How does the use of tunnelling technologies such as VPN contribute to the circulation of knowledge in China, despite the restriction and censorship by the Communist Party?
In the digital age, the Internet has significantly improved the growth of the world, reshaping economies and politics. It has revolutionised how information is shared, connecting people just a few clicks. However, while empowering, the power of the Internet has also risen to complex issues, including fake news, information, breaches and identity theft. To solve these issues, countries have imposed strict Internet regulations to protect their data and citizens. Nevertheless, this regulatory approach has provoked debates about its impact on the freedom of the Internet and the circulation of knowledge.
This essay primarily discusses the role of Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) as a tool to avoid Internet restrictions within China, where its government exercises extensive control over information on the Internet. The essay explores the contribution and the importance of VPN in circulating knowledge, as well as online information in China, giving their citizens access to restricted or government-censored information.
Understanding The Internet
The Internet is a transformative system that has reshaped global communication, mass media and commerce by connecting diverse networks worldwide. According to Janet Abbate, how the Internet is perceived and defined depends on the activity, community or issues we wish to focus on in any given case. The author suggested three frameworks where the Internet is seen as technology, content and social space, or locally situated experience. Depending on each case, the Internet can be utilised differently, but in the end, it’s all related to information access (Janet, 2017). The Internet is accessible to those connected to its networks, serving many information-dependent purposes. It allows people to communicate through social media platforms and fosters global collaborative work. Over time, it provided multiple opportunities for e-businesses to grow, and the concept continued to evolve with the upgraded version of Web 2.0. This then gave birth to social media giants like Facebook and Instagram. These platforms enable individuals to produce their content globally and increase Internet usage. Unconsciously, using the Internet and scrolling online has become integral to our daily lives, blurring the lines between a tool and a lived experience (Kahn & Dennis, 2023).
Even though the Internet is a place where people can freely share information, it still consists of political pressure restrictions where government involvement occurs. The truth is that everyone has access to information, but what kind of information they have access to depends on where they live and what they believe. Different nations follow different Internet regulations or models, and the four main ones worldwide include Silicon Valley’s Open Internet, the “Bourgeois” Internet, the Spontaneous Ordering Internet and the Authoritarian Internet model (O’Hara & Hall, 2018). In this essay, we will focus on the authoritarian Internet model, a model that China implicated where it views the Internet as a danger to national security and can be exploited for misinformation.
The Great Firewall of China
The government has built a censorship system in China that collaborates with Chinese apps and software. The government also blocked or drove out many software programs that challenged its censorship system (Lemley, 2021). The Chinese government is known for its “Great Firewall of China”, which poses strict policies for citizens’ Internet access by automatically blocking access to undesirable websites. They also monitor websites to ensure that they follow government policies. The Chinese government banned nine types of information in 2000, including posts that might “harm the dignity and interests of the state” or “disturb social order”. Internet users in China must enter their national identification number to access the Internet at cybercafes. The Internet providers are responsible for the content on their servers. Thus, providers that cannot meet these requirements and laws may result in losing access to the Internet or even serving jail time. The authorities are also willing to shut down websites quickly and without discussion. This regulation was set and supported under the vision of the Chinese president, Xi Jinping. He said, “We should respect the right of individual countries to independently choose their path of cyber-development,” suggesting no interference of information from foreign countries within China (Economy, 2018).
In China, popular social media platforms and social network sites like Facebook, Google and Twitter cannot be found. Instead, search engines like Baidu and Bing, social media sites like Weibo and Douyin, and e-commerce giants like Jingdong are mainly used by Chinese users (Myers, 2023). This is an example of how the Chinese government controls their Internet information as they also have control over monitoring these network site companies. Topics such as democracy or Falun Gong will not be found on these search tools.
The government’s efforts are not always effective, as people can still smuggle information into China on DVDs. In some cases, users can circumvent the national firewall with proxy servers. These websites allow users to move through the firewall to an ostensibly acceptable website to connect to the rest of the Internet and seek information outside of China (Kahn & Dennis, 2023). Another way to reach information outside China is through a virtual private network (VPN). It’s a tunnelling technology that connects servers inside and outside China and enables access to sites that would otherwise be monitored or censored (Suzor, 2019).
VPN And Its Contribution To The Circulation of Knowledge
A virtual private network, also known as a VPN, is an affordable and readily available technology that users can rely on to access censored or restricted sites. In China, VPNs are illegal without the government’s permission. However, VPNs and many other tunnelling technologies are essential to foreigners doing business in China, so while the government can block access to many VPN services, some are still available to allow encrypted connections (Suzor, 2019). Banning VPNs in China can affect not only companies but as well as the people who are living in China. Although not all VPNs are banned in China, those that are government-approved are not always helpful and effective as they are still under the control of the Chinese government (Oyaro, 2022). This then stirs up the issue of how the circulation of knowledge works in this country.
As mentioned, lots of information in China cannot be accessed, and lots of information outside of China cannot reach those living there. This raises the question of whether people know whether what they read is truthful since the government’s involvement might have distorted some stories. Connecting this to the idea of knowledge opens a concern for the next generation. The idea of being punished for sharing information without the government’s agreement might have become a reason why the circulation of knowledge can be affected.
Besides being strict on access to the Internet in China, the government also tightened its view over universities and schools. President Xi Jinping’s speech in 2019 called for educators to stop sharing ideas and thoughts the government sees as false when teaching ideologies and political courses. All teachers must teach what is provided in the textbook, and those who dare to deviate will get reported by student informants, which can cause them to get punished “for making comments critical of the government”. In another case, one of the Human Rights Watch articles discussed the Wuhan Diary written by Fang Fang and released in English by HarperCollins. The article pointed out how the diary’s author was criticised for leaking information and attacking China. Both of these scenarios raised a debate about why someone is attacked for telling the truth or sharing their stories, which can directly affect a whole generation’s understanding. The article’s author believes that the people in China live in an information bubble that the government has created, and these people are being protected from false information (Wang, 2020). However, this kind of mindset can be seen as limited since even if there is no existence of the Great Firewall, not all information being shared online can be considered truthful, so how do people know whether what they were told and heard is trustworthy? Many Chinese tried to find more information and expand their understanding using tunnelling technologies like VPNs. Thus, it can be said that VPNs help reduce the issue and help with the circulation of knowledge but will not be fully guaranteed to overcome the bigger problem of truthfulness.
In conclusion, it is understandable why China might have implicated the Great Firewall, but this does seek other issues such as truthness and limiting the understanding of information outside the country. Thus, using VPN services would allow people in China to access more information, expand their understanding and allow foreign businesses to work in China, allowing more data to be collected in and out of China.
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Janet Abbate (2017) What and where is the Internet? (Re)defining Internet histories, Internet Histories, 1:1-2, 8-14, DOI: 10.1080/24701475.2017.1305836
Kahn, R. and Dennis, . Michael Aaron (2023, September 26). Internet. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/technology/Internet
Lemley, M. A. (2021). THE SPLINTERNET. Duke Law Journal, 70(6), 1397+. https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A666103930/AONE?u=usyd&sid=bookmark-AONE&xid=86275a95
Myers, Steve Lee. (2023). China’s Search Engines Have More Than 66,000 Rules Controlling Content, Report Says. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2023/04/26/business/china-censored-search-engine.html
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