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Chinese Scientists Speak Out Against the Great Firewall (Again)

Luo Fuhe, vice-chair of the country’s top political advisory body – the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) urged the government to improve the speed of overseas Internet access. Image from CPPCC's website (deleted)

Chinese scientists have periodically spoken out against the national web filtering system, often termed ‘the Great Firewall’, which blocks and censors web traffic from overseas websites. It damages research, they say.

But their voices have been dismissed — and deleted — again and again.

The latest criticism came from Luo Fuhe, vice-chair of the national advisory body, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC).

Ahead of the annual Two Sessions of the CPPCC and National People's Congress, Luo, who is also the vice chair of a minority political party under the control of the Chinese Communist Party, the China Association for Promoting Democracy, submitted a proposal urging the government to improve loading speeds for overseas websites. The proposal was based on a study that was conducted by his party.

A journalist from China.com followed the news and his report on Luo's statement was distributed via various news outlets in China. Within a few days, however, overseas media began to pick up the report, and reports on local media portals relating to Luo's proposal were swiftly taken down. Nevertheless, his proposal is still circulating on Chinese social media and has overwhelmingly been backed by Chinese netizens.

In the original news report, Luo criticized the adverse effect on economic and scientific development reaped by slow overseas Internet connections:

目前在我国境内访问境外网站的速度有愈加缓慢的趋势,这将给我国的经济社会发展和科学研究等方面造成极大的影响,需要引起高度关注,应通过增加国际网络出口宽带及设置境外网站访问权限负面清单等方式提高境外网站访问速度,满足开放发展的需要。

Currently our country's internet connections to overseas websites are getting slower and slower. This affects our economic and social development adversely, as well as our scientific research. It needs public attention. We should improve infrastructure and increase the number of exit nodes to the international network. Moreover, the introduction of a “black-list” system will also increase the speed. This will cater to the needs of open development.

In the past few years, the Great Firewall has been upgraded and all traffic from overseas websites are subjected to blocking and filtering. Moreover, secure Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTPS) has become a common practice for overseas websites. Now, even when an encrypted website is not blocked in mainland China, data transfer is slowed down, disrupted or even suspended as the encrypted data passes through the Chinese filter.

Luo illustrates the problem of network speed in his proposal:

在国内访问联合国粮农组织或很多国外大学网站速度很慢,每打开一个网页至少需要10-20秒的时间,有的国外大学网站需要半小时以上的时间才能打开…有些研究人员靠买翻墙软件到域外去检索,完成自己的科研任务,这个不正常。

When visiting the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations or many other overseas university websites, it takes at least 10-20 second to access a page. Sometimes it takes more than half an hour to access some university websites…some researchers have to buy circumvention tools in order to access information for their scientific research. This is so abnormal.

Luo quoted from CAPD's study:

有的留学生回国探亲期间就因无法打开自己在国外就读的大学网站而无法完成相关表格的网上填报;有的在华工作的专家学者需要利用周末或假期去香港等地访问境外网站查询所需研究资料。

There are some cases in which overseas Chinese students, having returned home from holiday, could not access their university websites and failed to submit their papers online. There are also cases in which experts and academics who work in China have to spend their weekend or holiday in Hong Kong or other countries just to get access to overseas websites for their research work.

Luo's proposal consisted of three suggestions:

  • Improve network infrastructure by constructing undersea cables to increase connection speed;
  • Encourage Internet service providers to improve network speeds for accessing overseas websites;
  • Adopt black listing of webpages that violate relevant laws and block specific pages rather than censoring all web content from overseas.

This is not the first time a Chinese scientist has criticized the Great Firewall for holding back research.

On May 30, 2016, after Chinese President Xi Jinping urged scientists to turn China into a strong country with leading technological development during the country's National Science and Technology Conference, an old scientist from the Academy of Science asked Xi to grant scientists access to overseas websites.

Gong Wenxiang, an e-commerce businessman, revealed on Weibo two days after the conference that after Xi's speech, a scientist from the floor said:

屏蔽国外互联网可以,但我们搞科学研究的,是否可以网开一面,让我们可以通过互联网看国外的科技发展动态?…我们保证不看海外的反动消息。

It is Okay to block overseas websites, but for scientists and researchers, is it possible to give us access to the Internet and let us see what the latest developments in other countries are… we guarantee that we will not read politically sensitive content!

Xi Jinping urged Chinese scientists to help China to lead the world in the development of technology.

Then, an older scientist raised a question:

嚴格的網路監管,對搞科研的人來講,損失是非常大的。科研工作者登陸國外的一些網站,可以了解很多科技先進國家正在做什麼,把科研成果轉化到了什麼地步。因此,是不是可以給搞科研的人一點特殊的方便?

Control over the Internet is too strict and it affects scientists. Accessing overseas websites can help scientists to learn more about how advanced countries have converted knowledge from their scientific findings into technological products. Is it possible to grant special access for scientists and researchers [to overseas websites]?

According to China Science Magazine's report, after this speech, the conference hall was silent for a second before loud applause broke out.

Another scientist sitting next to the first speaker took the microphone and appeared to counter Xi's speech:

在沒有比較和認識的情況下,中國要想走在世界科技發展的前面,領先世界,是非常困難的。

Without comparisons with and knowledge of others, it will be very difficult for China to lead the world in global technological development.

A fourth scientist echoed:

如果这个问题解决了,这次会议就相当成功了!

If this problem could be solved, it would be an achievement of this conference!

Later, about 78 scientists from the China Academy of Science submitted a joint statement to Xi urging the authorities to loosen control over the web and grant them expanded access.

The proposal put forward by Luo Fuhe is thereby not one man speaking out, but rather another coordinated effort by scientists who are pushing the authorities to grant access to overseas Internet.

The debate over Internet management has been fierce in China. Last year in March, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) revised its Internet Domain Name Management Rules and posted a draft online for discussion over the space of a month. Implementing these rules would imply a “white-listing” of the network through a domestic registration system, which means that by default, all sites not registered in China will be inaccessible unless they are on the government's “white list”.

Due to strong opposition, the legislation was halted until January 2017 when state news outlet Xinhua suddenly reported that the management rule would soon be launched.

Now that the scientists have spoken out again and won broad public support in the process, the risk of disgruntling the wider Internet-using community by implementing the new rules is something authorities should take into account.

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