Nailing the Jell-O14 min read

Chinese Democracy and the Great Firewall – James Griffiths


Li Hongkuan was a spammer extraordinaire. Beginning in 1997, he built up a database of hundreds of thousands of email addresses, collecting those available online or trading them with others in the same business. Particularly useful were university servers, which often had little to no security, allowing Li or one of his assistants to grab the email addresses of all the staff and students who ever signed up for an account.

That year, he launched his newsletter, Da Cankao, known in English as VIP Reference. Compiled by Li and a team of volunteers, Da Cankao collected articles that had been censored in China and translated sensitive stories from the foreign press before dumping them into the inboxes of thousands of unsuspecting users. By spamming people with the newsletter, it not only spread far and wide, but also gave recipients plausible deniability if they were found in possession of a copy. One exceedingly unwilling subscriber was Qing Gang, head of the Shanghai police computer security supervision department. In a spectacularly over-the-top interview with a US newspaper, Qing described the newsletter as “spiritual pollution.”

“If there was something you didn’t need, and I sent it to you by force, could you accept that?” he said. “Would you be disgusted or not?”

For those who received it willingly, Da Cankao could be revelatory, opening their eyes to a world of dissident thought and alternative sources of information they never knew existed. Zhao Jing, who would go on to become a famous dissident writer himself under the pen name Michael Anti, was 23 when he first received a copy of the newsletter, in 1998. He was living in Nanjing, a large but still somewhat provincial city in eastern China. “It was like a culture shock,” Zhao told me. “I thought, ‘Oh my god,’ all this news is very sensitive.” Before discovering Da Cankao, he knew almost nothing about Chinese politics, beyond what was in state media, which contained no critiques or debate. “Suddenly you see there’s this discussion going on. It really opened your mind.”

The name of the newsletter harkened back to the turmoil of Li’s childhood in the 1960s and 1970s. Classified reports had always been written for the country’s top leadership, filed in secret by state media reporters across the country, giving a critical view of goings-on that would never be permitted in the newspapers they normally filed for. Outside the privileged world of those who received the uncensored reports, they were known as the da cankao, or “big reference.” The nickname was derived from Cankao Xiaoxi, a newspaper collating foreign news reports that was available only to Party members, and known popularly as “little reference” (xiao cankao). During the Cultural Revolution, normal communication networks broke down, and the da cankao reports became one of the few remaining reliable sources of information. Tidbits would seep out to the general public through the children of senior officials, who would sneak a look at their parents’ briefings and tell their friends of the chaos spreading around the country.

For Li, the name was also a way to insult the old men in charge of the Party, who needed their reports printed out in extra-large type. “For my generation, whoever experienced the Tiananmen massacre, we all hated the government,” he told me.

Li had been in the square himself, hours before the tanks rolled in. An assistant professor at Beijing Medical University, he had been taking photographs on June 3 with a camera borrowed from a colleague. The mood among the protesters was tense and noisy. Many leaders of the movement and older intellectuals had already urged the students to vacate the square, to consolidate their victories and prepare for the next stage of the struggle, before the government moved to wipe them out completely. There were signs that such a decision was coming: Deng Xiaoping had declared martial law two weeks earlier, and throughout state television broadcast warnings on June 3 to stay off the streets, saying that troops would use “any and all means” to enforce order. Thousands of People’s Liberation Army troops were already at the outskirts of the city, and scuffles were breaking out between them and local residents. Concerned more for the safety of his colleague’s camera than his own person, Li reluctantly decided to leave the square and go home at around 9 p.m. Unbeknownst to him, as he moved away from the square, shots had already been fired in the western parts of the city, and the tanks were rumbling towards Tiananmen. He slept through the first parts of the massacre, and woke up to find the world had changed.

While he escaped the bullets, Li did not come out of the protests unscathed. Weeks before June 4, he had volunteered to go to his graduate school in Shanghai to help “spread the fire.” Li’s speech was recorded so that it could be passed on to other universities in the city, but after the protests ended, one of those tapes made it back to Beijing and to his employer. He was lucky, in that the school’s Party secretary was not much of a true believer; Li was dismissed from his teaching duties but allowed to keep his staff accommodation while he searched for another job. “There’s no way we can employ you with this material,” the Party secretary told him, gesturing to a transcript of his speech. “But you’re young and bright; you should go to America.”

