Opinion

KOLB: It’s Time To Tear Down China’s Internet Firewall

REUTERS/Jason Lee - SP1EF9U1TGP02/File Photo -

Charles Kolb Deputy Assistant to George H.W. Bush
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On June 12, 1987, President Ronald Reagan stood at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate and spoke the six most important words of his presidency: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

And that’s what happened on November 9, 1989, when the Berlin Wall collapsed, and the Cold War quickly ended. Two years later, on December 26, 1991, the Soviet Union vanished into the “dustbin of history.”

Largely due to the way in which the ruling Chinese Communist Party withheld critical information about the origins and spread of the Wuhan coronavirus, U.S.-China relations are reportedly at their lowest point since the Tiananmen Square demonstrations and killings on April 15, 1989.

Australian prime minister Scott Morrison has called for an independent, international investigation into the origins of the coronavirus and China’s role with respect to the pandemic (as did this column on April 9). Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton has raised related concerns.

The U.S. should join Australia and other like-minded countries in launching this inquiry immediately. The review should be open, transparent, and unbiased. The World Health Organization should provide relevant evidence but not conduct the review; it can always respond after conclusions are released.

Meanwhile, President Trump and Secretary of State Pompeo have indicated that they will investigate China and hold it accountable for its role in allegedly suppressing early information about the novel coronavirus. Financial markets are wondering precisely what Trump’s rhetoric means: can we expect delaying or even scuttling the recent U.S.-China trade agreement, new trade sanctions or financial strictures, or an increased U.S. military presence in the South China Sea?

There’s another approach that the president should consider, one that is more powerful, more peaceful, and more impactful than anything mentioned so far: immediately circumventing China’s closed-society Internet firewalls.

According to 21st Century Initiatives’ Michael Horowitz (full disclosure: Horowitz was my boss at the Office of Management and Budget from 1983-1985), efforts through the Board of Broadcasting Governors that oversees the Voice of America, among other activities, to end-run the Chinese firewall have been bottled up in bureaucracy and gone nowhere. Pompeo has the  authority and the resources under Section 7050 of the State Department’s appropriations act to move immediately to promote greater “Global Internet Freedom”.

Horowitz has the credentials and the credibility when it comes to advocating greater freedom, transparency, democracy and the rule of law. Since leaving government service, this Reagan Republican has been a tireless advocate for over three decades on behalf of ending international sex-trafficking and the persecution of religious minorities.

Horowitz notes that some 430,000 Chinese residents have traveled to the U.S. since December 2019. Had China’s firewalls been breached, we’d have known sooner what was unfolding in Wuhan. That information would have helped millions of people in China and around the world. Hundreds of thousands of lives could have been saved.

Secretary Pompeo has indicated that transparency about events in China constitutes a U.S. national security priority. The Chinese are unlikely to loosen up on their own accord: totalitarian, authoritarian regimes fear most the free flow of information. Pompeo can change this dynamic immediately by taking control of the BBG and launching a Manhattan Project initiative, in partnership with cyber-technology experts at major American universities and the private sector, to destroy China’s Internet firewall by the end of 2020.

Justice Louis Brandeis once deemed sunlight the best disinfectant, and the CCP leadership appreciates all too well that greater transparency and openness will undermine its power monopoly, precisely as it did the former Soviet Union’s. The CCP fears transparency the way vampires fear each new dawn.

Today, freedom is curtailed less by bricks and mortar, as we saw in Berlin starting in 1961, but rather by more insidious information restrictions that increasingly deploy online technology where the controls, like the coronavirus, are invisible. These firewalls also enhance trade barriers that harm U.S. commercial interests, in addition to enabling the CCP to imprison a million dissident Uighurs and silence the whistleblowing medical professionals who first warned about the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak.

Today, we have the technology, resources, and capability to undermine Chinese (and, for that matter, Iranian) firewalls.  Like the collapse of the Berlin Wall, tearing down today’s authoritarian firewalls will be an international game-changer of historic proportions.

Americans have always embraced open societies. We should definitely rethink existing global supply chains, especially for critical technology, manufacturing, and medicines. But if President Trump really wants to change China’s behavior, he should move immediately to tear down Xi Jinping’s Internet firewall.

Charles Kolb served as Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy from 1990-1992 in the George H.W. Bush White House