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
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The way to do it would be this: If a Chinese user tried to view a website outside China with political content, such as CNN.com, the address would be recognized by a filter program that screens out forbidden sites. The request would then be thrown away, with the user receiving a banal message: "Operation timed out." Great, but China's leaders had a problem: The financial excitement of a wired China quickly led to a proliferation of eight major Internet service providers (ISPs) and four pipelines to the outside world. To force compliance with government objectives--to ensure that all pipes lead back to Rome--they needed the networking superpower, Cisco, to standardize the Chinese Internet and equip it with firewalls on a national scale. According to the Chinese engineer, Cisco came through, developing a router device, integrator, and firewall box specially designed for the government's telecom monopoly. At approximately $20,000 a box, China Telecom "bought many thousands" and IBM arranged for the "high-end" financing. Michael confirms: "Cisco made a killing. They are everywhere."

Cisco does not deny its success in China. Nor does it deny that it may have altered its products to suit the special needs of the Chinese "market"--a localization scheme the company avoided elsewhere in the world--but it categorically rejects any responsibility for how the government uses its firewall boxes. David Zhou, a systems engineer manager at Cisco, Beijing, told me flat out, "We don't care about the [Chinese government's] rules. It's none of Cisco's business." I replied that he has a point: It's not the gun but the way it's used, and how can a company that builds firewalls be expected to, well, not build firewalls? Zhou relaxed, then confidently added that the capabilities of Cisco's routers can be used to intercept information and to conduct keyword searches: "We have the capability to look deeply into the packet." He admitted that Cisco is under the direct scrutiny of State Security, the Public Security Bureau, and the People's Liberation Army (PLA).

Does Cisco allow the PLA to look into packets? Zhou didn't know or wouldn't say. But consider, for example, the arrest of veteran activist Chi Shouzhu last April. He was picked up in a crowded train station minutes after printing out online materials promoting Chinese democracy. Incidents such as this have mushroomed in China, suggesting that Cisco may not be the only one capable of looking deeply into the packets. In fact, Cisco's ability to thrive in China may well depend on cooperation with the Public Security Bureau and the PLA.

Cisco's firewall has proven to be far from foolproof. New sites on forbidden topics crop up daily, and with the proliferation of ISPs who just want more subscribers surfing, the lag time between updating the government's list of banned sites and implementation can be erratic. So Chinese security organs also needed to control the search engines through which new sites can be found.

Enter Yahoo! The business press has painted a picture of a thriving, home-grown Chinese market for portals and search engines--mirroring such companies as AOL, Google, and Excite--with names like Sohu, Netease, and Sina fighting for the top spots. Chinese Yahoo!, the American outrider, trails in fifth place. A top Yahoo! representative spoke to me on the condition that I would not use his name or give identifying details other than that he had recently left the company. He admitted that Yahoo! is actually the most popular portal in China by a mile. Management had fudged the hit rate, because "we were viewed as extremely aggressive. We were seen as too foreign."

Chinese xenophobia has led many other U.S. companies to play similar games, but Yahoo! was particularly eager to please. All Chinese chat rooms or discussion groups have a "big mama," a supervisor for a team of censors who wipe out politically incorrect comments in real time. Yahoo! handles things differently. If in the midst of a discussion you type, "We should have nationwide multiparty elections in China!!" no one else will react to your comment. How could they? It appears on your screen, but only you and Yahoo!'s big mama actually see your thought crime. After intercepting it and preventing its transmission, Mother Yahoo! then solicitously generates a friendly e-mail suggesting that you cool your rhetoric--censorship, but with a New Age nod to self-esteem.