How China’s Great Firewall hurts China’s tech industry

WJA on the WallWhile visiting China to speak at an arts festival last month, I also filed a GigaOM story on HiPiHi, a start-up founded by one of the country’s top Internet entrepreneurs. Thanks to Om’s reputation, the article is easily the highest profile coverage yet for the upcoming “Chinese Second Life”, sure to be of great interest to investors and tech executives, most especially in China.

After it ran, however, I noticed one small problem with the piece. It can’t even be accessed in China.

I first noticed this in the business office of a hotel atop the legendary Huangshan Mountains. The story, along with all of GigaOM, was being blocked by The Great Firewall. Not only GigaOM, as it turns out, but apparently every WordPress-driven blog has been banned in China starting in 2005. So if you’re in Shanghai, you can’t read Scobleizer. You can’t even visit I Can Has Cheezburger, for God’s sake. (Im in ur Interwebs, censoring ur LOLcats.)

Since I couldn’t post in China, I had to e-mail the article out of the country as a Word doc so Om and Carolyn could publish it — an extra hit to GigaOM’s resources directly attributable to the Chinese government. But even if I wrote the HiPiHi story on a non-prohibited blog system (I could access TypePad from China just fine) it would have gotten blocked anyhow, because it briefly mentioned the Falun Gong, China’s brutally repressed meditation sect.

I was expecting some level of political censorship when I went there, of course. At times, it’s pathetically obvious and inept. While watching a hotel broadcast of CNN International, for example, the anchorwoman mentioned an upcoming story on a Chinese dissident — and seconds later, the channel went black. The next night, CNN and all other Western channels had been replaced by CCTV (China State TV) programming. Other times, it’s more insidious. While reading Yahoo! News in the lobby of our Beijing hotel, my girlfriend Jennifer noticed that one of Yahoo’s top stories was about AIDS activists in China. But before she could even click on the link, the page auto-refreshed, and after it reloaded, the story was gone.

But the thing is, when interviewing HiPiHi’s execs, I didn’t even pursue the subject of Falun Gong for political reasons. It was first broached by Jen, who was there to take photos, but I was already planning to pose the question as an essential part of my business coverage. Since HiPiHi is competing with Second Life and other upcoming user-created metaverses, the issue of just what opinions its users can express is a basic matter of market distinction. And so now, a couple dozen high-tech/venture funding blogs are discussing the GigaOM article — but none, as far as I can tell, are based in China. Thanks to their own government, which claims to promote the nation’s burgeoning technology sector, the Chinese digerati are simply kept out of that conversation.

Much has been written about how Internet censorship, actively abetted by Yahoo! (YHOO), Google (GOOG), and other top companies in the tech industry, is bad for the Chinese people. Less has been said about how it’s bad for the tech industry itself. As my HiPiHi experience suggests, it prevents investors and executives in the country from getting the full range of information they need to discuss and make good decisions in a transparent and timely matter. (A couple Net-savvy Chinese friends were able to read the article, they told me later — but only after they’d run it through the EFF’s indispensable firewall breaker. And would they have even found it, had they not already known what to look for?) As a consequence, China’s participation in the global high tech economy is crippled and incomplete, and in any partnership with the free world, threatens to hobble us all.

At the same time, this also gives me great optimism that the Great Firewall is ultimately doomed. (Even if the government exploits U.S. accusations of hacking as a “national security” rationale to thicken it even further.) China continues to be rocked by disastrous trade scandals that might have been prevented, had their corporations and investors gotten fuller access to outside reports of internal corruption and mismanagement. For all the heroic efforts of Chinese free speech dissidents (ably reported by Rebecca MacKinnon and others), it may be China’s business people who push forward the final, irresistible demand: To make our country the global power it’s destined to be, the Wall must finally come down.

Photo of author on actual Great Wall by Jennifer Schlegel