Inside Out: How Tibet Showed the Cracks in the Great Firewall of ChinaMarch 21st, 2008 — marycjoyce
Last week, as protest rocked Tibet, the news was not only of the protests themselves but also of the role of the Internet in bringing news of those protests to a global audience. However, it was unclear whether the overall Internet story was hopeful or pessimistic. Did the Tibet case show critical weaknesses in the ability of China to control the Internet or was it just another story of oppression and censorship?
On one hand, the protests demonstrated the capacity of native and expatriate Tibetans, as well as foreign tourists, to use the Internet to get news of the protest out of the country despite the Chinese governments attempts to keep the story contained. (Chinese media – all state-controlled – paint Tibetan protests in a very negative light, which results in rampant anti-Tibetan feeling in most of China. There is a ban on non-Chinese journalists in the Tibetan region.)
It is noteworthy just how many means were used to spread the news online. From the cell phone images sent to Tibetan rights NGOs abroad (see image above) who posted the photos on their web sites to the travel blog of two Belgian tourists that became ad hoc citizen journalists and published photos, video, and text about the protest on their travel blog to mainstream news outlets like the BBC that published user-generated images, the options for ordinary people to collect and distribute news is growing ever broader.
Wrote theVancover Sun:
“During nearly 50 years of Chinese rule since the Dalai Lama was forced into exile in 1959, periodic reports of protests and violent repression have been based mainly on second-hand accounts, often well after the events. But digital technology coupled with the Internet has made it nearly impossible to seal off parts of the world where media access is closely controlled by the authorities.”
cell phone image of protests published on the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy, based in India
But there is a darker story as well. China blocked YouTube over the weekend of March 14th and 15th after it became clear the dissidents and foreigners were using the service to upload cell phone videos of the protests.
While it was hard to confirm reports due to intentional limitations on the flow of information by the Chinese government, estimates range from 30 to 300 as of early this week. Web sites from outside the country, which support Tibetan sovereignty, posted reports of mass arrests and shootings in areas of China with high populations of ethnic Tibetans. The overall feeling of pessimism was summed up by the title of a Tibet post by tech mega-blog Boing-Boing’s: “Tibet: China blocks YouTube, protests spread, bloggers react”
Yet I believe that despite the tragic nature of China’s repression of the protests, the Internet story from Tibet is a positive one. These protests would have occurred with or without the Internet, but it is because of the Internet that (to the great chagrin of China) the world is now aware of what is occurring behind the Great Firewall of Chinese Internet censorship.
The Internet cannot yet stop genocide merely by shining a light on it (Internet activity around the crisis in Darfur provides another discouraging example.) But shining a light is a necessary precursor to public pressure and diplomatic rebuke.
It is harder than ever to cage information. While the Chinese government has proven very effective at preventing outside information from getting into China (outside-in control), it is more difficult to prevent information from getting from inside China out into the wider world (inside-out control).
It all depends on the freedom of the network, regardless of the point of entry. If sensitive information enters China through a savvy citizen using a proxy server, there are multiple forms of filtering and censorship on the domestic Chinese Internet which would limit the spread of that information. However, once one Tibetan sends a few cell phone images and a press release to a New York Times reporter, the whole world is watching.
Outside of China, information about the country flows much more freely than it does with China, so as soon as there is a leak of information to the outside world, the Chinese government has lost significant power over their ability to control the story. The Chinese government can control the Internet within its borders, but it cannot control the Internet in the world at large, a distinction which becomes problematic in the case of human rights abuses with an eager international audience.
The internationalization of China’s domestic human rights abuses causes a considerable headache for China, not only through humiliating denunciations by supposed allies, but also through a boomerang effect, by which international coverage of Chinese news creates unrest within other parts of the country, such as Taiwan.
Tibet showed the cracks in the Great Firewall. While the country can control the inflow of information it is far more difficult to control the outflow. Moreover, this outflow has a very feel effect on China’s relations both with the rest of the world and with its own citizens. The effects of the inside-out cracks in the firewall should give hope to those who look forward to its demise.
cross-posted on ZapBoom
The Inside Out: How Tibet Showed the Cracks in the Great Firewall of China by Internet & Democracy Blog, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.