With well-known apps like Facebook, Google, YouTube, and even Skype suffering hindrance from the Chinese officials, it appears that censorship is inevitable for citizens. On a more recent note, messaging app WhatsApp was blocked September of last year. However, bans ordered by the government does not only limit itself to social media, instead reaches to many other popular websites online. A study by the Xinhua news agency reported that over 128,000 websites were shut down in 2017 alone. They were said to contain words or phrases indicative of protesting against the government.
Decades of internet censorship has always clouded over the lives of the citizens. Xi Jinping, current president of the one-party country since 2012, yearns to tighten the control of information shared in the community. Much of this includes societal issues such as the massacre of Tiananmen square, political dissident Liu Xiaobo, and rifts between the poor and the rich. Many Chinese adolescents today have little to no knowledge about these controversial topics, primarily due to the enforced limitations of the internet.
It is easy for foreigners to judge the country solely based on the strict limitations it possesses. After all, social media is one of the only outlets people have to contact their loved ones who are living overseas. But China hadn’t always kept a tight leash on the internet.
The internet was first introduced to China in 1994. Deng Xiaoping, a Chinese politician during that time, was working towards allowing Western knowledge into the country as part of the Open Door policy enacted in 1979. The enactment was largely incited by the shift of the world from the Industrial Age to the Information Age. This concept, first discussed in Alvin Toffler’s book, Third Wave, pushed Deng towards the advancement of technology for the benefit of the country. The leader very well knew the value of the Internet in China’s participation to compete with the rest of the world.
As time progressed, popularity of the internet grew dramatically from users close to 0% of the entire population when it was first introduced, to 29% fifteen years later. Soon, China was faced with the dilemma between having Westernization, and having too much of it.
“If you open the window, with fresh air also comes a swarm of flies,” Deng once said.
China’s countermeasure was this: the Golden Shield Project. Implemented in 2000 by the Ministry of Public Safety (MPS), this database-driven surveillance system has the ability to access every record to improve public security. As part of this project, the Great Firewall of China was built – a liaison between the government and many private businesses. A familiar phrase to many, this ‘wall’ filters information on the internet, changing what citizens see online. What’s more, the companies are obligated to take responsibility for all content posted on their platform; if they want business in China, they have to control what is being said. This is how China is able to control such a massive audience.
With these strict controls, it almost seems impossible for any of the 731 million internet users to get access to social media or resources. But there are workarounds for this censorship.
To replace apps like Twitter and WhatsApp, China has created its own social media platforms such as Weibo, WeChat, Youku, and QQ. A more common option is VPN, also known as the virtual private network. This is a method used to bypass the restrictions, enabling access to banned sites like Google, YouTube, Facebook, and more. VPN is nothing new to the citizens, as much as it is for the government. China often attempts to block companies that provide VPN to users in order to maintain their Great Firewall.
“It’s a cat and mouse game, with the VPNs,” said David Navis, an American tech coach based in a school in Guangzhou, a city in southern China. “They try to keep hiding, … to see what’s blocked, so then the government goes here, and blocks them, so it’s cat and mouse sometimes.”
“Especially people who are at home, because of the social media, they can’t connect with friends so easily,” Navis continued to express his struggle with living in China, as his partner Darlene Navis nodded her head to agree. “Being overseas is great, but you want to be able to connect with your family.”
Open access to the internet is not looking better for foreigners by any means.
The government has been reported to have ordered three major telecommunication companies in China to block off all VPNs by February 1st of 2018. This is not the first big crackdown citizens will experience, nor will it be the last.
The internet is key to communication for many, which is why censorship is such a controversial issue in China. Not only does it impact the lives of foreigners, but it also hinders business. “When they blocked the VPNs a little while ago, there were many businesses who were complaining,” David Navis recalled.
“If I don’t have the VPN, I can’t read the blogs from my friends, and so that makes it professionally interfere.”
“We would be a Google Docs school,” he continued. “In 2009, we were setting it all up, we had our own domain, we had everything ready to go, and then October 1st came, … boom, Google’s completely shut off in China. … As a school, it’s taken us a few years to figure out what we’re going to do, and that’s why we’ve gone to Office 365.”
“These kinds of things, the censorship, does affect the smoothness of the communication within a school environment,” Darlene Navis said.
The Golden Shield Project prioritizes letting in Western knowledge to expand the economy, yet drastically filtering the information at the same time. Despite this ironic system, China has over 848,500 expats as of 2013, according to the Annual Report of Chinese International Migration. “It’s still workable, and we’re still here, and we’re planning to still be here,” Darlene Navis commented.
“It’s their country. They get to decide the rules, and so … my option is, do I want to live by it or not?”