Though it will likely go unnoticed by the legions of athletes, coaches, dignitaries, fans, and journalists who descend on Beijing for the Olympic Games this month, an intriguing game of digital cat and mouse is playing out behind the scenes. And it speaks volumes about just how conflicted a society China remains.
The source of contention is the Internet—the wild, wild Web, with its promise of unfettered access to real-time information from every corner of the planet. In the past two years, Internet usage in China has exploded. According to the research firm BDA China, at the end of March, the number of Internet users in China had climbed to 233 million people, surpassing even the United States. All this has taken place with the blessing of the Chinese government, which has actively encouraged Internet use as part of a shift to a more Western-style society.
But it's clear that there are limits on just how far they will allow their society to shift. China's government has developed what is, by all accounts, the world's most sophisticated censorship program. Government agencies with names like the Ministry of Information Industry and the State Council Information Office employ scores of programmers who work around the clock to block Chinese citizens' access to Internet content deemed dangerous or inappropriate.
Behind what has been dubbed "The Great Firewall of China," there are limits on where a user can roam. Google the word "persecution," for example, and a message pops up saying the page cannot be displayed. Or search for the number "89," and you'll find that content is blocked (presumably because it could relate to the Chinese government's massacre of students at a pro-democracy rally in Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989).
But the firewall is under siege. There are people both inside and outside China who are working tirelessly to subvert the government's censorship efforts. Dubbed "hacktivists"—a cross between hackers and activists—they're playing the part of the mouse to the Chinese government's cat, devising ever-more ingenious ways to slip past the government's censors. But, in true cat and mouse form, once the "hacktivists" poke a hole in the Great Firewall, the government moves quickly to plug it. And so it goes.
So far, the Chinese government has proved surprisingly effective in its efforts to control access to Internet content. One has to wonder, though, how long it can stay ahead of this game of cat and mouse. As history has shown time and again, once a society has tasted freedom, there's no turning back. It will never be satisfied until it has achieved full independence.
But in the end, what may undermine the censorship efforts is not so much "hacktivism" as plain old-fashioned greed. In recent years, the Chinese government has clearly signaled its intent to take its place among the world's economic superpowers—and sooner rather than later. Yet its own policies may stand in its way.
As most any business person will agree, in the global market of the 21st century, the unrestricted flow of information is as critical to success as the unrestricted flow of goods. By creating barriers to the flow of information, the Chinese government is creating barriers to global trade.
It may take time, but eventually the Chinese government will figure that out. It will discover that limits on information access are tantamount to limits on economic growth. It may even come to understand that succeeding at its censorship game only hurts its chances in a higher-stakes competition— the race for global economic power. The day that happens, we can expect the firewall to come a-tumbling down.