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The War of the Internets

Thursday, July 2nd, 2009

So there you are. July 1st passed without any major incident and the famous Anonymous Netizens didn’t show up. I am as blocked as ever and the Nutty Nannies of China are still running loose on the web, unimpressed by the headless suit .

I cannot say it is a surprise, frankly the chances of anything significant happening were one in a wan*. As I said in a previous post, these anonymous Netizens are not Chinese, but Western, from the mostly American chan boards, in particular chan888 (no link here, I have enough trouble as it is with the GFW to get me the hackers as well). These guys surely had some Chinese to advise them, but the initialive looks entirely Western, and the style was very similar to their -quite succesful- attacks on Scientology.

There are at least 2 reasons why their attack on the Chinese censors was destined to be a failure: In the first place, China is not a website that you can hack, it is country, and pretty massive at that. You could manage to confuse the GFW for a while with some coordinated attacks, but that would not change the - mostly offline - internal censorship of Chinese websites, which is what really matters here.

Secondly, the kind of attacks that the Anonymous do are not applicable in China, because they are based on giving negative publicity to the victim. But this country is already such an accomplished expert in creating PR trouble for itself, and in the most prominent media in the World, that one occasional attack by hackers, no matter how succesful, would hardly make any difference.

The China Internet Isle

But there is one fundamental reason why these Western initiated internet attacks have no hope of succeding here. The internet is a very powerful tool of social mobilisation, but only through the voluntary participation of the netizens in one community. The power lies not on the web itself, nor on its pirates, but on the millions of users that get connected for a common cause.

Let me remind you here of that misunderstanding that got my blog blocked in the first place: A famous New York newspaper took me for a Chinese hero fighting for Liberty, and then the censors of China agreed with it. Following that glorious moment of Chinayouren, I got some fellow fighters offering all sorts of contributions to the cause, such as banners to hang on websites. You can see some in the comments here .

It became clear to me then the little awareness in the West of the significance of the Chinese internet. The Chinese internet is not only the single largest national community of netizens, it is also a largely isolated island, with very few connections with the outside World compared to its size.

Partly for language reasons, partly because of the GFW, but I guess mostly because of cultural differences, the Chinese live on a parallel dimension of the web. They don’t use the facebooks, or Youtubes, or Yahoo news, or IRC chats. They have their own means to communicate on the internet, and this largely excludes interaction with people outside China.

And that is where the problem comes. It is the same situation for a company seeking to advertise itself on the Chinese internet as for a social movement who tries to push its way here: you need to be inside the island to have any impact. You need to understand the Chinese and they need to be part of your idea, and only when the wans of Chinese feel that this movement belongs to them, only then the internet can become the most terrible of weapons.

So yes, I do think the internet has still its last word to say in China. But I am pretty sure that when this happens, it will be a Chinese initiative.

*I coined this the other day. Wan is 10,000 in Chinese. And yes, I find it hilarious.