“Back in January 2010, Secretary of State Clinton gave a pay-any-price, bear-any-burden address calling for the liberation of the global Internet. The price Washington was willing to pay? It promised $50 million to groups developing “new tools that enable citizens to exercise their rights of free expression by circumventing politically motivated censorship.” The burden it would have to bear? The only group that has actually pulled this off is named Falun Gong.”
With names like FreeGate, UltraSurf, and Dynaweb, small cells of practitioners, operating out of offices in northern California and living rooms in North Carolina, began the process of climbing over the great Chinese firewall and forging a permanent Internet connection to China from the West. In 2006, as it became clear that Falun Gong was no longer playing for stalemate, the North American systems administrator of Falun Gong was rolled into a carpet, beaten, and left bleeding in his suburban Atlanta home by Chinese hit men. That same year, practitioners formed the Global Internet Freedom Consortium. A few years later they posted an intro page written in Farsi and—well, you know the rest [the system was used by Iranian protesters to bypass their government’s shutdown of the internet in 2009].
After Liang’s death, the State Department balked at actually funding his Internet successors. Instead, Internews, essentially a media-training NGO, and the well-established research organization Freedom House got most of the money; thus were rewarded the dual principles of political safety and utter irrelevance to the task at hand. It’s even possible that the State Department’s original stated goal of liberating the Chinese Internet was just a feint to try to get the Chinese to negotiate an end to their own serial hacking attacks on systems in the West.
The Hollywood ending is canceled at this time for lack of investment. Yet the story may not be quite over. We had an election. The new House leadership claims to be principled. There is a chance they will find their way to the mountain. Perhaps someday they will even summon up the guts to climb it.
Ethan Gutmann, an adjunct fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, thanks Leeshai Lemish for research and translation and the Earhart Foundation, the Peder Wallenberg family, and the National Endowment for Democracy for research support.