ChinaWatch: Life behind the firewall of fear
This is regular monthly series on what’s happening in China from a political, social, environmental, music and arts perspective. Email email@example.com if you’d like to contribute or suggest a topic for discussion.
Life as an expat in China throws up several essential experiences: climbing the Great Wall, eating an unfamiliar animal, and having your internet censored by the local authorities. That being said, you really need to go out of your way to do the first two. The third is organised for you.
Basically every foreigner who leaves for China comes armed with some sort of firewall-bypassing gadget, and it seems that the Chinese Censorship Brigade are concerning themselves with the destruction of these services instead of blocking individual articles, videos or links.
A free service that several Australians were using to get around the Wall, for instance, mysteriously stopped working for all of us on the same afternoon several weeks ago, and has been offline here ever since.
Logging on here can be constant struggle to break free of these restrictions, but it’s simply a headache that comes with being an internet user in China. As a general rule, the more you pay to avoid censorship, the more likely it is to succeed.
But that doesn’t ease the fear of the unknown: that is, what happens if you’re caught?
Most Westerners here come with either VPNs or Web Based Proxies run by companies almost exclusively in the United States - all businesses cashing in on China’s internet restrictions, and those of similar regimes globally.
Subscriptions can be purchased online and cost anywhere from $40 a year to $20 a month, more if you need to install software to make the proxies operate. And all of these are, technically, illegal in China, they do break local laws.
The fact of the matter is, however, that there isn’t a great deal of the internet that’s censored here. Yes, social networking sites are blocked. This can be annoying, especially when you want to watch videos of cats or get your friends’ opinions on last night’s episode of The Voice (news of which has managed to reach China).
Even The Punch and other Australian news sites are occasionally difficult to access. In fact, any website with YouTube videos, Facebook links or a Twitter stream embedded are tiresome to load. And my one link with news and gossip from the outside, Gmail, is also often down, or incredibly slow.
But the feeling, overwhelmingly, is that the firewall doesn’t exist to keep information from filtering into China - but to stop it filtering out of a country quickly embracing the internet to communicate.
The firewall isn’t directly aimed at foreigners attempting to smuggle information out of the country, either (as evidenced by the fact that this article is being published at all) but you can gain an insight into how easy it is for the local authorities to hide information or influence public opinion.
For example, when last year’s train disaster in Wenzhou threatened to cause a storm on Chinese social media, the government passive-aggressively threatened citizens that there would be consequences for discussing the issue.
Compare this to the events of a few weeks ago, when the assault of a Chinese student on public transport in Sydney made the news here within hours. Thousands of Chinese users took to their version of Twitter, Weibo, to vent their anger, and Kevin Rudd was quick to step forward to settle the situation.
But part of me believes that if the same were to happen to an Australian student here in China, it would go largely unreported. The reason for this, naturally, is fear. Not of what does happen, but of what could.
What China’s internet regulations have created is a feeling that you are constantly being watched. Websites suddenly drop out, error messages plaster the screen, and search engines refuse connections to certain search terms.
This has recently been taken to an entirely new level, with the 250 million Chinese users of Weibo - more than twice as many as on Twitter - needing to provide national identification numbers to be allowed to participate, just in case anything they say needs to be used against them in a court of law. It’s also ensuring that foreigners aren’t given a voice on the nation’s most popular digital platform.
Many Chinese people already act outside of the regulations, of course, using their own software to combat the blockages, but from experience it’s usually to stream sport and not to cause a Chinese version of The Arab Spring.
This culture of fear keeps most in check, however, to the point where people self-censor for fear of getting in trouble. Even I avoid attempting to make YouTube work too often for fear that I might be attracting interest from government censors. Local Internet Service Providers (ISPs), such as universities and businesses, also choose to run their own filters to ensure their users aren’t committing breaches they might be liable for.
So while fears about the thought police turning up at my apartment after a particularly freedom-oriented Google search seem unfounded, I must admit to searching for “capitalism” less than I used to. But if I don’t hear a knock on the door after publishing an article about it, then I doubt there is anything to fear at all.
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