Last week, the big Internet talking point in China was an incident involving a student hurling shoes at Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications Principal Fang Binxing as he was delivering a speech at Wuhan University.
Fang is known as the Father of the Great Firewall, and is understood to have been instrumental in the creation and implementation of the technology behind China’s tough Internet restrictions. As a result, the student who threw the shoes was quickly hailed by netizens as a hero of Internet freedom in China.
Of course, as the authorities moved quickly to quash discussion of the incident, there are several versions of what happened. However, one colleague of mine who has followed events closely gave me this version of events:
On 19 May, Fang visited Wuhan University under tight security. While he was delivering a speech, a student known as an active Tweeter threw two shoes at Fang, one of which struck him. The student later Tweeted that he not only wanted to throw shoes, but also an egg. In fact, I’m told that he tried to do so after Fang alighted from his car, but the egg missed its target.
Despite the official efforts to stifle discussion, other students managed to get some information out about the incident. The student who threw the shoes apparently left the building barefoot, with his peers left behind taking pictures of the shoes involved. After it happened, several police cars are said to have arrived, and the vice president of Wuhan University is also believed to have rushed to the scene to restore order.
The student who threw the shoes posted on Twitter that police were looking for him, but he added that he wasn’t worried, and called on the world to exert more pressure on Fang for the restrictions he helped impose.
Although Fang is introduced on his official home page as a leading scientist from the Chinese Academy of Engineering, and the chairman of China Network and Information Security Committee, many netizens have expressed discomfort with his ‘research’ fields, accusing him of engaging in politics and not technology.
Fang has openly voiced pleasure at his nickname of Great Firewall father, and has said that the scale of the country’s internet censorship network should actually be boosted. He launched his own micro-blog last year, but it soon came under attack from netizens and hasn’t been updated since.
My personal experience is that network controls have become more stringent, especially with China having established numerous specialized agencies to control the Web. Previously, some sensitive sites could still be accessed through proxy servers and virtual private networks, but this is becoming increasingly difficult.
This implies that China’s Internet censorship technology is becoming more sophisticated, and that the government’s wish to maintain domestic stability is becoming more pronounced. Clearly, China’s desire to prevent its citizens being exposed to alternative views is getting stronger.
Still, the shoe throwing incident underscores something else—that shutting the country off from the outside world won’t bring stability, but will instead foster more severe social divides and deeper conflict.