China knows that the Olympic Games will bring great scrutiny this summer, and no more so than when the athletes of the world arrive. Thousands of Westerners will expect to have the same level of communications available to them, and the Beijing government will have to decide whether to suspend its tight control over Internet access. Unlike their citizens, these Western athletes, reporters, and tourists will leave China and tell their stories:
China is debating whether to relax control of the Internet during the Olympics, allowing access to banned websites such as the BBC, a spokeswoman for the organising committee said Tuesday.
Plans to tear down the so-called Great Firewall of China were being debated and a decision was expected soon, said Wang Hui, head of media relations for the organising committee.
“We are studying this now based on suggestions of some journalists and a study of the experiences of other countries, so during the Olympics there may be some changes,” she said. “This is one of the ways the Olympics may promote progress in China.”
China tightly polices cyberspace and Chinese web surfers see a stripped-down version of the Internet minus some news sites such as the BBC and those belonging to human rights groups or any other sites judged subversive by the country’s communist rulers.
The firewall does more than just block the BBC. China uses it to track down subversives who believe in freedom and liberty. Unfortunately, some Western companies assist China in this regard — the same Western companies that helped build the Great Firewall. Google created a separate version of its database for China, only without all of those nasty websites that promote dangerous ideas like democracy and freedom of speech — you know, the ideas that helped create Google in the first place. Yahoo has collaborated with Chinese authorities to prosecute journalists who have bravely tried to promote freedom.
Now, China wants to present itself as a happy nation of people who simply choose to live in ignorance of liberty. It can’t allow Westerners visiting for the next few weeks get 404s when attempting to hit the BBC website and other dangerous sources of real information about the world. They may — may — have to lower the shields and allow access to the entire Internet for the first time in order to pull off that little masquerade. That will allow them to win a propaganda coup, with Olympics participants and tourists going back to their home countries and telling everyone how remarkably open China has become.
It might give a window for Chinese activists to report other aspects of China’s rule to the world as well. Of course, with a little more Western help, Beijing will be able to track them down again — and maybe the kind and helpful Western companies that helped build the Great Firewall can help create the Tiny Firewall Portal that will keep the rest of the nation locked down during the Games.