The father of the Great Firewall of China (GFW) has signed up to six virtual private networks (VPNs) that he uses to access some of the websites he had originally helped block.
“I have six VPNs on my home computer,” says Fang Binxing, 50, president of the Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications. “But I only try them to test which side wins: the GFW or the VPN.
“I’m not interested in reading messy information like some of that anti-government stuff.”
There’s a popular joke circulating the Chinese mainland about Mark Zuckerberg’s surprise visit to Beijing around Christmas last year: The frustrated Facebook president is said to have pleaded with local Chinese entrepreneurs to show him how to beat the Great Firewall.
“Ever since I landed here in China I can’t log onto my Facebook account!” he tells them.
The joke might not be real, but the Great Firewall of China is very much alive, blocking the world’s most popular websites including YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and WikiLeaks.
Fang’s handiwork brought down on him an intense barrage of online criticism in December when he opened a microblog on Sina.com.
Within three hours, nearly 10,000 Web users left messages for the father of the Great Firewall. Few were complimentary.
Sacrifice for the country
As a self-described “scholar,” Fang says he was only doing the right thing, and anyway, sticks and stones.
He confirms he was head designer for key parts of the Great Firewall reportedly launched in 1998 that came online about 2003.
Fang shut down his microblog account after a few days and has kept mum about the incident until now.
“I regard the dirty abuse as a sacrifice for my country,” Fang says. “They can’t get what they want so they need to blame someone emotionally: like if you fail to get a US visa and you slag off the US visa official afterwards.”
This massive accumulation of sarcastic and ugly abuse of Fang all stemmed from his role in creating a technology that filters controversial keywords and blocks access to websites deemed sensitive.
Fang refuses to reveal how the Great Firewall works. Crossing hands over chest, he says, “It’s confidential.”
As to the future of his creation, that’s not up to him, Fang says.
“My design was chosen in the end because my project was the most excellent,” he says with a big, tight smile, then pauses. “The country urgently needed such a system at that time.”
The year 1998 was a turning point for the development of the Internet in China, says Zhang Zhi’an, associate professor of the journalism school at Fudan University in Shanghai.
It was when portals Sina. com and Sohu.com first appeared and the number of Chinese mainland Web users hit 1 million. It was also when the government began paying serious attention to the Internet, he says.
“Building the Great Firewall was a natural reaction to something newborn and unknown,” Zhang says.
The father of the Great Firewall doesn’t avoid defending the momentous Chinese mainland decision to monitor the flow of information on the Internet.
Such a firewall is a “common phenomenon around the world,” he argues, and nor is China alone in monitoring and controlling the Internet.
“As far as I know, about 180 countries including South Korea and the US monitor the Internet as well.”
He avoids all discussion of the relative quantity and qualities of overseas censorship when compared to his own unique creation.
Some foreign countries – even developed countries – ban access to websites when content violates their laws, such as neo-Nazi information blocked by Germany.
What irks many Chinese online users is simply being unable to access such apparently harmless fare as Facebook or YouTube.
Social networking tools are reportedly not just designed to entertain. Asked what would happen next after political upheavals rocked Tunisia and Egypt, Wael Ghonim, one of the individuals responsible for toppling the Mubarak regime replied, “Ask Facebook.”
Fully aware of the political influence of the Internet, the US has stepped up its efforts to research online penetration tools and exert pressure on foreign governments such as China.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a speech on Tuesday that the US administration would spend $25 million this year helping online users get around such curbs as the Great Firewall of China to achieve “absolute freedom” of Internet information flow.
Asked to comment on Clinton’s speech earlier this week, Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu Thursday repeated previous statements that online users in China enjoy freedom of speech “in accordance with the law.”
“China objects to any country’s interference with China’s internal affairs under the banner of Internet freedom.”
Fudan University professor Zhang Zhian notes that during the last decade, China’s Internet freedom has developed a lot in terms of Web user awareness and freedom of speech.
“The change has been huge,” he says. “China’s Internet is still in the process of development.
“We’ll listen to foreign countries’ opinions on the development of China’s Internet, but we should have our own timetable.
“The process takes time and we should be patient and rational.”
Fang concedes his Great Firewall doesn’t do a great job of distinguishing between good and evil information. If a website contains sensitive words, the firewall often simply blocks everything “due to the limitations of the technology,” he says, expecting it would become more sophisticated in the future.
“The firewall monitors them and blocks them all,” he says. “It’s like when passengers aren’t allowed to take water aboard an airplane because our security gates aren’t good enough to differentiate between water and nitroglycerin.”
Before he speaks, the GFW’s father always pauses a few seconds and then when he talks, adopts a measured tone and a considered pace.
Calls for a more open information flow represent a soft power threat to China from foreign forces, Fang asserts.
“Some countries hope North Korea will open up its Internet,” he says. “But if it really did so, other countries would get the upper hand.”
When US President Barack Obama visited Shanghai, he talked about the importance of a more open Internet with Chinese students.
Some analysts perceive freedom of speech as expanding on the Chinese mainland in recent years via the Internet, while others argue that the Great Firewall is as belligerent as ever.
With more than 450 million Internet users, China now has the largest national online population in the world.
It’s an everlasting war between the GFW and VPNs, Fang says.
“So far, the GFW is lagging behind and still needs improvement,” he says.
The situation is better described as traffic control, Fang says.
“Drivers just obey the rules and so citizens should just play with what they have.”
About Fang Binxing
1960 Born in Harbin, capital of Helongjiang Province in northeastern China
1977 One of 273,000 students out of 5.7 million candidates nationwide to attend university after Deng Xiaoping gives the nod to resumption of university entrance examinations
1978-1989 Earns bachelor’s, master’s and PhD degrees of computer science at the Harbin Institute of Technology
1984-1999 Teaches at Harbin Institute of Technology
1999 Starts work at National Computer Network Emergency Response Technical Team/ Coordination Center of China as deputy chief engineer
2000-2007 Appointed chief engineer and director of the center
2001 Awarded special allowance by the State Council
2001 Earns “advanced individual” award from Ministry of Public Security, Ministry of Publicity, Organization Department of Central Committee of Communist Party of China, Commission of Politics and Law of the Communist Party of China Central Committee, Ministry of Civil Affairs and Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security
2005 Selected as academician at Chinese Academy of Engineering
2006 Wins “excellent worker of science and technology innovation of information industry” award from Ministry of Industry and Information Technology
2007 Works as information security special advisor to Ministry of Public Security
2007 Works as distinguished professor at National University of Defense Technology
December 2007 Appointed dean of Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications