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We have conquered the Iron Curtain; Now we must defeat the Great Firewall

By Paul M. Weyrich
web posted February 25, 2002

Ever since the fall of the Soviet Union I have been asked literally hundreds of times an approximate of this question: "Do you think they could go back to the old repressive regime they had before Perestroika?" My answer has always been the same: "Absolutely not." This is not to say that Russia will develop into a Democratic Republic along the U.S. model. But it certainly will not revert to a repressive Communist state for one simple reason. The people now have access to the truth. The way that the Soviets kept control of their people was to control the flow of information to them. I recall meeting a burly general in Khabarovsk, a city in the Russian Far East, in 1993. He shook hands with me and said, "I wish the United States and your people only the best."

I thanked him and then he added, "Perhaps you don't understand the significance of what I just said. You see I am in charge of the military for this entire region. I was a loyal Communist. I used to get up every morning and think of the 10 ways I could help defeat the USA and the West. That was before I learned that I had been lied to all these years. I believed our leaders. I believed the leadership of the party. Now that I have access to alternative information I know what scoundrels I have been working for. Now I no longer wish our side to defeat your side. Now, as I said, I wish you only the best." I had the same conversation over and over again from Members of Parliament, from teachers in the universities, from religious leaders, from members of the media and from ordinary citizens. The reason the Soviet Union can't be reconstructed, even if the leadership wanted to do so, is precisely because Russia has granted access to information to all of its citizens. They could not put that genie back in the bottle. There are too many people who now have independent sources of information.

The internet plays a major role in all of this. Through the internet, Dr. James Billington, director of the Library of Congress, has given them access to virtually the entire library, including documents obtained from Soviet times. Of course, through the internet, Russians with computers can read virtually any newspaper in the world. Drive up and down streets even in poor neighborhoods and see the number of satellite dishes in the apartment complexes.

The Russians are pulling in television from Germany, Poland and elsewhere in Europe. They no longer just have Soviet-style propaganda to keep them informed. Out in Siberia, there is an independent cable system with independent reporters, paid for by subscription, which presents a whole different point of view than the government-controlled media. In the major cities there are so many newspapers it is hard to keep track of all of them. Almost all of them have editorial policies which are critical of the government. And Voice of America as well as Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe still serve the area.

In short, Russia will not go back to where she was because she is saturated with information, which has convinced a majority of her citizens that they have been lied to over a long period of time. They are enjoying having access to the truth, even though sometimes the truth hurts. The truth isn't always favorable to the USA, but in the long-run the truth serves all of us.

I mention all of this to illustrate exactly why China is such a threat to the United States and the West. For a time it appeared as if China was going to go the same route as Russia. Young people especially had access to all sorts of information via the internet. My former colleague, investigative reporter Ethan Gutmann, has a provocative article in the February 25th edition of the Weekly Standard entitled "Who lost China's Internet?" And subtitled, “Without U.S. assistance, it will remain a tool of the Beijing government, not a force for democracy."

After leaving NET, The Political Newstalk Network, Gutmann spent several years in China. What he describes in the Standard article is precisely how the government has built up systems, financed by Americans, which will deny information to Chinese citizens when they seek information from outside sources. Not only is such information denied to ordinary Chinese, but the government has the system wired to the point where it can track down and arrest anyone who attempts to put out pro-democracy information on the internet. They do so regularly. Unlike Russia, China moved fast enough so that it could put the genie back in the bottle. Enough of the population had not yet availed itself of outside information. It was possible to track down those who did and to take steps to control them.

Gutmann argues that the federal government has to get involved in a major way or the internet will not be a significant force in conveying information to the Chinese people. A pair of physicists at the University of Oregon, according to Gutmann, have developed a system which has a Proxy server called Triangle Boy. The Triangle refers to the Chinese user, to a fleet of servers outside of the Great Firewall which the Chinese proudly proclaim they have developed to keep information out of the country, and to a Mothership which the servers report to but which the Chinese government, according to Gutmann, cannot find. Tens of thousands of Chinese have subscribed to this service. It will be very hard for the government to find these people but if they do they will probably end up where 60 Catholic bishops now reside. President Bush gave a marvelous speech at a major university to the Chinese people during his latest visit there. Hopefully, the President will demonstrate what he means by freedom by funding lots of programs to find ways that the internet can penetrate the Great Firewall.

Only when millions of Chinese, like their Russian cousins, have free access to information will China cease being a threat to Taiwan, to the sub-Asian continent and to the USA. Money invested in systems to circumvent the Great Firewall will be money well spent indeed.

Paul Weyrich is president of the Free Congress Foundation.

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