“A place or attitude of retreat, especially a preoccupation with lofty, remote or intellectual considerations rather than practical ones.”
The definition of an “ivory tower” – although Fang Binxing, president of Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications, could never be accused of hiding away in one.
Fang is generally accepted to be the technical architect behind China’s Great Firewall, the internet filter by which the authorities block undesirable content on the web. That makes him rather more contentious than the average academic, with a huge, practical impact on the everyday lives of millions of Chinese web users.
Fang has also appeared fairly regularly in the domestic press. In February, for instance, he raised the hackles of disgruntled netizens with an interview in the Global Times in which he admitted to using virtual private networks (VPNs) to circumvent the technological barrier that he had himself inspired.
“I have six VPNs on my home computer,” he told his interviewer. “But I only try them to test which side wins: the GFW [Great Firewall] or the VPN. I’m not interested in reading messy information like some of that anti-government stuff.”
But things were indeed to get messier for Fang on May 19 when, at a talk on internet security at Wuhan University, an emboldened student managed to get close enough to throw eggs and his shoes at the academic. According to the assailant’s later Tweet, the eggs missed but at least one shoe may have hit home.
The perpetrator – identified only by his Twitter tag name – then escaped barefoot from campus police. His work was greeted with general approval. “When I think of the shoe hitting Fang right in the face, I’m so happy,” applauded one Twitter user. Like Fang’s assailant, she must have used a VPN to access Twitter, which is blocked in China, the Associated Press reported.
Fang is familiar with the vitriol. After opening a Sina Weibo account last year, he only managed a couple of posts before running into stiff resistance from netizens, many of whom cursed and threatened him in the comments section of his blog.
“XXXX you 404 times” was one of the more creative insults (internet users encountering the Great Firewall are often blocked with a link mentioning a “404 error”).
Sina’s censors couldn’t delete the offending material quickly enough and the blog had to be mothballed.
And since that roughing up online, another rather delicious irony: the Great Firewall now blocks Fang’s own name in web searches.
The professor puts a brave face on it all, telling the Global Times that he is ready to endure “dirty abuse… as a sacrifice for my country”. And in a lecture to a graduating class posted on his university’s website in March, Fang again insisted on the right to ring fence China’s web. “A bit more on democracy activists abroad. They sit comfortably at home, thinking only of how, through their fingertips on a keyboard, they can bring chaos to China by taking advantage of the internet’s effectiveness as a multiplier.”
There is still no news on whether Fang’s assailant has been caught. But Fang cancelled another lecture he was due to give this week.
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