The Great Firewall of Collaboration

A fellow quantum computing researcher of mine recently joined FriendFeed. Along with another researcher we got involved in a discussion about a paper concerning a certain recent claimed "disproof of Bell's theorem." (arXiv:0904.4259. What it means to "disprove a theorem" like Bell's theorem is, however a subject for another comment section on a different blog.) But, and here is the interesting thing, this colleague then made a trip to China. And FriendFeed, apparently, is blocked by the great firewall of China, so he had to email us his comments to continue the conversation. Which got me thinking.

China is a country that has been, historically, a great power. It is, by all accounts, returning to that status with the a wave of lifting of its people out of poverty (numbers I've seen are from like over 60 percent below poverty a few decades ago to 10 percent recently, though it's not clear to me that the poverty level (a few dollars per day) used is the really relevant number.) It has, even more interestingly, achieved an amazing increase in the production of people with a large amount of education. From under 10,000/year PhDs a decade ago to nearly 50,000/year recently, there has been a huge increase in PhDs in a very short span of time. In some minds, the rise of China is the dominant story of the coming decades. This is equally true in academic circles where the productivity of science in China has been rising rapidly.

But my colleague's experience made me wonder a bit. Suppose that you take at face value the idea that online tools are going to change how we do science (through any of the numerous forms that such tools can now take.) If the Chinese government is banning tools that allow for collaboration (in our case, just a mere discussion) then, despite all they do, I wonder if this might cause a severe lack of bang for their Ph.D buck. Do we really believe that the kind of large scale data sharing or online collaborating, for example, that characterize Science 2.0 will be easy to carry out under the probing eye of the Chinese government? Of course, I'm as far from an expert in China and Science 2.0, so I can't even begin to approach this question. But it did strike me that there are some fairly strong preconditions assumed by those pushing online tools for science that don't seem to hold for numerous countries around the world, including China.

Or, in other words (executive summary), those of you doing Science 2.0 can now think about yourselves as modern freedom fighters. Hazzah!


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More probably, Chinese scientists join and collaborate in Chinese-language collaboration tools within the country. Just like most Japanese use Japanese language-based tools to communicate and collaborate in Japanese rather than trying to do so badly in English on some foreign web site.

You haven't reflected on the fact that most of the people you interact with are Americans or situated in the US could be not because most researchers are stationed there, but because the sites and tools you use are self-selecting for a particular demographic?

Thanks for pointing out the comment thread on Scott's blog. I somehow missed that, but it was very entertaining.

Anyway, I think that most people with a science Ph.D. can probably figure out how to use a proxy server.

Janne: What you say is probably true, but it doesn't address the points that (1) the Chinese government is known to be censoring internet content and (2) sometimes Chinese people, or foreign visitors to China, collaborate with scientists outside China who do not necessarily read Chinese. So, far, most cutting edge research in China has been in collaboration with non-Chinese institutes. That may not always be true, and when it ceases to be true the Great Firewall will no longer be a major problem. Until scientists have to start learning Chinese in order to avoid missing important papers, the Great Firewall remains a problem.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 17 Jul 2009 #permalink

Eric, you're absolutely right, and I deplore the Chinese firewall myself.

But, actual research collaboration always happens on a personal level. Email or personal visits kind of thing. A general censorship policy doesn't touch that, just as the general language barrier between Japanese (or German, or French or whatever) scientists doesn't impede the high-level research collaboration between them very much.

But here you highlight something I naively thought everybody already knew to be a serious problem:

"Until scientists have to start learning Chinese in order to avoid missing important papers, the Great Firewall remains a problem."

Unless you read (and follow) academic English, German, Japanese, Chinese, French and Spanish you are already missing important papers. "Important", as in "our next step is a Science/Nature publication" kind of important. Each of those languages have large and thriving scientific communities in their own right, with journals and conferences publishing significant results. And those publications count. If you're not aware of the stuff being published in other major languages you're at a definite disadvantage.

But of course very few people are. The scientific community is already long split by language and cultural barriers. We manage to muddle through.

Hi Janne,

More probably, Chinese scientists join and collaborate in Chinese-language collaboration tools within the country. Just like most Japanese use Japanese language-based tools to communicate and collaborate in Japanese rather than trying to do so badly in English on some foreign web site. Agreed, but I'm not sure why China won't touch these sites.

The point I was at least trying to make was that a lot of the ideas floating around the world of Science 2.0 share a large overlap with ideas that would make any country whose power rests on suppressing information. I don't see where I made a claim about these tools being US centric, except that currently my colleague can't use a tool from behind the firewall.


Anyway, I think that most people with a science Ph.D. can probably figure out how to use a proxy server.

I'm sure they can (though you know, those biologists j/k!) but barriers to entry cut down fractions. Especially if you are, in some way, risking being thrown in jail. It's an extreme example, but Iran demonstrates what can happen to internet infrastructure when the people at the top are bent on keeping the lid on.

Dave, as I said I am firmly against everything the Chinese firewall stands for - and the same goes for the Australian and other government attempts at censorship.

My point is that your concept of "Science 2.0" is parochial in nature; some incidental censorship firewall doesn't affect it. Nobody is censoring communication with German or Japanese or Spanish scientists, and yet your "science 2.0" idea doesn't even acknowledge the idea of participants communicating in other languages.

> Unless you read (and follow) academic English, German,
> Japanese, Chinese, French and Spanish you are already
> missing important papers.

To which fields of science does this apply? Only once a year do I need to read an (old) math article in French, otherwise everything else is done in English. Seriously, which research journal or conference in Spanish am I missing out on?

