The Great Firewall is a shining light to censors and autocrats everywhere: a daily example that you can control the internet and stifle online dissent. More than that, China is increasingly exporting its model of the internet: Chinese companies are selling tools and expertise across the developing world and elsewhere; at the same time, Chinese diplomats are taking an aggressive role at the United Nations and other international bodies to water down protections for free speech and write into law the right of governments to censor their citizens’ speech; and Beijing is increasingly pressuring foreign companies, with threats of withholding access to the huge Chinese market, to toe its political line on things like Taiwan, Tibet and the South China Sea.
This is coming at a time when the model of the internet pushed by Silicon Valley — the largely fictitious ‘information wants to be free’ libertarian utopia — is looking shakier than ever. There is a very real risk that, in response to very warranted fears about how tech giants are running roughshod over our rights and spreading spurious information, governments tilt in favour not of controlling these corporations and holding them to account but rather in controlling what users and citizens can do and say online.
What made you decide to write The Great Firewall of China?
I was lucky enough to live in mainland China during the heyday of Weibo — Chinese Twitter — and saw how the relative openness and freedom to comment on politics and scrutinize government decisions had a real effect on people’s lives. I think we should be skeptical of placing too much importance on social networks as a tool for driving change but, in a country like China where the threshold to getting your voice heard is so high, Weibo felt truly transformative. The solidarity building and activism on the platform also had a tangible effect: a lot of the conservation today about air pollution was largely kicked off and driven by people on Weibo.
If that was the high point of free debate on the Chinese internet, however, it’s all been downhill since then. In my reporting, and in writing the book, I’ve tried to document and understand how the government was able to crack down so effectively not only on Weibo, but also other organizing online, and the effect this has had on ordinary people’s lives and the direction of the world’s second superpower.
Tell us something we don’t know about social media usage in China.
There’s so much surveillance. The justified outrage over how Facebook handled user data would pale in comparison to the amount of information Chinese social media apps are vacuuming up on users, and providing to advertisers, the government and security services. A lot of this information is going into China’s burgeoning social credit system, a combination of a national identity database and credit score, where your online shopping habits or how you use bike sharing apps can affect your ‘trustworthiness’ rating and mean you could get denied a loan or be unable to buy plane tickets. (And yes, this was literally a plot on Black Mirror.)
What did you uncover in the process of writing The Great Firewall of China, something you weren’t expecting?
For me, the most exciting and eye-opening part of the book was reporting on Uganda, which I use as a case study into how the Great Firewall is expanding beyond China’s borders, particularly in the developing world. Uganda has seen an incredible amount of online activism in recent years, and a corresponding crackdown from the government, with the assistance both of Beijing and of unscrupulous western (and Chinese) security firms. It was amazing to talk to activists operating in this fast moving, evolving environment, and see how they were still able to build solidarity and affect change even as the government was desperately trying to shut them down.
Which authors or thinkers have inspired your work?
One of things I read that was most influential in reporting and writing this book was Bad Elements by Ian Buruma, his still very relevant 2001 overview of Chinese dissident thought in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and the west. Buruma does a great job of showing the importance of dissidents and activists, even when they can seem completely marginalized. The foreign media in China often gets criticized for paying too much attention to dissidents, but I think this is actually one of the most important roles of the press, not just internationally but also at home.