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Street scene with Chinese characters
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Copy of Chinese Internet

Source: Getty

World Wide Webs

Is China Creating Its Own Internet?

Why you should care

Isolating the world’s largest country in its own digital universe is no mean feat, but a cage is a cage, even if it’s filled with cute pictures of kittens.

This editor’s pick first appeared on September 27, 2013.

Some pretty innovative things are happening with the Internet in China these days, and it’s not the dogs in pantyhose — or not just those. In fact, the Chinese are well on their way to opting out of the Internet entirely or a least the version of it that everyone else in the world is using.

China seems to have taken the famous quip that controlling the Internet is like trying to “nail Jell-O to the wall” as a logistical challenge.

In China the Web is already something quite different than what it is in the West and the rest of the less-censored world. And the prospect of a separate Chinese Internet is not mere speculation: The Communist Party’s ambitions for such a step were first revealed in 2010 in a leaked internal speech by one of China’s top Internet officials that made the case for removing China from “the global Internet.” In short, the Chinese government appears to have taken Bill Clinton’s famous remark that controlling the Internet would be like trying to “nail Jell-O to the wall” as a logistical challenge. And the government’s solution? Make Jell-O that can be nailed.

To that end, not only has the Chinese government erected the famous Great Firewall to protect its 591 million Internet users from undesirable foreign sites like YouTube, Twitter and Facebook, but it has also implemented the far more sinister and pervasive Golden Shield, employing sophisticated software and legions of cyber-police to monitor online activity and filter keyword searches.

Many chinese persons on computers

Source: Greg Baker/AP

But the government’s efforts do not stop at censorship or monitoring. China has its own party-friendly clones of Twitter (Sina Weibo), Facebook (Renren) and Google (Baidu), where, among other things, paid microbloggers steer conversations between users in particular ways. These “safe” alternatives allow Chinese to enjoy something resembling the Internet even if it is more like, as Gady Epstein puts it, a “fenced-off playground with paternalistic guards.”

The government can also suspend recess on the playground indefinitely, as it did in 2009 after riots in the northwestern region of Xinjiang prompted officials to shut down the area’s Internet for almost a year. Such shutdowns are possible because the Internet does not in fact live in the ether, as some might believe, but in real, physical data centers such as the massive ones that Google uses. Because all Web traffic is managed through such centers, it’s no exaggeration that “he who controls the data center controls the Internet.”

And with new technology in the works, the division between China’s Internet and the rest of the world’s will only widen. As recently documented in the esteemed science journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, China is developing a next-generation Internet that offers conventional improvements like faster broadband but also deeper changes to the entire architecture of the Web, including a new security system called Source Address Validation Architecture (SAVA), which is essentially an online bouncer that is bigger and badder than any presently guarding an Internet portal.

It’s no exaggeration that he who controls the data center controls the Internet.

Time to admit that Jell-O can be nailed to the wall? Or will the dynamic duo of innovation and time ultimately help Chinese citizens best their cagers? The duo have done so throughout human history, from the printing press’s circumvention of the Roman Catholic church to South Africa’s triumph over apartheid-era censors.

Censorship caved in on itself previously in China, too. Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s massive burning of books (and scholars) in order to expunge any comparison between his reign and the preceding ones came to a screeching halt in in 210 BCE, when the first leader of a unified China died suddenly. The culprit? Mercury pills concocted by ill-informed court physicians trying to make the emperor immortal.

Nature abhors a vacuum. Information and people abhor a cage.

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Sean Braswell

Meet The Author Sean Braswell

Sean Braswell writes about history, politics, film, sports, and most everything else for OZY --aside from this byline, which he assigned to an unpaid intern who was locked in a room, given a Red Bull and an internet connection, and told to make some magic happen, pronto.

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