Within the Wall

The advent of the Great Firewall in China has undoubtedly huge implications for everyone involved – but while plenty has been said about the firewall itself, what of the citizens in China? How have they reacted against the existence of the Firewall? How has the Great Firewall affected cyberactivists and the average citizen?

The first thing that must be addressed is the conception of the Great Firewall through the metaphor of the Great Firewall itself. The image of that the phrase  “The Great Firewall” is wonderfully evocative – that of  a towering edifice, huge and shimmering like a cross between The Matrix and Guantanamo Bay. The idea in many American minds is of a wall that is both obvious  to everyone it constrains and constantly tested. This is true in some sense, but in another it overstates the effect that the Great Firewall has had on people in China.

In a large part, discourse about ‘helping the Chinese break free’ and ‘web activism’ are rooted in the rhetoric of the Cold War and continuing Western ethno-centrism. Particularly telling is a response by Liu Kang, noting that ““tales of China’s political repression and terror have more to do with the political, ideological, and commercial objectives of the Western media than with what really happens in China today.”[1]

The number of internet users in China, as of 2008, counts in at roughly 253 million netizens, about 40 million more than the amount of internet-users in the United States.[2] Of these, roughly 25 percent uses proxies to get around government firewalls, though studies have shown that during the SARS outbreak that percentage jumped to over 50 percent[3]. The image of tech-savvy netizens as being in the minority in China has to be discarded – instead it has to be considered that Chinese citizens are not unable to breach China’s firewall. They are uninterested in testing the limits of the firewall.

A recent study carried out in 2007 show that over 50 percent of internet users in China believe that it was “very necessary” to control the internet, while 30 percent believed that it was “necessary” to control the internet. Only 5 percent of respondents said that it was “unnecessary” or “very unnecessary” to control the internet. Even more relevant, however, is that 41 percent of respondents believe that political content should be controlled.[4]

However, this doesn’t mean that they are powerless or brainwashed in the face of the state and corporations. Rather, it seems that the term control does not mean out and out censorship.

The internet has been used to uncover government lies and corruption, such as an explosion at a school in Jiangxi. Originally the government explained the problem as the work of a “madman”, but through electronic bulletin boards the cover-up was exposed and an official apology (rare for the Chiense government) was issued.

Another example would be that of a rural-urban work migrant Sun Zhigang, who died ‘of a heart attack’ while in police custody. Netizens eventually uncovered the fact that Sun was beaten to death, and outrage and activism over this fact managed to spur changes in government policy – in particular the transformation of migrant detention centers, as well as the requirement for works such as Sun Zhigang to carry a work permit on their selves at all times.[5]

The Lang Xianping Cyclone : Net-based Activism

The Liang Xianping Cyclone is an event in August of 2004 where Lang Xianping published a scathing indictment of multiple privately-owned businesses that, he claimed, were buying out state assets illegally and, thus, privatizing what traditionally belong to the public. He made his case in multiple public chatrooms and eventually set up his own website to discuss the issue, with over 40,000 people reading his opinions in the end.

The response was both huge and immediate. Criticisms and counter-criticisms of Liang’s opinions were formed and posted on the web and off the web. Leading economists formally petitioned the government to investigate privatization in China. Eventually the scope of the argument widened when a worker, recently laid-off, posted online questioning why the discussion was so academic, ignoring the voices of the people on the ground.

At the same time as these questions were being discussed, a strike occurred over the buyout of a state-owned factory allegedly worth 200 million for 20 million by a private company. These events were linked back to the debate started by Liang Xianping and further debate questioned the rights of the government to shut down protest [6].

The furor over Chinese networks also mirror another emerging democratic phenomenon – that of the “Human Flesh Search Engine” – a prime example of mobilized social justice on the web.

Human Flesh Search Engines : Web-Crowds and Crowd Justice

The term “Human Flesh Search Engine” refers to organized groups of Chinese netizens who engage in, “a form of online vigilante justice in which Internet users hunt down and punish people who have attracted their wrath”[7]. When an injustice occurs and arouses the ire of the Human Flesh Search Engine, woe betide the person found wanting.

One common example is that of the “Kitten Killer” – a woman who filmed herself stomping a live kitten to death. As soon as it was posted on online Chinese forums, groups of Chinese users began to try to puzzle out the identity of the woman in the video. Within days an originating website, crushworld, had been found and a Distributed Denial of Service attack launched. Six days later the identity, job, and address of the woman had been found, and a furious cyber-public had both her and her cameraman fired from their jobs[8].

The emergence of Human Flesh Search Engines is very much the emergence of democratic action in Chinese webspace. Even though the Great Firewall still very much exists, it has only shifted the ways in which the public can organize themselves and obtain information. These search engines allow the average citizen to enact social justice and gain leverage over other citizens in the real world. The activities of people participating in the Human Flesh Search engine is not heavily monitored by the government either – China has moved on from the image of totalitarian control, and censors generally allow activity like this to go unfettered[9].

In contrast to the US, where large media topics are commonly ‘broken’ by the new corporations, many Chinese citizens get their news from anonymous online forums, possibly due to the heavy regulation of state media. The well-educated portion of China’s demographic tend to be the ones frequenting online forums, and it is these citizens that are mobilizing against government and social injustices[10]. By engaging in Human Flesh Searches and mobilizing public opinion against public officials many netizens are able to get them dismissed so the government doesn’t lose face. While the relationship is less than an openly acknowledged one, it’s one that is heady to a citizen whose impact on official governance may have felt limited at the best of times.


The power of Chinese citizens cannot be underestimated, and the agency  the average citizen has as a result of the internet, no matter how censored it may be, cannot be underestimated. In general rhetoric the image of the Chinese citizen is one of subservience to all-powerful and overwhelming government oppression. In truth, as always, the situation is a bit more complicated. With the ability of the internet to stir up outrage and uncover information, as well as connect disconnected parties, the Chinese citizen can still speak out and effect change against their government.

[1] Liu Kang, Globalization and Cultural Trends in China (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2007), p. 82.

[2] China Internet Network Information Center, Statistical Survey Report on the Internet Development in China (Abridged Edition), (2008), p. 10.

[3] Thorton, Beyond the Great Firewall, p. 266.

[4] Guo Liang, Surveying Internet Usage and its Impact in Seven Chinese Cities (Chinese Academy of Social Sciences : Center for Social Development, 2007) p. 12-13.

[5] Lockman Tsui, An Inadequate Metaphor : The Great Firewall and Chinese Censorship (Global Dialogue, 2007) p. 6

[6] Thorton, Beyond the Great Firewall, p. 272.

[7] Tom Downey, China’s Cyberposse (The New York Times, March 3, 2010) p. 1.

[8] Thorton, Beyond the Great Firewall, p. 276.

[9] Tom Downey, China’s Cyberposse (The New York Times, March 3, 2010) p. 2.


[10] Ibid., p.3

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