Behind the Great Firewall of China

This complex, digital filtering system isolates mainland China from online content outside of China, while monitoring the content from within. So that means no Facebook, no Twitter, no YouTube or any other Western social-networking site. And so far it has been successful, from the censoring of the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989 to the most recent removal of a documentary about pollution in China.

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So what exactly goes on behind the Great Firewall of China? Due to intense online censorship we assume that Chinese citizens have an extremely limited capacity to speak up and freely express any criticism. If I told you that Chinese Internet users could criticise the government on social media without suffering any consequences, would you believe me? The truth is they can, to an extent.

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China has 513 million internet users, the world’s largest number of people online, more than double that of the United states. 300 million of which are on social media, blogging and tweeting and this number is growing (Chiu, Ip, & Silverman 2012). According to Anti (2011) the Chinese national Internet policy is very simple, “block and clone”. Block, obviously referring to censoring, and clone meaning coping and modifying Western social media sites to suit government regulations. For instance the Chinese version of Google is Baidu, Twitter is Weibo, Facebook is Renren and YouTube is Youku and Tudou (Anti, 2011).

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So, they have the platform but do they have the freedom to create a critical message? In 2014, Gary King (cited in Naughton 2015), director of the Institute for Quantitative Social Science at Harvard University, acquired a large database of posts from Chinese social media. The posts showed that contrary to Western belief “speech on the Chinese internet is remarkably free, vibrant and raucous” (cited in Naughton 2015). King (as cited in Naughton 2015) discovered that the Chinese government was censoring “certain kinds of free speech that have the potential for engendering collective action”. So basically, any speech with the intent to mobilise or inadvertently mobilise a group of people in the real world is censored. But what constitutes a group? It isn’t clear, but what is clear, is that China allows government criticism but silences collective expression. There are limits however, as Anti (2011) explains that posting the name of the president is forbidden.

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So who can they criticise, if not the president? In 2011 two high-speed trains collided in the suburbs of Wenzhou and Zhejian province. 38 people were killed and 192 were injured.

Image: An aerial view of rescuers working around the accident site where two trains had collided on a bridge on July 24, 2011 in Wenzhou, Zhejiang Province of China

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Chinese officials were quick to cover up the wreckage and force traditional news outlets to focus on rescue efforts rather than the poor management and corruption that led to the incident (Branigan 2011).

Over 10 million Chinese Internet users attacked the government officals for their response to the disaster, posting criticism across social media (Branigan 2011; Anti 2012) as well as participating in a damming online poll. This has never happened before in Chinese history (Anti 2011) and following the incident the rail minister was sacked and sentenced to jail for 10 years (Anti 2011).

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By filming the wreckage and sharing it across various social media sites, a national, online conversation was created  (Moore 2011). This demonstrates the power of citizen journalism and social media in China in the way that it can bypass the suppressive censorship that traditional news media encounters, by using social media sites like Weibo, Renren and Youku to report the events instantaneously as they happen (Shirky 2012). 

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Although the Great Firewall still stands strong, we are seeing small cracks in the wall as the emergence of a democratised online network and a national public sphere is appearing in China with popular forums like QQ, connecting dissatisfied citizens across China.

References

Anti, M 2012, Behind the Great Firewall of China, online video, 30 July, Ted Talks, viewed 10 March 2015, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yrcaHGqTqHk>

Branigan, T 2011, ‘Chinese anger over alleged cover-up of high-speed rail crash’, Guardian, July 26, < http://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/jul/25/chinese-rail-crash-cover-up-claims&gt;

Chiu, C, Ip, C, & Silverman, A 2012, ‘Understanding social media in China’, McKinsley&Company, 1 April, viewed 20 March, <http://www.mckinsey.com/insights/marketing_sales/understanding_social_media_in_china&gt;

Shirky, C 2012, How social media can make history, November 16, Ted Ed, viewed March 10 2015, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ASZJE15E0SY>

Moore, M 2011, ‘Anger in China as bodies ‘fall from carriages’ during train crash clean-up’, Telegraph, July 25, viewed 20 March, < http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/china/8658959/Anger-in-China-as-bodies-fall-from-carriages-during-train-crash-clean-up.html&gt;

Naughton, J 2015, ‘The fascinating truth behind all those ‘great firewall of China’ headlines’, Guardian, February 15, viewed March 10, < http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/feb/14/truth-behind-great-firewall-of-china-headlines&gt;

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