Two years later, aged 28, Li did just that. He landed a visa for a research job at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. The Party had hoped to shuffle him out of the way, like so many other dissidents and independent thinkers who were encouraged (or forced) to go into exile. But freed from the watchful gaze of the authorities, and still seething with anger about Tiananmen, Li became far more of a problem for the authorities than he ever was in Beijing. In New York in the mid-1990s, he reconnected with other members of the student movement, volunteering his time and a burgeoning expertise in computers, which he had first become interested in a few years before. Li was particularly keen to find ways to get uncensored information into China, and worked with others to translate and publish stories about the country online. But dissident groups attract intense personalities, and their shared commitment to democracy could not paper over the many other ideological differences. Inevitably, there were disagreements, as members clashed over what should be published and what shouldn’t, splitting into rival factions and organizations. Eventually, Li did what so many others were doing and decided to start his own publication, free from the “suppression” not only of the authorities, but also of his fellow dissidents.

This could have been the start of a slide into irrelevance, but Li’s timing was impeccable, coming after a much hyped “year of the internet” in which the new technology had received breathless media coverage in China, massively expanding the number of people buying computers and getting online. Thousands had signed up for email addresses through universities and the handful of semi-private providers springing up at the time, and pro-democracy websites were beginning to be blocked en masse, making them impossible to read without going through a proxy service, details about which were hard to come by, and which also slowed down the already clunky late 1990s internet speeds to a crawl. On September 17, 1997, Li delivered the first issue of Da Cankao into thousands of inboxes across China.

To build up his database and help spread the newsletter – subscribers were encouraged not to forward issues of Da Cankao in order to avoid getting into trouble with the authorities – Li and his volunteers searched for email addresses wherever they could, including trading with other spammers. “I had a policy that if you give me 10,000 email addresses I’ll give you 10,000 as a swap,”  Li said. “People with an entrepreneurial spirit loved to get in touch with me.”

One of those entrepreneurs was Lin Hai, a baby-faced 30-year-old with deep-set eyes and a mop of thick, black hair. A born capitalist, he recognized before many in China the potential of the internet for making money. In the late 1990s, there were just over two million Chinese online, concentrated in major cities and on university campuses, but while the number of internet users was growing rapidly, the amount of businesses catering to them was limited. Lin founded a company in Shanghai offering basic web design and software-engineering services. With search technology still in its infancy, he advertised his products via email, and it was through this that he came into contact with Li Hongkuan.

It proved to be an unfortunate connection. On March 25, 1998, police barged down the door of the apartment Lin shared with his wife and young child and began ransacking it. They seized his computer, floppy disks, modem and other equipment. Lin Hai had inadvertently become China’s first internet dissident.

In a fast-tracked trial held behind closed doors, he was charged with “subversion of state power and the socialist system.” Even his wife, Xu Hong, was blocked from attending. In an emotional letter to the court, she said Lin had simply been providing public information by trading email addresses with Li and was not involved in the delivery of subversive materials. “If someone is killed with a knife, should you arrest the knife maker, or the murderer?” she wrote. Both she and Lin maintained throughout the process that he was a simple businessman, and unpolitical, although emails introduced as evidence in court suggested that he had a more than passing familiarity with the content of Da Cankao and may have sympathized with its pro-democracy message. Li said that whether Lin was explicitly political was beside the point; he saw Lin as another member of the Tiananmen generation, with the same “natural” loathing of the government as him.

Despite the best efforts of Lin’s lawyers, and his wife’s pleadings, the Shanghai No. 1 Intermediate People’s Court found Lin guilty after just four hours of deliberations, and sentenced him to two years in prison. The trial, which was covered widely in the international press, was indicative of much of what was to come, both in the authorities’ ruthlessness in cracking down on online activism, and the foreign media’s smug eye rolling at China’s parochial attempts to control the internet. A Wall Street Journal report from the time was typical:

China may be fighting a losing battle. While it blocks some websites, Chinese internet users have no trouble reading a variety of political views online… Pornography is also easily accessible. And a growing number of Chinese internet users maintain web-based email accounts that can’t be accessed by Chinese security organizations.

