A few years ago, in 2015, China did the unthinkable. The CCP blocked Wikipedia. They blocked my favorite website in the world for a few days and I nearly broke down crying.
Wikipedia was essential to my job as a teacher. Perhaps a decade ago, Wikipedia was known for poorly written articles and a tenuous connection to the truth. Nowadays, even university professors will tell you it’s a decent starting point for research. It’s mostly impartial and balanced, and presents cases for all sides of an argument, and then provides info on how to research them further.
That’s the purpose. It’s a phenomenal resource to jump off from. Try citing Wikipedia in on a university term paper and you’re an absolute bozo. (People still say that, right?) It’s not the end point; it’s the starting point. And when you’re in a pinch and need to research something uber quickly, Wikipedia it is. It is an indispensable resource as a teacher, and truly one of the internet’s greatest gifts.
People come to rely on and expect certain things, and the website was mine. So when I expected to get a quick answer before one of my classes on a fine fall day in 2015 in the Chinese subtropics, I simply could not. I freaked.
The CCP has blocked many websites: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, WordPress, Google and its umpteen products, Instagram, Pinterest, NY Times, Dropbox, Soundcloud, and of course, the absolute barrage of Western porn sites. But for foreigners, this has an easy work around: VPNs.
VPN stands for virtual private network, and essentially allows your computer to run as if on a private network and changes your IP address. In short, it permitted me to live in Beijing and allow me to act on the internet as if I was in Chicago.
It would have allowed me to watch sports on NBC, ESPN, etc., but I would never do that cause it’s illegal to watch broadcasts outside the United States without written approval, of course. It also granted me access to all forms of Western social media including WordPress and the early form of my blog. That’s right! I could not even access my blog without a VPN.
I could get through to the #FailingNYTimes if I wanted. (I did.) I could use the apparently evil SoundCloud, which distributes copious amounts of sinister, obscure EDM artists’ work. Oh, the villainy.
But let’s say you don’t have a VPN, either because you’re not on one of your personal devices or because you paid for one of the million shitty VPNs out there. What now? Well, there’s always Chinese analogs of whatever site you want.
For Google search, there’s Chinese Bing. For Google Maps, there’s Baidu Maps. For gmail, there’s QQ mail. For Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Uber, Venmo, WordPress, Pinterest, and everything else it seems, the Chinese use WeChat.
These are not perfect solves. I will go on record as saying Bing.com is absolute shit. It’s shit. You Google something and your result will 99 times out of a 100 be on the first page, and probably will be boxed at the top for you. You “Bing” something and you will first feel very awkward and then feel very stupid because you won’t find the answer. You will look at the first page of results and think “hmmm, these don’t seem right. I’ll just Google it.”
WeChat is not social in the same way as Facebook. WeChat is literally designed to keep posts from becoming viral. Only mutual friends can see or like posts. You cannot share posts outside of literally copy-paste, which keeps likes low. Things are chronological as opposed to weighted on your timeline, meaning they will never blow up.
In China, big news dissipates with the vicissitudes of time.
With WeChat, the government has a tool that nearly a billion people use that they can easily control. It’s perfect. It’s not the information cannot be distributed, but that if the “wrong” stuff gets out there the government can immediately censor. The scale of the censorship department is truly mind boggling.
If you post something in an individual chat, it will likely be fine. You post something in a group of 500 people, it will be deleted. On that topic, groups max out at 500 people. No giant Facebook groups in China, which keeps down the viralness.
For instance, Winnie the Pooh is a nickname for the current chairman, Xi Jinping. At certain tense times, writing Winnie in WeChat will get you a nice slap on the wrist and it’ll be blocked.
In general, though, it’s easy to get around the Great Chinese Firewall. If you want access to information you can get it. You either pay or you know someone. Wikipedia is structured, however, such that you either get all of Wikipedia or you get none of it. So because there’s no Chinese equivalent of Wikipedia this was a doozy. (There is Baidu Baike, but it’s not that same.)
Luckily a Wiki-delegation was sent to the Middle Kingdom and access was quickly restored. Class can go on!
Frictions to Information
The Great Chinese Firewall is impeccable at performing its duties. But as China, the US and Germany know, walls aren’t impermeable. They’re more like high-security sieves. And the CCP knows this.
For this reason, I think the primary feature of the Great Chinese Firewall is what I like to call frictions to information.
A silly example of how it manifests itself. As a teacher I needed to make a PowerPoint for class, and the topic was card games in a country where gambling is mostly illegal. So I headed to the impotent Bing.com to find a picture of a dealer. (I won’t be endorsed by Microsoft any time soon.) And I searched and searched and searched, and Chinese Bing only had super low-resolution pictures of a dealer with his back to the screen. Great.
It’s like this with useful information, too. You search and search, but only find half the answer, and that has to serve as final. You know it’s not the best, but it’s all you can do.
This is friction to information. It’s not easy to find the answer, so you quit or you find a subpar substitute. I’m an intensely curious person, so if even I must quit after looking for an hour to find the answer to some inconsequential question, then it this friction is truly prohibitive and effective.
They don’t make it impossible to access info, just annoying. If I’m discouraged, I can guarantee you that with absolute certainty my entire office isn’t searching in depth for answer, nor are the better part of the people I’ve met. And this is how information flow is stifled.
It’s not always through the blunt instrument of censorship, but through mere friction. This friction of information is what stems progress. This friction can be as simple as having to log in to a VPN, to the internet crapping out randomly, to throttle connections for “normal” sites to anything really.
If it’s annoying to get an answer, is it worth getting?
Let me know what you think in the comments below! Have you experienced the frustration of trying to find an answer only to be stifled by a 404 error?
Like what you’re reading on China? Check out some other related articles in: The China Chronicles!!