wall.