Getting around China's great information firewall
BEIJING — China's governing Communist Party maintains 24-hour control of what the country's citizens can and cannot see on the Internet. Critics call this content-blocking operation the Great Firewall.
In the United States, China Digital Times of Berkeley, California, tries to poke holes in the Great Firewall. Every day, its staff collects, translates and publishes many of the official requests for censorship the Chinese government sends to the media it controls. Such requests are known as censorship directives.
China Digital Times also tracks breaking news that is being blocked in China. They publish some of the most important stories China’s rulers do not want ordinary Chinese citizens to read.
“There is no way you could take all these critical voices and party directives and put them together on one website in China. It would be taken down immediately,” said 53-year-old Xiao Qiang, chief editor of China Digital Times. “But outside the Great Firewall you can do that. And that is what we do.”
Vaulting The Great Firewall
Xiao founded China Digital Times in 2003. Since then, it has become a go-to site for English speakers wanting to keep up with China’s Internet and its 640 million users.
China Digital Times is not only aimed at English speakers, however. After China blocked the site in 2006, Xiao made plans for a Chinese-language site, which he launched in 2011. China blocked that site as well, but Xiao said his team uses a variety of methods to break through the Great Firewall.
Imagine trying to fight a giant with pebbles, and you will have some sense of what China Digital Times is up against. China is thought to employ as many as 100,000 people to monitor and remove online posts it finds objectionable. China Digital Times consists of just six people.
Some Websites Are Fearful
Since Xi Jinping became China's president in late 2013, China has unleashed a broad crackdown on online activists. One example is Ilham Tohti, who used his blog to criticize the treatment of Uighurs, an ethnic minority group. Last September, a Chinese court sentenced him to life imprisonment.
Despite such harsh punishments, numerous Chinese tipsters continue to supply China Digital Times with news items. Among them are the instructions sent to state media telling editors which postings should be removed or toned down.
In a typical posting, China Digital Times reported Wednesday that the government had instructed news media to downplay coverage of recent explosions at a factory. The factory produces paraxylene, a highly toxic chemical.
“Do not place news of the Zhangzhou, Fujian PX explosion in lead story sections of news agency websites,” the directive read. Several websites quickly complied.
Small But Determined Team
China Digital Times has about 250,000 to 500,000 readers a month, about two-thirds of them in mainland China. The numbers vary depending on China’s success in preventing China Digital Times from burrowing through the Great Firewall.
Sarah Cook is an American expert on Chinese media. Xiao and China Digital Times, she said, have provided a real service, through their decade-long tracking of the directives. “They must have quite a network of contacts in the country,” she said.
Jeremy Goldkorn, another expert on China media, agrees that China Digital Times has been very valuable. In part, he said, this is because “they have kept at it for so long.”
The organization’s six team members are split between the Chinese-language and English-language sites.
Xiao says it is “an uphill struggle” to raise money to run China Digital Times. He keeps doing it, he said, because of feedback from readers.
Maybe Real Change Will Come
Xiao believes China's leaders are cracking down more these days because they are feeling insecure. It may be only a matter of time before many Chinese begin calling for real change. The country's current leadership could end up losing power.
"If the economic situation goes well," and good-paying jobs are plentiful, "they can hang on for another decade or longer,” Xiao said. “But they know they are in trouble.”
For Xiao, political reform in China cannot happen soon enough. Beijing currently forbids him from returning to China, even to visit his family.
Xiao said his 80-year-old father is ill and unable to visit him in the United States.
Asked about China’s future, Xiao said that he believes China will be able to change, but says: "What I fear is that I will not be able to see my father before he dies.”