The Communist bosses who guide capitalist China have been ever suspicious of the outside world. And few things induce the party’s paranoia quite like the invisible flow of information from the Internet.
The country has for years imposed some of the world’s most rigorous restrictions on the Internet. And its citizens have mostly shrugged and devised clever ways to slip past the various electronic filters and barriers known as the Great Firewall.
Now, though, China appears to be mounting its most aggressive campaign ever to smother Internet communication by use of sophisticated blocking technology, according to Western news reports. Regrettably, this censorious government push for “cyber-sovereignty” is succeeding only too well.
The Chinese effort is oppressive, foolhardy, and potentially damaging not only to the Chinese economy — businesses need fast, accurate information to stay competitive — but to the day-to-day ties that bind China to the rest of world, such as the exchange of new findings by medical researchers, geologists seeking data from foreign seismic labs around the Pacific Rim, or a maker of vacuum machines connecting with a foreign nozzle supplier.
Scientists, scholars, artists, and business entrepreneurs are among those whose communications lines have been obstructed. In its attacks on alleged “hostile forces” — meaning unfettered information flow from the outside world — the government of President Xi Jinping has impeded Gmail and all but shuttered the array of Virtual Private Networks, or VPNs, which Chinese have routinely used to work their way around Beijing’s Internet restrictions.
In the past, the government has largely turned a blind eye to businesses, scientists, and even dissidents seeking to stay in touch with the outside world. Partly, Beijing these days is more skittish about internal political tensions, especially among Islamic factions in western China. But the big difference is that the government badly wants to defend and nurture its own budding technology sector against foreign competition.
This is exactly the sort of narrow-minded protectionism that China is quick to decry in competing nations. It can only undercut China’s efforts to deepen trade and investment ties with the United States and other countries. American and other foreign business groups are quite right to challenge the cyberbullying as counter-productive. “The government needs to encourage the use of the Internet as a crucial medium for the sharing of information and ideas to promote economic growth,” James Zimmerman, chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in China, told The New York Times.
Above all else, the crackdown is a despotic slap against the entrepreneurial spirit that has wrought China’s economic miracle. Of course, these entrepreneurs will invent even more ingenious ways around the obnoxious Firewall. But that will only waste energies better put toward building greater economic prosperity and advancing the country’s arts and sciences.
Written on February 15, 2015 for the Boston Globe.