The Magazine

Who Lost China's Internet?

Without U.S. assistance, it will remain a tool of the Beijing government, not a force for democracy.

Feb 25, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 23 • By ETHAN GUTMANN
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It's not easy being the father of the Chinese Internet. Children are running by, boats are paddling, the smell of roast lamb fills the air, and Michael Robinson, a young American computer engineer, sits rigidly, facing an empty cafe on the shore of Qinghai Lake, speaking in a low voice of the crackdown. "What is better? Big brother Internet? Or no Internet at all?" Michael asks.

Michael was hired in 1996 by the Chinese government and Global One (a Sprint-France Telecom-Deutsche Telekom joint venture) to build the first network in China providing public access to the Internet. One day sticks in his mind. The Chinese engineers working with him suddenly convened a special meeting, demanding to know if it would be possible to do keyword searching inside e-mails and web addresses on the Chinese Internet. Not really, Michael replied; all information that travels the Net is broken up into little packets. It's hard to "sniff" packets of information, particularly coded packets. You would need to intercept packets as they travel, and then there's the problem of collating the information they contain, actually making sense of it. Yes, yes, they said, but can you do it? On the third go-round, it dawned on Michael that his fellow computer geeks wanted to end the meeting, too. But at a higher level, someone required assurance. Before Internet construction proceeded further, they would need to monitor what Chinese users did with it. For the engineers, this was just cover-your-ass stuff. As long as the foreigner assured them that down the road the Chinese would be able to build an Internet firewall against the world and conduct surveillance on its own citizens, the engineers could continue working with him. Yes, yes, it can be done, Michael told them, and they went back to work.

Americans make dreams, and every generation carries new ones to China. Since 1979 that dream has been the fall of the Chinese Communist party and the rise of the world's largest market, an event that U.S. businessmen and China hands keep predicting is on the horizon or even imminent. Yet Michael was not naive. He understood the self-serving nature of much of the democracy-is-just-around-the-corner rhetoric. Working inside, he sensed the Chinese leadership's true motives in building an Internet. One of his friends, Peter Lovelock, author of the "Made For China Internet Update," puts it this way: "These are Marxists. Control the means of communication; embrace the means of communication. Fill it with Chinese voices. If they can block the outside, and block relationships between Chinese forces, no one will listen."

But for Michael, any reservations over complicity with Chinese government objectives were outweighed by a bedrock faith in the Internet's ingenious architecture. A system created to relay U.S. command messages over a damaged network after sustaining a Soviet nuclear strike could surely find a way to get messages through, securely, amid the white noise of millions of Chinese users. Resistance would be futile--even the Chinese Borg could not stop it. With the genie of free speech out of the bottle, it would just be a matter of time before those predictions of democracy in China come true.

That vision has now been called into question, not by a failure of the Internet's architecture, but in several cases, by a failure of American corporate values. Let's start where Michael left off, with the expansion of the Chinese Internet. I treated a top Chinese engineer (who wishes to remain anonymous) to a 30-course imperial meal in Beijing. As hoped, the shark's fin soup loosened his tongue--on the subject of Cisco Systems. In the United States, Cisco is known (among other things) for building corporate firewalls to block viruses and hackers. In China, the government had a unique problem: how to keep a billion people from accessing politically sensitive websites, now and forever.