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U.S. and China Bicker Over China's 'Great Firewall'

As China increasingly develops into a burgeoning economic superpower, many of the Chinese government's idiosyncrasies, like political restrictions, artificially devalued currency and abysmal working conditions, have been politely ignored. Which is why it's newsworthy when America finds a reason to be mad at China. It seems the U.S. Government wants China to relax their so-called 'Great Firewall', the notoriously restrictive system of surveillance and censorship officially known as The Golden Shield Project that strictly limits Chinese citizens' activity online. But if you're hoping the U.S. is striking a blow for free speech in Asia, think again - the issue at hand is how the Golden Shield appears to block U.S. companies from doing business with Chinese customers.

On Monday, Michael Punke, U.S. Ambassador to the World Trade Organization sent a letter, obtained by Reuters,  to China's WTO representative severely criticizing the firewall. Stating that, thanks to the 'Great Firewall', American and other non-Chinese businesses faced "challenges offering their services to Chinese customers", he suggested that China may possibly be in violation of WTO rules regarding transparency. Among the questions posed in his letter, he asked What are the guidelines and criteria for blocking access to foreign websites? How often are these guidelines and criteria changed or published? Where are these guidelines published? Are they made public in advance of their implementation?" In response, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said "We are willing to work with countries and communicate with them on the development of the Internet and to work together to promote the sound development of the Internet, but we do not accept using the excuse of 'Internet freedom' to interfere in other countries' internal practices."

The interesting thing is that The Golden Shield, using a combination of IP blocking, packet and URL filtering, DNS redirection and connection resetting, strictly limits access to controversial information the government doesn't want publicized. This includes anything mentioning free speech, the Tiananmen Square massacre, Tibetan freedom and other sensitive topics and prevents, among other things, the Chinese language versions of the BBC and Voice of America as well as Twitter and Facebook. While the American complaint doesn't mention specific companies, it's unlikely that a lack of social media penetration is at issue. However, China also has extremely strong protectionist regulations designed to favor Chinese companies over foreign ones. For instance, while most modern video game consoles are manufactured in China, the iQue console, a joint venture between Chinese investors and Nintendo, is the only foreign console allowed to be sold to Chinese customers.

The real issue at hand isn't Chinese restrictions on net freedom, but their tariffs. Punke's even took pains to emphasize that the U.S. was not going after China's restrictions on Free Speech. But the issue of free speech plays better in the media than denied profits, and a challenge to the Great Firewall rather than to China's protectionist policies nicely conflates the two issues.