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When Does a Barrier Become a Destination?


Coming off another Great Wall visit, I am again pondering the paradox of the wall a paradox which is true of both the ancient one as well as the more recently constructed one.

Erected to keep out foreign invaders, the Great Wall has today become a magnet for foreign visitors from around the globe. From the rows of souvenir shops lining the path up to the wall to the shiny black cars bearing foreign dignitaries as they make their obligatory pilgrimage, everything about the wall today says "welcome," not "keep out." What was meant as a barrier is now a destination.

More recently the Great Wall has emerged as a metaphor for the efforts of China's "internet police" to keep out unwanted online content. The "Great Firewall of China," as it is often called, comprises an elaborate network of filters coupled with an army of thousands of censors who patrol local websites, chat rooms, and micro blogs looking for anything the Party might find objectionable. Like the original Great Wall, this firewall has been erected at considerable cost, both in terms of dollars and human labor.

Just as the Great Wall has paradoxically become a prime destination for visitors to China, so the "Great Firewell" has become a magnet for China watchers seeking to discern the limits of the regime's toleration of freedom of expression. Rather than create a barrier between China and the outside world, this wall has inadvertently stimulated greater interaction across China's artificially created digital divide. Netizens within China find ways to "jump the wall" using virtual private networks (VPNs), while journalists, scholars, marketers, and policy makers outside intently study the wall and what goes on inside it for clues both about public opinion and government policy.

For those interested in the church in China, the paradox of this digital "Great Wall," is not in what is permitted or not permitted to enter, but rather in what happens within the wall itself. Contrary to popular opinion, there exists within the wall a vibrant online Christian community. The vast majority of what appears in online Christian newspapers, magazines, church websites, and micro blogs not to mention a plethora of audio and video resources is uncensored by authorities.

For us at ChinaSource the wall intended to keep things out has actually created a destination. Our interest in what is happening inside the wall led to the creation of Chinese Church Voices, a web site featuring English translations of what Chinese believers are posting on the internet. We invite you to take a peek "behind the wall" at this fascinating online community. You may be surprised at what you find.

Image Credit: Joann Pittman

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton is the president of ChinaSource and the editor of the ChinaSource Quarterly. Prior to assuming his current position, he served from 1995 to 2000 as the managing director of the Institute for Chinese Studies at Wheaton College. From 1987 to 1995 he served as founding US director of... View Full Bio