China’s Great Internet Wall is Cracking

China has been pretty successful at censoring information online and selecting what information circulates into the public. But Stewart Brand’s famous adage “information wants to be free” is starting to exert itself in China—and like all natural laws, government officials are finding it difficult to turn back the tide of information.

China's Great Internet Wall is Cracking

Yesterday the New York Times reported that a gruesome photo of a murdered man has become “the latest Internet sensation in China.” Qian Yunhui, 53, lead his town in a protest against the Chinese government, which awarded a corporation most of the town’s land in a no-bid government contract, while the town’s residents were denied any compensation for the land grab.

A witness observed officials hold Mr. Qian down. “One of the men waved his hand, and a truck then drove slowly over Mr. Qian, the reports said.”

The government denies any involvement, saying Mr. Qian was simply hit by a car. However, the government detained Mr. Qian’s family after the incident, tried to discredit the witness, accusing him of being a drug dealer, and—perhaps most tellingly—tried to censor sites publishing the picture of Mr. Qian crushed under the truck to prevent it from circulating. The Times reports:

The Chinese government goes to great lengths to block servers here from accessing information it deems harmful to political stability, but censors have apparently failed to keep up with the proliferation of blog posts related to Mr. Qian. Once the information had spread, higher authorities apparently found it necessary to show the public they were looking into the matter — officials from the nearby city of Wenzhou ordered police officers from there to go to Yueqing to assist the investigation, Xinhua reported.

It’s little wonder that China doesn’t allow Facebook inside the country—propagating social awareness is one of the hallmark functions of social networks. The more awareness, the less power governments have to control and suppress societies, and the more accountability societies demand. Initially Facebook was allowed with strict controls, but after progressive steps were taken to limit communication further within the network, it was eventually shut down nationwide.

It’s also little wonder that Mark Zuckerberg’s recent trip to China was a tentative ice-breaker with some of the country’s internet personalities, rather than a full-court press to re-open the service in China. Zuckerberg’s stated mission, according to his Facebook page: “I’m trying to make the world a more open place by helping people connect and share.” China is about as far from this utopian end as one could imagine, and one imagines that steps along the way will be incremental when they occur at all.

But part of the Internet’s beauty is that its multilateral nature minimizes the importance of individual web Goliaths like Zuckerberg and makes the innumerable small-time web publishers and blogs just as powerful when they operate in tandem. It might be easy to block one company like Facbeook, but to stop the photo of the murdered Mr. Qian from circulating and to stanch the outrage building around it, China would have had to shut down the internet altogether inside its country.

Information wants to be free the same way water wants to flow downhill—it’s a human law that mirrors a natural law with its force of strenth. You may accuse Facebook of being hypocritical—if its mission is indeed to make the wold a more open place—for anti-openness practices like blocking the pro-WikiLeaks grassroots organization Operation Payback. But as long as there are people with internet connections and will power, information will find a way to leak.

So what does this mean for China in the future? Try as one might, the odds of being a closed society that regulates information are looking slimmer every day. The newest internet outrage around the murder of Mr. Qian shows that free speech is more a human passion than an American passion, and more a natural human drive than a ‘privilege’ doled out by governments. The next decade in China’s increasingly information-based society may look markedly different from the last, regardless of its governments best efforts to resist the change.