By Wim van Dam (not verified) on 17 Jul 2009 #permalink

Well, Tibetans and Uyghurs, among others, are repressed, Falun Gong practitioners are being made to "disappear" and being tortured in jails. China and the Chinese people have bigger problems than whether to hold scientific conversations on friendfeed or over email.

IMHO China is in pretty awful shape, and it doesn't have one bit to do with scientific collaboration. The reason is that the stronger China gets, the less the world can tell it to stop oppressing minorities and freedoms. It seems that the Chinese government will not stop the oppression and censorship, and that Chinese people are generally Okay with it, as long as it doesn't happen to their family (the common approach as far as I can tell is "if someone is in jail, they must have done something wrong, and besides, everyone is getting richer!").

If I extrapolate, then in 50 years China will rule the world, take away everyone's freedoms, and have some Westerners do scientific research because an overwhelming majority of Chinese people cannot think freely anyway (which is why they're willing to live with censorship in the first place).

China's problem is not censorship. Censorship is the symptom to a society that has been degraded and broken down to the point of considering itself to be a mindless flock and embracing that view of itself. It's a Fascist state of mind if I ever saw one. The country and its unity is above all, and the default behavior is to obey authority.

Remark: there are exceptions, of course. There were also exceptions in Fascist Italy. Of the exceptional people, some stayed quiet, and those who had spoken up went to jail or were killed. The general public would assume that they must have done something wrong. After all, the country and its unity is above all.

** By the way, read the story of the lawyer Gao Zhisheng
who was first selected as one of the top ten lawyers in China by China's Ministry of Justice, in 2001, for his work protecting human rights in Xinjiang, but when he started speaking against the torture of Falun Gong practitioners, he was put in jail and tortured himself, and his family suffered many ordeals. His family fled (in quite an escape) to the US, and he has "disappeared" shortly thereafter. He's quite a remarkable man. Read his letters to the Chairman. Parts of them are quoted in the wikiepdia entry. The Wikipedia entry is blocked in China, naturally.

Falun Gong practitioners, by the way, are tortured in all manners of terrible ways. Read about it here: . The numbers are unbelievable: more than 50,000 tortured, more than 100,000 sent to reeducation camps. From my experience, Chinese people know about this (although maybe not the complete details, which they never bothered finding out) and support this, giving as a reason that "Falun Gong is a cult". It's amazing to see how Chinese people who more often than not are mad about the government for not allowing freedom of speech, putting the great firewall, etc, are almost uniformly supportive of oppression of Tibetans, Uyghurs, Falun Gong, and others.

By the way, Falun Gong might be a cult for all I know. It's unclear what they're really about, but I wouldn't be surprised if they are a cult. No one in their right mind would keep resisting the government given such violence and risk. This is exactly why the government is afraid of them. However, I hardly see being a cult as a reason that justifies torture or incarceration.

By not quite chinese (not verified) on 18 Jul 2009 #permalink

Janne says: Unless you read (and follow) academic English, German, Japanese, Chinese, French and Spanish you are already missing important papers.

That is true not only in mathematics and science, but in engineering too ... especially in engineering.

A key word in Janne's statement (IMHO) is the word "important". What quality(s) distinguish a paper as important? If we take that quality to encompass the launching of new enterprises, then the Chinese literature---particularly in simulation science and engineering---is already hugely important.

This is good. Because our planet needs all the new enterprises it can create.

Surely you could just as fairly reach the opposite conclusion? That web 2.0 for scientific collaboration is all hoohey, because the chinese manage to do great research without it?

China is in a very delicate situation. Very nearly 1.5 billion people with a 6,000 year history of oppression and revolution. The powers-that-be KNOW which side their bread is buttered on.

Democracy and capitalism IS going to come to China regardless of an one person's or group of peoples desires and they KNOW this.

However, consider the process of transitioning 1.5 billion people from effectively a state run poverty system to a system that will be as powerfully successful and progressive as China with the throttle wide open and the limits removed without implosion or explosion.

No, this process can not be done wide open and with everyone doing as they wish or as they want. There MUST be controls and limits to what everyone does and what everyone has access to.

No, I do NOT appreciate many of the sanctions and limitations that the Chinese government has elected to impose - Tibet should be free, people should be free from fear, etc. I had a Chinese language professor whose family was deeply affected by the politics of China (imprisonments, etc.) so have some idea of what can and does happen.

But, to imagine pulling out all the stops on 1.5 billion people overnight...that would be the cruelest thing the Chinese government could do to their own people. The chaos and deception and fraud not to mention how many people would be taken advantage of...

The China of today is so incredibly different from the China of 20 years ago and the China of 10 years from now will be so incredibly different from today as to make our complaints today seem laughable.

Give them a chance to grow. Support them as best you can. Help when and where you can. Stand for what you stand for. But never ever tell them what them must or should do. They've been doing it much longer then we have. Much, much longer.

And they are not particularly interested in the opinions of some wet behind the ears westerner who thinks that 500 years of civilization under their belt qualifies them for a learned opinion of how things ought to be.

The one other thing to recognize is the China has always had and probably always will have the ability to conquer most if not all of the peoples of the Earth. They have stood ready to do so on a couple of occasions in history and returned home. The reason has been the same as the reason they pose no real threat to national security today...they are interested in one thing and one thing only. China, The Middle Kingdom. If if isn't China, to them, it is not particularly important.

By Paul A. Helgeson (not verified) on 28 Jul 2009 #permalink