5 min read China Internet Culture Politics

Why China’s netizens are in no hurry to climb over the ‘Great Firewall’: it’s all about choice. 

NOTTINGHAM - To view Chinese cyberspace as the internet ‘in’ China would be a mistake. With over 25% of the world’s population connected behind the ‘Great Firewall’ (coined by Wired in 1997), the correct approach and title should really be the ‘Chinese internet’.

Download full article here: Kai Harrison – Why China’s netizens are in no hurry to climb over the ‘Great Firewall’

NOTTINGHAM – To view Chinese cyberspace as the internet  ‘in’  China would be a mistake. With over 25% of the world’s population connected behind the ‘Great Firewall’ (coined by Wired in 1997), the correct approach and title should really be the ‘Chinese internet’.

As pedantic as it sounds, the term helps us to understand how the Chinese internet has done such a good job of keeping the people ‘safe’ from western media, celebrity and influence. This all despite China’s global outlook becoming increasingly capitalist. Today, China’s strict policing of the internet is no shock to westerners and like many other cultural differences, is broadly accepted as an alternate way of life to all who study it. China openly boasts about its ability to tame the internet. Ordinarily, a great deal of significance is associated with the internet and freedom, yet in typical Chinese fashion, China continues to defy sociopolitical trends and proves that you can in fact “nail jello to a wall”. It only seems fitting that the rest of the world remains mostly ignorant to, and how, China’s total amount of ‘netizens’ continues to rise to over 720 million people with a very limited amount of users who feel the need to ‘VPN’ over the wall. The reasons for this to me are very simple; choice and commercialisation.

One of the core concepts behind the Chinese Internet’s success is down to choice

Whilst in the western internet, social justice warriors and professional comedian-provocateurs run rampant over the Facebook and Twitter feeds of unsuspecting Americans and Europeans alike, in China it’s not so easy. China is a part of the ‘SICK’ group of countries, (take from that acronym what you will) which means along with Syria, Iran and North Korea they have banned Facebook. In China, the presence of ‘dissident’ pro-democracy organisations such as the Falun Gong have either been resided to the private messages of WeChat or exported to neighbouring states and provinces.

One of the core concepts behind the Chinese Internet’s success is down to choice, it’s important not to mistake choice with variety however. Rather like social media in the western hemisphere, China features a spectrum of platforms for users to post and discuss in a surprisingly familiar environment to what you would be used to. From Twitter-style  micro-blogging site Sina Weibo to RenRen which began as a Facebook clone, the CCP has ensured that a plethora of these sites exist, not to rival their western counterparts, but instead to maintain order and keep netizens from giving into any temptations that may result in them purchasing a VPN (Virtual Private Network) license. The Chinese internet is also a bustling trade network with  sites such as Alibaba, which operates just like eBay in the UK.

The CCP (Communist Party) has recently under President Xi Jinping passed a wave of anti-free speech legislation to broaden the intentionally vague ‘red line’ that exists on these platforms. One of these laws addresses an annoyance to the CCP that even people in the west may find frustrating – fake news. Although what is considered fake to an authoritarian government could be highly up to interpretation, the law states none-the-less that any ‘tweet’ on social media that has more than 500 retweets will be investigated by censors for ‘truthfulness’. The maximum penalty for a ‘lie’ posted on public media is jail time, therefore many netizens have instead left public micro-blogs such as Weibo, which mostly functions today as a platform for high profile Chinese netizens. Instead the general public have moved to the more private chatrooms of WeChat, where views can be aired more freely.

The PRC (People’s Republic of China) employs tens-of-thousands of censors, blog writers and ‘internet police’ to work daily on the Chinese internet. They filter through and edit content on social media, update ‘keywords’ from the most recent search terms entered into search engines like Baidu  (China’s replacement for Google after it was blocked) and report any suspicious activity for further criminal investigation. In the case of search engine Baidu, if you were to search ‘1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy riots’ you may only see pictures of the local architecture, or if you narrow it to ‘Tiananmen tank man’ you may find you just get an error message in reply. This kind of censorship goes as far to rest criminal responsibility for user content with the site publisher as well as the original author and then means that these sites must employ a third wave of censorship to ensure their content remains ‘safe’. It should be fairly obvious to those reading this why dissidence online is kept to a minimum, and why those on the Chinese Internet rarely look for an escape, for self-censorship is another secret weapon encouraged by the PRC.

Clearly events in China haven’t always been completely free of internationally-condemned controversy. In 1989, the Tiananmen Square massacre resulted in a massive clamp down on ‘bourgeois liberalism’  and for the next three years after caused a massive halt in China’s marketisation programme. Many pro-democracy sites and newspapers that were beginning to emerge from institutions like Universities were shut down. Chinese people found a  way to talk about such events without the censors detecting the conversation topic. Many terms such as ‘Grass Mud Horse’ and ‘May 35th’ were used to describe the June 4th massacre. More terms are used to describe other censored events, such as ‘Empty Chair’ for an imprisoned Nobel  laureate, who’s seat was left vacant at the ceremony in Norway, and also ‘Drink Tea’.

The Communist Party has employed a tried and tested mantra in its approach toward the internet, for openly censoring and policing content in China hasn’t just been a recent development in Chinese culture. Before China’s universities began using the ‘free’ internet in the late 1980’s a set of liberalisation reforms had been put into practice regarding the Radio, TV and Newspaper industries. Due to a large budget deficit that was incurred through state ownership of the media, the CCP began commercialising the sector around the 1980s. Most industries by the end of the 1990s were ordered to privatise to at most a share of 49%, or at least become self-reliant on external funding through advertising for example.  We must not mistake this type of marketisation for liberalisation, as commentators did at the time. By giving the people what they wanted yet developing a mastery over state censorship, the CCP effectively awarded themselves a superior mandate to govern.

Commercialisation taught the CCP how to survive in a global and modern world. On TV, many other channels were created to the point that over 500 individual channels exist today, with a multitude of reality, sports, lifestyle and entertainment shows broadcast daily. China’s fame for  creating cheap copies of western concepts is also heavily present in this industry. Cloned shows such as ‘China’s Got Talent’ succeed other shows such as ‘Super-Girl’ which effectively was the first go at copying Pop Idol in the UK. Commercialisation wasn’t without its hick-ups however, to mention only a brief example, Super-Girl featured aspects of voting and starkly dressed women which was unfavourable to the CCP. The government also weren’t too  fond of the ‘controversial’ nature of Super-Girl and it was subsequently taken off air.

By giving the people what they wanted yet developing a mastery over state censorship, the CCP effectively awarded themselves a superior mandate to govern.’

Permitting enough choice and adapting to changing environments is what the CCP has done best the last 30 years, with TV and online media being a prime example. The Communist Party’s progressive stance towards adapting to change and their desire to remain in power has worked out in their favour against other similar regimes which had fallen due to public pressure. If you wanted the most succinct explanation as to why Chinese netizens and people as a whole seldom look to go over (or under) the Great Wall, I can provide a brief one. It was once a word of warning from former Chairman, Mao… The skill in which China continues to create a ‘fetishisation around commodities’. More plainly, employing western constructs of marketisation – or choice – into an authoritarian dictatorship, allows China to create a system where instead of having a responsibility to educate the masses (as was once prescribed), the government now has a duty to entertain them.

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