Within years, the term ‘Great Firewall,’ which had been coined by Wired magazine in 1997, was famous worldwide. Some Chinese even welcomed the advance of the censors. One internet café owner told reporters that an internet which allowed individuals “to do as they please, lets them go brazenly wherever they wish, is a hegemonist network that harms the rights of others.” The man, who put a banner reading “Information Industries of China Unite!” atop his business’s homepage, said the internet at the time was an “English hegemony” and needed to be challenged by “an exclusively Chinese-language network.”

On the morning of June 28, 1998, Wang Youcai entered the Civil Affairs Bureau in Hangzhou, the old imperial capital, a couple of hours southwest of Shanghai. A former Tiananmen student leader who was imprisoned for several years over his role in the protests, Wang was one of a number of pro-democracy activists who hoped to take advantage of a sudden relaxation of political suppression in the late 1990s, as China assumed control over the British colony of Hong Kong and sought to join the World Trade Organization (WTO). The so-called ‘Beijing Spring’ saw the release of pro-democracy icon Wei Jingsheng and the signing – though not ratification – of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. A state visit by US President Bill Clinton was thought to be the perfect time to push the boundaries even further, and so Wang and two others walked into the government building near Hangzhou’s famous West Lake and attempted to register, legally and openly, a new political organization: the China Democracy Party (CDP). As the stunned registrar was refusing to accept the registration and ushering them out of the building, the new party’s manifesto was posted online and sent out to the hundreds of thousands of Da Cankao subscribers around the country.

Wang was swiftly arrested and the CDP banned, but in the months that followed, other dissidents set up regional branches of the Party throughout the country, and continued to organize online. In November, members took it a step further and sought permission from the State Council to form a “national preparatory committee” ahead of a formal Party congress. This was too much for the authorities, and a crackdown was ordered. Dozens of CDP members were arrested, and in December 1998, Wang Youcai and two other leaders, Xu Wendi and Qin Yongmin, were imprisoned on charges of “endangering state security.” Wang would not be released until 2004. With characteristic disregard for foreign opinion, Premier Li Peng told a German newspaper matter-of-factly: “[I]f a group is designed to negate the leadership of the Communist Party, then it will not be allowed to exist.”

While some foreigners may have been put off, the jailing of Wang Youcai and subsequent crackdown on the CDP, which included intense censorship of the group’s materials online, did little to shake Washington’s confidence in China. In early 2000, the Clinton administration normalized trade relations with China, clearing the way for Beijing to join the WTO. The president and his supporters were confident not only about the benefits free trade would bring to the world, but that more open markets would also open up China politically. Speaking in Washington, Clinton hailed the new century, in which “liberty will be spread by cell phone and cable modem.” China, whose leaders he had allegedly denounced eight years before as the “butchers of Beijing,” was changing.

“In the past year, the number of internet addresses in China has more than quadrupled, from two million to nine million,” Clinton continued in his easy Arkansas drawl. “This year the number is expected to grow to over 20 million. When China joins the World Trade Organization, by 2005 it will eliminate tariffs on information technology products, making the tools of communication even cheaper, better and more widely available. We know how much the internet has changed America, and we are already an open society. Imagine how much it could change China.”

Clinton paused for applause. “Now there’s no question China has been trying to crack down on the internet – good luck,” he said, his eyebrows arched, to laughs from the crowd, as he neared the punchline. “That’s sort of like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall.”

In the years since Clinton’s speech, China’s censors have mostly proved him wrong. They have nailed the Jell-O to the wall more securely and easily than even the most hardened cynic would have imagined in 2000. Throughout this effort, though, they have faced intense opposition both within and from outside China. No group has proven the difficulties of instituting comprehensive censorship, more shaken both the censors and the Party, and inspired a greater crackdown than a collection of mostly middle-aged followers of a mystic from northern China who encouraged healthy living and breathing exercises. The effort to stamp them out online would see the Great Firewall built to new heights, and open up a new front in the war for China’s internet. ∎

This is an excerpt from The Great Firewall of China: How to Build and Control an Alternative Version of the Internet by James Griffiths (Zed Books, March 2019).
Header image: Artur Debat on Flickr.