China’s digital natives behind with the Great Firewall
In a gleaming China Mobile store in Hong Kong, a floppy-haired sales assistant who looks as though he belongs to a boy band replaces my SIM card with a flick. I’ve been told this new SIM will circumvent China’s notorious Great Firewall. I ask my friend Abbie to double-check we’ll be able to get into our Gmail accounts in mainland China. Boy band reels off a long answer in Cantonese, grinning. Abbie rolls her eyes. “He says, basically: ‘No comment.’ ”
As we pass through the cavernous marble train stations on either side of the Hong Kong border, the blue locator pin on my Google Maps flickers off. Abbie strides ahead of me, ponytail swinging as she juggles her multiple phones, flashing her red Chinese passport and navigating the barriers with ease.
Early on in the “information revolution”, the West assumed that the growth of the Chinese internet would make a political revolution inevitable. In a speech on the China trade bill in 2000, president Bill Clinton was buoyant. “We know how much the internet has changed America, and we are already an open society,” he crowed. “Imagine how much it could change China.”
For Clinton, China’s attempts to control the internet would be like “nailing jello to the wall”.
Clinton was right; the internet has changed China, and especially the lives of the “internet generation” who came of age with the technology. From just 3000 users in 1995, internet usage has exploded exponentially. With 649 million people online today, China has the largest number of internet users in the world, more than the next three countries – the United States, India and Japan – combined.
Everything else about Clinton’s prediction was wrong. China itself has proved to be the jello, shifting and adaptable.
China’s network firewall, which switched off my access to Google and the pulsing blue dot on the map, is just one part of the government’s Golden Shield Project, a sprawling censorship and surveillance project covering the mainland.
The Golden Shield brings together as many as 12 government agencies and two million “internet opinion analysts” to censor and influence the Chinese internet, not to mention an army of civilian censors and internet commentators, often called the 50 Cent Party after the amount they’re said to be paid for each online comment celebrating the government and the Communist Party.
Since 1998, the network firewall has blocked thousands of sites and restricted access to many more, including international human rights sites, Western news, Facebook, Google and Wikipedia. Reporters without Borders ranked China at 176 out of 180 countries in their 2015 World Press Freedom Index; more journalists are in jail in China than anywhere else in the world.
The vast majority of Chinese internet users are urban and young. Sometimes called the “little emperors/empresses” or “new radicals”, they have lived through a time of incredible change, witnessing villages turn into sprawling cities. In 1981, 65 per cent of the Chinese population lived below the poverty line. By 2007, that number had fallen to 4 per cent. Economic growth has gone hand in hand with widening wealth disparities, which break along the same lines as internet penetration. According to the Chinese Ministry of Information, internet penetration in Beijing, Shanghai and the Guangdong province that hugs the Pearl River delta next to Hong Kong hovers around 70 per cent, far above the national average of 47.9 per cent. By contrast, in the rural areas where employment and education are restricted, internet penetration is as low as 35 per cent, and shows little sign of growing any time soon.
In the mega-cities, China’s little emperors are used to navigating the online world’s uncertain waters. They are emerging as a class in a formerly classless society. But there is a dark side to the lives of this generation that might explain where their energies are directed rather than towards Clinton’s revolution. They are adults in an age of uncertainty, with skyrocketing unemployment and the pressure of “1+2+4”: the only child of only children, they must support two parents and four grandparents, who cannot access the old welfare state’s “Iron Rice Bowl”, and who have poured their life’s savings into the single hope of their Gen Y child. Last year, the BBC reported that 30 per cent of university graduates couldn’t find work. The stress is enormous.
Highly educated and pragmatic, China’s Gen Y know their online lives are censored, but many see the censorship as a necessary brake on the pace of change. Studies repeatedly show that most netizens think the government should control information on the internet. Chinese become frustrated with the constant Western focus on censorship. They are proud of their country’s incredible achievements, and exercise more freedoms than ever; they can be – and often are – fiercely critical of local issues online.
Gen Y netizens such as my friend Abbie, whose work is international in scope, operate around the censors every day by using virtual private networks (VPNs). It can be frustrating, especially when the government cracks down on their use. But they find workarounds. In hipster cafes across Guangzhou and Shenzhen, you can tell who has studied abroad by peering over denim-clad shoulders to see who is updating their Facebook profile.
The censors have created a liminal space online. On the Western internet, a post to a social media site or comment thread will likely last forever. In China, discussions are constantly disappearing. But that doesn’t stop people, says Abbie. Everyone knows it takes a few hours for the censors to catch up.
When the word “censorship” itself was cut from blogs and message boards, netizens shifted to the term “harmonious society”, a satire of the government’s label for its own censorship regime. When “harmonious” began to be censored, they switched to the similar sounding word for “river crab”. Posts on the heavily monitored micro-messaging service WeChat, which has 600 million users, discuss “aquatic products” and whether something has been “river crabbed”.
Abbie is pragmatic. She believes an opening up of the Chinese internet is inevitable; not by revolution from below, but by pressure from external companies who want a bite of the market. “Facebook and YouTube will try really hard to get into China because of how huge the market is,” she says. “Money always pushes the world to move more than politics.” Her cousin, however, who is a so-called “post-’90s” child, isn’t worried about the censors at all. They are simply a fact of life in China – less a great wall than an ever-shifting net, catching the occasional fish, keeping everyone uncertain.
Late last year, China’s President Xi Jinping visited the US. His first stop was not the White House, but the Microsoft campus in Seattle, where he shook hands with the CEO of Cisco, the American company that helped China build its first network firewall. This week, the Electronic Frontier Foundation filed yet another amicus brief in the US Court of Appeals for a case stating that Cisco knew China’s firewall would be used to facilitate human rights abuses. Nothing has come of similar cases thus far.
Xi Jinping also met with the CEOs of other tech companies including Facebook, Amazon, Apple and Intel, all of which are treading the borders of the world’s biggest online market, wondering how to get in.
Xi is pressing Western technology CEOs to sign his Cyber Security Pact, which would make them “accept the supervision of all parts of society”. For the West’s big tech companies, operating in China will mean building backdoors into their products to allow government surveillance. Money pushing the world.
Just before Xi got on the plane to the US, the Chinese government passed a law that criminalises spreading “rumours” by writing posts critical of the authorities on social networks that are then re-posted more than 500 times or liked more than 5000 times. In a perfect example of the circling, shuffling dance between netizens and the government in China, the first person to be arrested under the new law was a 16-year-old boy, one of the “post-’90s”.
The boy was released a week later, after an online public outcry.
On the high-speed train from Hong Kong to Guangzhou, Gen Y commuters are flicking through their phones.
In 2014, mainland Chinese made 42.7 million visits to Hong Kong, where there is no firewall. Products such as my SIM card that promises to circumvent the wall by sending data back through encrypted tunnels to the island’s network are becoming more common. But on the mainland, the government has begun cracking down on VPNs again. The Chinese Communist Party is jello – sticky, shifting.
My phone is still a blank screen, a circling rainbow wheel.
“That SIM isn’t working,” I tell Abbie.
“Wait until we get a bit further in,” she says.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 23, 2016 as "Another click in the wall". Subscribe here.