A petition asking not to issue US visa to China’s censors or others “blocking people on the internet” made sociologist Tricia Wang angry, very angry. In AlJazeera the explains why closing the borders in the name of openness is not a good idea.
I am shocked that someone from the US State Department is circulating this petition, listing their affiliation, and making it appear as if the US State Department approved the petition. This person forwarded it to the listserv without a disclaimer that circulation does not suggest US government’s endorsement. This person also pointed out that the petition needs 92,204 more signatures to reach its goal. While this person did not explicitly endorse the petition, these actions suggest endorsement.
But even more troubling than a semi-official circulation is the idea that we should be denying people the opportunity to enter the US because they are associated with censorship.
How do we even define someone as a person “who help(s) internet censorship” and is a “builder of the Great Firewall”? Fang Binxing is the architect of China’s extensive censorship network, widely known as the “Father of China’s Great Firewall”. This petition would deny him entry into the US.
But Fang Binxing is only one person who has become the public face of censorship. The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) oversees and implements filtering software. Would anyone associated with the MIIT be banned from coming into the US?
I spent a summer as a National Science Foundation Fellow doing ethnographic fieldwork at CNNIC in Beijing. The people who oversaw CNNIC relished the chances they had to go to conferences outside of China. Conferences provided CNNIC officials an important source of firsthand information and experience of the world beyond China. The MIIT oversees the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC). Often referred to as the equivalent of the US’ FCC, CNNIC manages administrative affairs such as domain registry and anti-phishing. CNNIC also has a research arm that is similar to the Pew Internet Research Center, producing statistical reports about the Chinese internet that researchers and journalists often cite.
One of the most important things I learned from my time at CNNIC is that these people whom we call “censors” are much more aware of the world than we in the West often portray them to be. This should inform policy decisions to maintain open exchanges with officials who oversee the Chinese internet.
This petition would deny all CNNIC researchers and officials the opportunity to come to the US for conferences and events. Such a petition is backwards. We should be encouraging Fang Binxing to come to the US. He should witness what a society with limited censorship looks like and be a part of the discussions about internet freedom at internet governance conferences.
China’s internet companies are looking increasingly outside their borders and go global. At the China Weekly Hangout Steven Millward of TechinAsia and Fons Tuinstra discussed in November 2012 their global aspirations.