Chinese internet users number 649 million, more than double that of the United States, and they live in a parallel digital universe from the rest of the globe. The Great Firewall in China is a powerful censorship system that successfully blocks locals from viewing content that might be damaging to the country. While Google, Twitter, Facebook, OpenAI, and others are all blocked in China, local Chinese Tech company are booming, giving local Chinese users a really distinct online experience.
The Great Firewall: How Does It Work?
The history of internet control measures in China can be traced back to the suppression of information about the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre (Griffiths, 2019). Initially, the government’s goal was to block specific content, primarily focusing on anti-communist and sexually explicit material. However, these measures set in motion a sequence of events that ultimately led to the development of the contemporary Chinese firewall.
After the incident known as the Tiananmen Square massacre, during which a considerable number of Chinese university students tragically lost their lives, the authorities became aware of the internet’s capacity as a means of spreading information and organizing protests. Consequently, the evolution of firewalls extended their initial objective of restricting access to a specific range of content. This comprehensive technique integrates IP filtering, DNS limitations, and user self-censorship.
In contrast to the global trend, China’s Generation Z exhibits a notable divergence in their reliance on social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. The Chinese Communist Party recognizes the imperative of exercising stringent oversight over the internet in order to preserve societal and political stability. Given the current regulatory climate, young Chinese netizens are cautious about actively seeking sensitive material or exploring social media sites like Facebook. They have grown accustomed to information access limitations within the country.
Balancing Free Speech and Internet Regulation
China, a world power in both economy and technology, has a difficult conundrum: how to regulate the internet while protecting citizens’ right to free expression. China’s notorious Great Firewall, a massive system of online restriction, is at the center of this dilemma. It has evolved from a basic tool for banning specific material into an intricate system for monitoring and regulating the flow of information within and beyond the country.
The Great Firewall operates on multiple fronts of defense. It has encouraged a culture of self-censorship among internet users through measures like IP blocking to prevent access to objectionable sites and domain name system regulations. Millions of Chinese internet users support the country’s strict stance to internet regulation. The government’s plan for internet regulation within this framework consists of two main parts: strict enforcement of existing rules, including crackdowns on VPNs that were traditionally used to access blocked content, and the imposition of severe penalties for the spread of “online rumors.” These measures have severely limited the free flow of ideas that used to characterize Chinese social media.
These control measures transcend mere technical aspects; they are deeply entwined with China’s political landscape. The government’s objective extends beyond the removal or blocking of specific content; it aims to preempt dissent and critical anti-government sentiments from gaining traction. Viewing a tightly controlled digital space as essential to maintaining social and political stability, the Chinese Communist Party’s approach aims to protect the public from extremist and terrorist ideologies. However, it has also resulted in a lack of diversity in Chinese society, as many young people essentially live their digital lives within the confines of the Great Firewall, where content permitted by these controls significantly shapes their experiences.
Rapid Development of Chinese Platforms
In a paraelle world without Gmail, Facebook, Google, WhatsApp, and other popular global platforms, an ordinary Chinese individual begins their day by picking up their HUAWEI phone. They use the Chinese chat application WeChat to check messages from friends and NetEast Maill to access work-related emails. Weibo serves as a social media site to gather information about the weather and current trends for the day, while entertainment is found on Douyin. When faced with a problem, they turn to the Baidu search engine to find solutions and may even seek assistance from the chatbot ERNIE Bot.
China’s online ecosystem operates within the confines of the Great Firewall, a system of internet censorship. As a result, the digital landscape is increasingly dominated by local technology companies (Beech, 2015). Google’s departure from China was influenced by the country’s strict censorship regulations. Google’s explicitly mentions the impact of local laws, regulations, and policies on search results: “In accordance with local laws, regulations, and policies, some search results will not be displayed.” Another version states that “search results may not comply with relevant laws, regulations, and policies and cannot be displayed.” In mainland China in 2009, Google was the only company to take such a stance. To some oversea critics, this move was interpreted as a form of resistance against what they saw as the Chinese government’s oppressive media censorship (Jin, 2012).
