Arab Spring, blogging, Bo XiLai, censorship, China, Communist Party, elections, Facebook, government, Great Firewall of China, Great Wall of China, Huffington Post, journalism, King Kong, MySpace, Olympics, People's Republic of China, social media, Teletubbies, Tomb Sweeping Festival, Twitter, VPN, wealth gap, Weibo, WordPress
In recent years, the Great Firewall of China has gained much more attention than its architectural brother. I have always given the Chinese government the benefit of the doubt on the topic of Internet censorship, but my experiences during this trip have only helped sway me to the other side.
Back in 2008 during and after the Olympics, there was pretty much no censorship of social media sites. I easily accessed what I wanted, and even made new accounts for cousins and friends living in China. Perhaps it is because the government knew there would be an influx of foreigners accustomed to their daily (hourly, semi-hourly?) dose of cyber-stalking. Perhaps it is because back then MySpace was dying a slow death, Facebook was yet to explode internationally, Twitter had yet to become a source of official and unofficial news, and the myriad of other social media outlets had also yet to take hold.
But the tighter censorship is also perhaps because of China’s upcoming 18th Party of Congress. With the recent Bo XiLai incident and last year’s Arab Spring, it is conceivable the government is afraid of an “Asian Spring.” But even without access to international social media sites, the Chinese people are still able to communicate their perhaps revolutionary or rebel thoughts through Chinese social media outlets. For example, Weibo, the Chinese Twitter, was recently the site of a discussion about the Party Leadership that used codenames such as Teletubbies and King Kong for key political figures.
But even Chinese social media outlets face outright censorship at times. Weibo’s comment capability, an important function on that site, was shut down this past Tomb Sweeping Festival in an apparent clampdown. During this trip I’ve mostly been using a VPN whenever I’ve been able to use my own laptop to access the Internet, but sites such as Twitter and Facebook are sometimes blocked even while on my VPN. Surprisingly, the Huffington Post is also blocked. [EDIT: I’ve been told (see comments) that HP usually isn’t blocked. I guess I just got unlucky many a times.] This post itself would also be impossible, as WordPress, along with other popular blogging sites, are all censored.
The Chinese public is very well aware of the existence of this firewall and some have methods of overriding it, but without lots of friends and contacts being able to access social media sites, what good are they?
Perhaps the Arab Spring raised a new fear in the government, but I’m not really sure what it has to be afraid of. Yes, there is an immense wealth gap, and yes, there are human rights issues as well as on-and-off separatist movements, but frankly it’s not a dictatorship and really not much of a communist country anymore, at least not economically. And there is too much rooted in the history and traditions of this country for a revolution in the manner of those of the Arab Spring.
As for me, mostly this censorship has only served to remove that benefit of the doubt I’ve always given the Chinese government. Four more days until home sweet home and freedom of Internet (speaking of which, AT&T raised my Internet fees without notice…but that’s another matter).