- The Great Digital China
Early in 2019, a master's student visited me during my office hours at the University of Michigan School of Information, where my colleagues and I work at the intersection of information, digital technology, and global society. She was a talented, enthusiastic student, and I knew that she would have something interesting to discuss. Sure enough, she told me that she wanted to research online censorship in China and to prototype a digital tool to circumvent it. She was Chinese, so I asked her, "Do you plan to return to China at some point, and do you have any family there?" She responded "yes" to both questions. My immediate response was an intake of breath: "Well, you might want to think carefully about whether you want to pursue this project." Apparently, another faculty member at our Center for Chinese Studies had told her the same thing.
At the time, I had little other guidance for her. My own knowledge of the Chinese Internet was limited, and I could not imagine effective social action in the shadow of the Communist Party, especially as led by Xi Jinping. However, I have since pointed her to two recent books, one of which offers historical context and another which provides a path for future action: James Griffiths' The Great Firewall of China: How to Build and Control an Alternative Version of the Internet (Zed Books) overviews the dark trajectory of the Chinese government's efforts to control online activity—it also serves as a warning to would-be activists in China. Jing Wang's The Other Digital China: Nonconfrontational Activism on the Social Web (Harvard University Press) offers a way forward for those in China—and perhaps elsewhere—who want to make progress within a totalitarian state.
Great Firewall opens not in China, but in San Francisco, with the 2015 cyberattack on GitHub, a tech company whose platform is the world's default repository for software. (The company has since been acquired by Microsoft but continues to operate much as it did.) In a few pages, Griffiths outlines China's incredible digital might: an attack of record-breaking scope and duration, an effort to undermine a single "China-based anti-censorship organization," a Chinese cyberweapon called the "Great Cannon," the likely backing of the Communist Party, and China's ability to extend its digital power across its borders. [End Page 265]
All of this foretells the present of China's Internet, but Griffiths begins with its humble beginnings, starting with the country's pockmarked path to its first email in 1987. What follows over the next three decades reads like a spy thriller: a global cat-and-mouse game with rapidly growing stakes—Chinese activists deploying increasingly sophisticated digital tools and tactics, while a repressive regime develops countermeasures that ratchet into a giant sociotechnical infrastructure of online control.
On one side, there are China's dissident heroes: Li Hongkuan, who used a knack for spamming to release Da Cankao, an email newsletter of censored news; journalist Shi Tao, who was jailed for his anonymous, online criticism of the government when Yahoo gave up his identity; Li Yuanlong, who praised American democracy using technology developed by Falun Gong followers to bypass the Great Firewall; and Ilham Tohti, a professor who sought to improve the situation for the Uyghur minority without overt conflict with the Chinese government. On the other side, there is the awesome power of the Chinese government. One by one, each activist is muted, jailed, exiled, or disappeared, and brick by brick, the Great Firewall is built, crushing activists' digital attempts under its sheer weight. No evidence of their dissident activity remains online, at least for Chinese residents.
Griffiths also relates the story of China and Big Tech, at once revealing China...