The Chinese government actively champions domestic platform companies like Tencent and Tik Tok, elevating them to prominent positions within the global platform economy. This support encompasses the creation of a regulatory environment conducive to their growth, facilitated access to capital, and protection from foreign competition. China’s heightened government involvement in platform development distinguishes it from Western societies(De Kloet, 2019).
The outcomes of this approach are palpable. For many Chinese citizens, the internet behind the Great Firewall fulfills their needs, offering a diverse array of goods, services, and entertainment at their fingertips through smartphones. Chinese platform companies, benefiting from both government support and access to the world’s largest online population, have not only succeeded domestically but have also made substantial headway into global markets. Some of these Chinese tech giants have even surpassed their foreign counterparts in terms of value and influence.
Public Dissatisfaction with the Great Firewall
The presence of the Great Firewall has given rise to what can be described as an “information cocoon.” This cocoon, while seemingly supervisory and protective in nature, has also inadvertently stirred public discontent and prejudice.
Hua Chunying on Twitter
In 2022, international reports emerged claiming that China had initiated a global disinformation campaign, with allegations suggesting that the United States deployed the COVID-19 virus as a biological weapon. During a press conference held by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Hua Chunying addressed these allegations and questioned the ability of Chinese netizens to utilize platforms like Twitter and Facebook to express their viewpoints. Hua Chunying pointed out that Chinese citizens could indeed use such social media platforms when overseas, effectively creating an additional channel for information exchange. Despite being based in mainland China, Hua Chunying has an active presence on Twitter, which can be search on Twitter. This is in sharp contrast to how regular Chinese individuals actually experience Twitter access owing to restrictions imposed by the Great Firewall. However, Hua Chunying’s comments ignited a wave of discontent among mainland Chinese netizens. They began to question whether her privileged position had led to a lack of empathy for ordinary citizens who were denied access to Twitter and Facebook.
In a scenario where the government holds supreme authority over information regulation, messages that deviate from the Chinese government’s perspectives either do not appear in information flows or lead to the direct suspension of user accounts. In China, using a VPN to access information considered harmful or opposing Communist Party management can have severe consequences, potentially resulting in imprisonment and legal penalties. In 2022, a devastating fire engulfed the upper floors of a high-rise apartment building in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang. Videos shared on Chinese social media platforms depicted fire trucks parked at a considerable distance from the building, spraying water that failed to reach the height of the flames. This incident raised numerous questions about the restrictions on movement imposed by pandemic lockdowns, particularly in light of the subsequent 10 fatalities and 9 serious injuries (Shepherd and Kuo, 2022).
However, China’s internet landscape is subject to extensive censorship, and content related to the Urumqi protests that followed the incident was promptly removed. At that time, two Chinese actors and a comedian spoke out about the Urumqi movement on Twitter, only to have their social media accounts within China subsequently banned and their works removed from public view. These actions further fueled public discontent and ultimately led to subsequent protests by college students.
The Great Firewall in China: Balancing Free Speech and Internet Regulation © 2 by YUELIN RUAN is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0
Beech, H. (2015, Jun 11). ‘The Other Side of the Great Firewall’. TIME. https://time.com/3917969/china-internet-firewall/
De Kloet, J., Poell, T., Guohua, Z., & Yiu Fai, C. H. O. W. (2019). The platformization of Chinese society: Infrastructure, governance, and practice. Chinese Journal of Communication, 12(3), 249-256.
Griffiths, J. (2019). The great firewall of China: how to build and control an alternative version of the internet. Zed Books.
Jin, J., & Co, A.-C. (2012). Ethics, strategy and user relevance: The case of Google.cn (Response to: Google vs. China’s “Great Firewall”: Ethical Implications for Free Speech and Sovereignty). Technology in Society, 34(2), 182–184. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.techsoc.2012.03.001
Shepherd C. & Kuo L. (2022, Nov 26). ‘Deadly Xinjiang fire stokes discontent over China’s covid restrictions’. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/11/26/china-xinjiang-fire-urumqi-covid-zero/