Anyone who has visited China will no doubt be familiar with online censorship.
As soon as you land on the continent, you’ll be blocked from accessing the main websites used in Japan and other countries for broadcasting information, such as Google, Facebook, and YouTube.
It’s not so bad if you’re only travelling there for a few days, but if you’re staying for a longer period of time on business and such, then you may find it somewhat of an inconvenience.
The censorship system used to regulate the internet in China is known as ‘Jīndùn’, or ‘The Golden Shield Project’. The purpose of this system is, of course, to prevent Chinese citizens from coming into contact with media and news that would be unfavorable to the Communist government.
Not only does this control the information posted within China itself, but people are also unable to access foreign social media sites. In addition to those listed above, people are unable to access services we use every day in other countries, such as LINE, Instagram, Amazon, Skype and Twitter (although there is a Chinese version of Amazon and Skype that can be used). Microsoft services are available, so you can still use Outlook or OneDrive when visiting China.
VPN’s are a common way around
Of course, when dealing with this kind of online environment, it’s impossible to get hold of accurate information and it’s difficult to contact family and friends outside of China. Like myself, many foreigners use VPNs (Virtual Private Networks).
However, as the Chinese government's internet regulations tighten, VPNs can sometimes stop working. During my time there, I had been using an American VPN service, but as China’s political situation grew tense, even VPNs were cut off. The provider I was using sent me an e-mail saying to connect via another server, and it felt like there was a lot of conflict in the online world—I remember feeling nervous just connecting to the internet.
For those of us in countries like Japan, we may wonder how the Chinese people can live in an environment with such strict internet regulations. But the thing is, there are many who are unaware that such internet censorship is happening in the first place. Of course, young people who are quick to gather information will try using VPNs to access sites outside of China, but there are actually a number of alternative services available from within China, so even if people can't access Google, YouTube, or social media like LINE or Facebook, they still don't feel it’s an inconvenience.
Plenty of Chinese services mean no one is inconvenienced
As an example, when I first moved to China, everyone used QQ to stay in touch with each other. At the time, LINE didn’t exist in Japan, so I remember there was this impression that the Chinese were more advanced than the Japanese for using QQ, which not only had a message function, but also the ability to publish blog posts.
Nowadays, everyone in China is using WeChat, which means there’s nothing inconvenient about living in China—or contacting Chinese people from abroad—even though they can’t use foreign social media services.
Although they can't use YouTube, there are loads of video sharing services like “bilibili”, “Douban” and “Youku”, and because of slack copyright regulations, they can watch as many foreign dramas and movies as they want for free.
Plus, there might be no Google, but there is Baidu and other alternative cloud services to Google Drive, such as Baidu Wangpan. One of Google’s great strengths is that so long as you have an account, you can collaborate on documents via the cloud. However, Tencent—who developed QQ—are currently developing TIM, a service which will allow you to collaborate on Word and Excel files online, and which is apparently quite user-friendly. Alternative services like “Yiqixie” and “Shimo Docs” are also gaining popularity in Japan.
If you give them a try, you’ll see that these Chinese services are just as good as their foreign counterparts, and have actually been designed to make them even easier to use. Because of this, many Chinese people don’t seem to understand why we would want to go so far as connecting to a VPN to use Google and LINE.
There’s no such thing as a free lunch
However, like anything, there’s invariably going to be a hidden agenda behind something useful that is given away free of charge. Almost 100% of Chinese people now use WeChat, and due to its ease of use and the fact that there is no other alternative available, all public posts are concentrated on this site. As a result, the government can pick up on every move that each citizen makes. What’s more, when data is uploaded to the cloud or when collaborating on documents, everything is supervised by the authorities, so working with sensitive corporate data online can be quite risky. I remember files only being exchanged via the cloud after they had been password protected by additional software.
As a countermeasure against the new coronavirus, China has been able to keep each citizen under surveillance, using payments and actions recorded on WeChat to successfully track who people have come into contact with and follow the route of infection. There’s no denying that the Chinese government’s control has worked positively in this regard, but this method would be unthinkable in other countries. The Golden Shield Project is also known as the “Great Firewall”, with this name originating from the Great Wall of China which was once threatened by northern nomadic tribes. This historical structure can be seen from space, and when I saw it myself first-hand, I remember being stunned at the fact they were able to build something like that. Now, I feel like the Golden Shield is aiming for something similar. A “wall” known as censorship has been built within cyber space, a place where an immeasurable amount of information flies around, and China is making a great effort to see how far they can keep it up.
Born in Japan and moved to China in 2008. After studying the Chinese language in Chengdu, Sichuan province, Kawai deepened his learning in Hunan and Jiangsu provinces through close interaction with locals. Currently staying in Ghana and making his endeavor to English and local Twi languages.