Behind the Great Wall: Poring Light on the Chinese Internetby@david.w.balaban
350 reads
350 reads

Behind the Great Wall: Poring Light on the Chinese Internet

by David BalabanNovember 9th, 2018
Read on Terminal Reader
Read this story w/o Javascript
tldt arrow

Too Long; Didn't Read

The Internet is becoming the main symbol of globalization. It is a universal tool that connects different cultures, socio-economic views, and religions. However, the above statement is far from the truth. In China, the largest country by population, the Internet differs greatly from the rest of the world.

Companies Mentioned

Mention Thumbnail
Mention Thumbnail

Coin Mentioned

Mention Thumbnail
featured image - Behind the Great Wall: Poring Light on the Chinese Internet
David Balaban HackerNoon profile picture

The Internet is becoming the main symbol of globalization. It is a universal tool that connects different cultures, socio-economic views, and religions. However, the above statement is far from the truth. In China, the largest country by population, the Internet differs greatly from the rest of the world.

In terms of economy, the People’s Republic of China, represents a strange combination of capitalism and socialism, both with Chinese peculiarities. But when it comes to the Internet, we see the terrible grimace of the censor working for the harshest totalitarian regime.

The Chinese Internet audience consist of 750 million users. Almost 52% of the country population is connected to it. This number will soon equal the population of the EU and the United States combined. This huge market has a plenty of business opportunities. Unfortunately, the Chinese government considers it also a great danger. After all, the Internet remains the fastest source of news and historical information. Authorities think that the truth about what happened on the Tiananmen Square in 1989 (and many other events) should not reach people and that is why it is impossible to allow the Internet to be free.

Therefore, China is trying to block access to most external sources of information, be it CNN, BBC or social networks. This is carried out within the framework of the Golden Shield project, which introduced full control, censorship and monitoring of Internet traffic on the territory of the PRC in 1998. The project is led by the Ministry of Public Safety. Officials say the project is aimed at increasing police effectiveness and overall public safety.

How does this work in reality?

Every ISP in China must hire special traffic monitoring staff. These censors are called “big moms.” Their main role is to watch all websites and remove any content of a political nature. This happens in different ways, in some cases, the comment gets deleted completely, in others — only the forbidden words are removed (leaving blank spaces) thus showing the presence of power and the watching eye. The list of forbidden words gets constantly updated.

At the search engine level, strict censorship is also present. Special government system compares all search queries with the list of banned words. Websites are analyzed and if they contain forbidden words — search engine hides them and does not show in search results.

It is not difficult to guess most of the forbidden words. Terms and phrases associated with democracy, anti-communism, freedom of speech are banned. You cannot also find anything about Tibet or Dalai Lama. The system filters content related to the government of Taiwan or pages related to the Falun Gong spiritual practice.

Of course, brutal censorship does not mean that people are doomed to only one type of truth. Blocks can be bypassed by various new services. For example, young people use virtual private networks serving as gates of freedom. There is also Tor, which allows free and unlimited access to alternative information.

The black software market in China is very active and also helps to circumvent government blocks. The cat-and-mouse game goes on an on — independent software developers create new ways to circumvent censorship, at the same time, government officials create new blocking techniques.

Allowed social networks

YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and other services we use on daily basis are, of course, forbidden in China. But, unlike other countries with censorship (for example, Iran) this prohibition creates the conditions for the dynamic growth of alternative private services that accurately replicate Western brands.

The mass fascination with social networks has to do with the long-lasting process of migration of people from the countryside to the cities. New urban citizens quickly embrace everything related to the modern lifestyle. The two-plus-one family model is also important here. For many Chinese, it is associated with a small family and lonely old age. Social networks tend to compensate this.

Tudou and Youku are Chinese variants of YouTube. Sina Weibo is a very popular analogue of Twitter launched in 2009. The service has up to 180 million active users. Sina Weibo, to a greater extent, serves to publish funny photos and videos and is full of ads.

Where other Western social networks are represented by one or two Chinese counterparts, Facebook may boast to have five. RenRen is the most popular among young people and students. The service has about 260 million active users. Visually, it is very similar to Facebook.

Another service which is visually similar to Facebook is called Qzone. It has more than 600 million users, but they are less active and are represented mainly by residents of small cities and provinces. Kaixin001 is a service for young people who often work in big companies and corporations. Kaixin001 has 160 million users.

Pinterest copycat is called Mogujie. It is not popular and has only 40 million users. In China, this service has become a tool for startups that target woman audience. Companies use Mogujie to create online stores, which allows them to grow quickly and sell more products.

The analogue of WhatsApp is called WeChat in China. It has exactly the same features. It has a huge number of users. More than 650 million use it. That is, almost every citizen of China who has access to the Internet.

WeChat is also widely used in Middle East countries. In addition to communications, WeChat is also a huge advertising platform, with the limitation that only those users who conduct business in China (and have registered their company) can place ads.

The Chinese love to shop online. Chinese also like to complain about the quality of goods and services. They do it on every minor occasion. Government does not forbid complaining about products or services (unless it has to do with politics). This specific type of freedom of speech leads to the fact that it is impossible to get commercial success in China without attentively listening to the clients’ voices.

Finally, and you should have heard that Google is forbidden too. Qihoo and Baidu have taken its place.

Again, people start using VPNs and get Facebook, Twitter, and other accounts. But for now, it is all useless. You will not find a lot of friends there. Twitter official stats show about 50K Chinese users.

Trying to fight censorship

Blocking online communication in social media is a very difficult problem for the Chinese authorities. People have created their own Internet slang that helps to bypass the political censorship. They substitute words and meanings. For example, River Crab sounds similar to Harmony\Harmonious, and this word is forbidden in political narration.

The date of the Tiananmen Square Massacre that happened on the 4th of June, 1989 is another example. It is perhaps the most tracked phrase of the Chinese Internet. Netizens replace it with May 30, that was the key moment of the protests on the square.

In addition, when Chinese cannot say or write something, they show it. They use images instead of words and speak indirectly.