Living in China, one of the most common questions I’m asked is about the Great Firewall. The Great Firewall as people have named it, is China’s Internet censorship policy. Facebook, YouTube, google, gmail, blogspot, wordpress, pornography, and certain parts of Wikipedia and news websites are the most notable websites blocked. Certain keywords used in searches will also produce censored results. The goals of this censorship are to limit dissidence, problems from superstition, crime, immoral content (porn), organized protesting, and the availability and spread of information on corruption and sensitive political topics. Often it is also used to strike back at a company who isn’t cooperating with PRC policy.
Google is often a target of this, having had a very rocky relationship with the China Communist Party. Besides the many times google refused to comply with the CCP’s regulations, when I first got here there was a dispute with Japan over an island that was found to hold precious resources. When google maps listed the island as a Japanese territory, gmail and google were down for over a month. I’ve read that many Japanese websites were also blocked due to this dispute, furthering the idea of censorship being used as a weapon against opponents.
Another notable incident of censorship during the time I’ve been here was the 2012 doomsday rumor/myth/stupidity. Fear of public chaos and lawlessness stemming from the possibility of the world ending caused China to crackdown on anything promoting the idea of Doomsday. This campaign also took place off the web, where anybody distributing fliers or hanging posters was jailed. Even Doomsday theme parties and drinking events were forced to remove their posters and advertising, and change their names. Last I checked over 500 people in Beijing alone had been put in jail or fined for spreading this concept.
There are a lot of misconceptions about the goals of the Great Firewall. Many see it as awful, oppressive, and a stifling of the freedom of speech. While all of these are arguably true, it isn’t as malicious as it is often seen. It’s main goals are protecting against public uprising, ethnic independence movements, and hindering activism and protest. Anything on Tibet, the Weimar people in the shinzhong province, and Tiananmen square has been pretty much blacklisted. Events outside of China have been blocked as well, such as Egypt’s uprisings and the current conflicts in Syria. Historically many social networking and instant messaging websites have been used to organize movements, as well as spread banned information, and this is one of the main reasons behind why Facebook has been blocked. Information on pollution and corruption, whether true or not, have also been blocked to limit public resentment and the possibility of problems for the state stemming from the spread of this information.
As a foreigner, the Great Firewall can be incredibly annoying, but as long as you aren’t searching for this information or participating in anything the PRC views as dangerous or a potential vulnerability, it will remain only annoying. You should know though, that you are being watched. Emails are being scanned, petitions you sign are being put in a database, and anything that you are part of on paper is known. While you’re here I think it’s better if you abstain from digging into anything. Most likely nothing will happen immediately, but it could be the reason your VISA is unexpectedly rejected when you go to renew it. Journalists should heed much more caution with what you decide to investigate, but if you’re here you know more about this than I do.
There are multiple ways to evade censorship. Many proxies are available, as well as VPN networks you pay for. The TOR network is also an option, though bridges are needed to connect to it. Most VPN sites are blocked within China, which creates a frustrating catch 22 for getting one. Many foreign businesses’ have a VPN wifi set up for their patrons, so find one or a friend if you need to set one up within China. VPN services are also often unreliable, locked in a technological arms race for access with the administrators of the Great Firewall. Don’t expect to stream anything either, you’re having an incredibly lucky day if you can watch a youtube video on your VPN without waiting 10 minutes. There are many guides on your options for a VPN, so I won’t go any further into that.
Overall, using a VPN, the Great Firewall barely affects me. One thing to remember is China isn’t a Western nation, and doesn’t have the freedom of speech. As long as you’re a guest here, it would be best to keep that in mind. Just keep your nose clean, don’t ask for trouble, and you should be fine. See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil, and here in China, search no evil.