Transforming Closed Societies by Freeing the Internet

December 2, 2009 Updated: October 1, 2015
A laptop computer screen in Beijing shows the homepage of, 26 January 2006, after Google agreed to censor websites and content banned by the Beijing regime. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)
A laptop computer screen in Beijing shows the homepage of, 26 January 2006, after Google agreed to censor websites and content banned by the Beijing regime. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

A psychiatrist might describe China’s society as suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, the psychological condition in which the victims of abduction develop an emotional bond with their abductors.

Shiyu Zhou, Ph.D., believes the Global Internet Freedom Consortium (GIF) has a remedy for China’s trauma, one that will also benefit the societies of closed, totalitarian states around the world: free access to information through the Internet. But providing this remedy requires money, which depends on the U.S. government taking action.

GIF consists of a small team of Chinese-American computer scientists and engineers, including Zhou. Like Zhou, many of those in GIF were among the students on Tiananmen Square during the 1989 Massacre. In the aftermath of the massacre, they saw how the Chinese state, as Zhou said in testimony in October before the U.S. Helsinki Commission, “began to rewrite history and distort the truth.”

The members of GIF were first brought together because they all practice Falun Gong (a meditation practice whose teachings are based on the principles of truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance). In 1999, when the Chinese regime banned Falun Gong, they had an experience similar to that of 1989. On both occasions, Zhou says they witnessed how the state-controlled media “confounds right with wrong, incites hatred, and institutionalizes ignorance.”

The psychological hold the Chinese regime has on the Chinese people depends on four factors: the fear of death; a sense of hopelessness (such as gripped the Chinese people after the democracy movement was put down in 1989); the provision of certain benefits or kindnesses (such as the improved living conditions that have followed upon the opening up of the Chinese economy); and the control of information. The control of information is critical to the ability to manipulate the Chinese people’s thoughts and emotions.

Most people today in China believe that it was the army of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that led the fight against the Japanese invasion of China, when in fact the nationalist Kuomintang army did so. They have been taught that the United States started the Korean War and aimed to invade China after conquering North Korea.

The pro-democracy students are said to have been responsible for the Tiananmen Massacre. Western countries led by the United States are trying to impede China’s peaceful rise, and so on.

Of course, the CCP’s propagandists know none of these claims is true, but they have worked to make the Chinese people believe in them so that the CCP will be able to manipulate the people as the need arises.

Great Firewall

While controlling information gives the Chinese regime the key to controlling the Chinese people, the provision of free and accurate information undoes that control. For this reason, the Internet threatens the Chinese regime’s strategy of thought control, a threat the Chinese authorities have done their best to confront by erecting a great firewall around China.

According to Zhou, “Tens of thousands of cyber police engage in monitoring and surveillance of Internet users, some of whom end up in prison for voicing their opinions online. China’s ‘Golden Shield’ initiative—the deployment of censorship technologies that have been developed with the help of Western corporations like Cisco—blocks many Web sites completely, and filters out topics deemed too politically sensitive by the ruling party.”

Zhou and his colleagues in GIF have volunteered their time, money, and talent to develop a series of software programs—most notably Freegate and Ultrasurf—that enable users to break through China’s great firewall. The software provides users with encrypted connections to secure proxy servers around the world. It constantly switches the IP addresses of the servers at the rate of up to 10,000 times per hour in ways that make it impossible for censors to block effectively.

Begun to provide freedom of information first of all to the people of China, the work of GIF is now benefiting people in closed societies around the world. Today an estimated 90 percent of anti-censorship traffic globally goes through GIF’s servers.

During the Saffron Revolution in Burma in late August 2007, there was a threefold increase in the average daily traffic from Burma. Many Burmese used the GIF system to post photos and videos of the crackdown to outside blogs and Web sites. The Burmese government had to entirely shut down the Internet to stop the outflow of information about the suppression.

Before the Beijing Olympics, when uprisings in Tibet in March 2008 led to thousands of arrests and large-scale human rights abuses, the GIF‘s servers traffic from that region increased by over 400 percent.

During the Iranian elections this past June, the traffic from Iran increased by nearly 600 percent. On Saturday, June 20, an estimated over one million Iranians used GIF system to visit previously censored Web sites such as Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, and Google. The Iranian users posted videos, photos, and messages about the bloody crackdown.

Information, Freedom, and Money

Zhou commented before the Helsinki Commission on the implications of providing Internet freedom, “Imagine what it would mean, for instance, if the Pope were able to conduct a web-based service with half a million House Church Catholics in China. Imagine if the president of the United States could hold interactive town hall meetings with hundreds of thousands of Iranian students, or for Burmese, Syrians, Cubans, Tibetans, or others to have full, free and real-time ability to communicate with each other and with supporters throughout the world.

“Imagine, if you will, how much safer the world could be, how much better we could understand each other, and how quickly authoritarianism and repression would collapse when confronted with an engaged, educated, and free citizenry.”

Congress has been trying to enable GIF to realize the dream that Zhou has articulated. A bipartisan coalition that includes Sens. Arlen Specter (D-Pa) and Sam Brownback (R-Kan) and Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va) has included a total of $20 million in the past two State Department budgets with $30 million more pending in the Senate's version of the 2010 budget.

But the State Department has not given the money appropriated by Congress to GIF. According to a Nov. 20 report in the Washington Post, the advocates for GIF believe that State has withheld the money because GIF’s members are Falun Gong practitioners. And, according to the Post, “State is fearful of Beijing's reaction to any U.S. support for it.”

With the support of 30 million dollars, GIF could, within months, increase its current user capacity from 1.5 million people per day up to 50 million per day, and greatly enhance the rate at which its technology switches users’ IP addresses, making the ability to breach the firewall more effective. Furthermore, every dollar GIF spends on the anti-censorship technologies could cost repressive governments hundreds or even thousands of dollars to block, making countering GIF’s efforts prohibitively expensive.

When President Obama visited China, the one question he was asked at his town hall meeting in Shanghai that did not come from students pre-selected by the Chinese regime came via the Internet to the U.S. Embassy. U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman asked on behalf of an anonymous Chinese, “In a country with 350 million Internet users and 60 million bloggers, do you know of the firewall? Should we be able to use Twitter freely?”

Obama made clear that he believed free access to the Internet by the Chinese people was actually good for China. If the State Department was listening, perhaps GIF will be given the means to try to tear down China’s great firewall, and all of the other Internet walls being erected around the world, for good.