< Tear Down that Firewall


Friday, January 29, 2010

BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media, I'm Bob Garfield. In a stunning reversal earlier this month, Google wrote on its official blog that it would stop censoring its search results in China, as mandated by the Communist government, or else quit operating in the country altogether. The announcement came shortly after some of the company’s email accounts were hacked into, an attack Google said it traced to China. In response, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said, quote, “China welcomes international Internet enterprises to conduct business in China according to law.” Just as Google and China were facing off in a game of international chicken, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a strongly worded speech in Washington on the subject of Internet freedom.

SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY CLINTON: The Internet has already been a source of tremendous progress in China, and it is fabulous, but countries that restrict free access to information or violate the basic rights of Internet users risk walling themselves off from the progress of the next century.

BOB GARFIELD: Suddenly it seems after years of teeth-clenched tolerance, corporate and political entities here in the U.S. are intent on confronting China over suppression of speech on the Internet. Jeremy Goldkorn is founder and editor of Danwei.org, a website that monitors the Chinese media. He watched Clinton’s speech in his adopted home of Beijing, and he joins me now. Hey Jeremy, welcome back to the show.


BOB GARFIELD: You didn't just watch Secretary Clinton’s speech in Beijing, you watched it at the U.S. Embassy? How did that come to pass?

JEREMY GOLDKORN: Well, I somehow got myself on a list of bloggers that the U.S. Embassy has been inviting to various functions as part of the Obama administration’s Web 2.0 communication effort. The first one was just before the Obama visits to China last year. And they invited a crowd of Chinese bloggers to the embassy to watch a recording of Hillary Clinton’s speech, and I was in that group.

BOB GARFIELD: You know, from our vantage here in the States, Clinton’s speech sounded very tough and got a lot of praise from those who have thought all along that the U.S. should be taking a harder line against China’s systematic suppression of free speech. I'm just going to take a wild guess and suppose that the Chinese government had a slightly different view of things.

JEREMY GOLDKORN: Well, immediately after the Google reaction there was a very muted reaction from the Chinese government. For about a week they didn't really say too much, except that they were seeking clarity on Google’s intentions, quite mild statements. After Hillary Clinton’s speech, a barrage of state-written propaganda was unleashed, commentaries and editorials and articles, all condemning the speech and what they called “American information imperialism.”

BOB GARFIELD: It’s hard for me to understand how that could be though, if both Google and the U.S. government are calling for the Chinese to have the information of their choosing, not what is chosen by the Chinese government.

JEREMY GOLDKORN: Well yes, Bob, but you are part of the American imperialist media machine, so of course you don't understand.

[BOB LAUGHS] The Chinese government’s argument is that China does not produce as much information as America. Therefore, if the Internet is completely open, the huge volumes of information, pro-American information, coming out of the United States will deluge China and somehow puts Chinese-produced information in an inferior position. That is the rather torturous logic that has been used in many of the editorials that have been running in newspapers.

BOB GARFIELD: There has been endless debate, on this program and [LAUGHS] elsewhere, about the government’s ability in the long run to maintain the great firewall that enables it to monitor and censor Internet content and generally suppress speech, especially political speech, in an Internet age. I'm just curious whether you think if the great firewall came tumbling down tomorrow would the government lose its legitimacy immediately?

JEREMY GOLDKORN: Well, I, I don't think they would, but there is a very strong strain of a sort of Leninist type of ideology of control that seems to be in the very bones of the Communist Party, and it’s possibly deeper than that. You know, a probably apocryphal story about Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China, the guy who’s buried with the Terracotta Army, after he came to power he is supposed to have burned all the books and buried all the scholars – it’s actually a Chinese saying – so that he would be in complete control of information. And in some ways, I think that attitude towards information control is a very old phenomenon in China, and it’s not just the Communist Party like that. So it’s very difficult to see, you know, tomorrow, let's say, the great firewall just being switched off. I do myself believe if it did happen, it would probably do much less harm to the government than they think.

BOB GARFIELD: Well, Jeremy, once again, thank you for joining us.


BOB GARFIELD: Jeremy Goldkorn is founder and editor-in-chief of Danwei.org, a website devoted to Chinese media.