Internet censorship has really entered the spotlight again with the events that transpired last week. Oh, you thought I meant Google revoking its censorship of search results in China? No, I meant the phone call I had with my older brother last week, who has been living in China for the past 7 years.
Sitting behind our laptops in the free world, it is sometimes hard to separate fact from fiction. In fact, when I did a search on China and the internet, I found a good many articles and even videos talking about their lack of creative freedoms. And following those articles and videos, you will find a wide range of comments criticizing the Chinese government for censorship or naysaying the so-called truth tellers.
For example, YouTube hosts multiple videos on the subject of internet censorship in China. One such video entitled “The Great Firewall of China” showed a 20 minute documentary on how bloggers are trying to plug the cracks in the system. And the viewers respond with comments such as:
“This is crap when I was in china I went on the China version of google and typed in things like tibeten freedom and stuff like that and got the same results as any where in the world. All this stuff is so overhyped and also most chinese know ways to get around all this stuff besides for facebook and_ one or two more other sites those I admit are almost completley blocked but I mean most people have BBC so this video is bulls***.” (unedited)
“Banning sites that educate_ the public about black listed topics such as the Tiananmen Square protests, peaceful assembling for rights and freedoms and Falun Gong doesnt incorporate peace and safety it promotes ignorance and intimidation. China wants to censor information that exposes the country’s communist past and present. If such information is shame for the country then it should take measures for reform.” (unedited)
It’s a complex issue and unless you have been there and seen how China operates, it is difficult to imagine such a closed society that is still a strong world power. I visited China in Fall 2005 and was surprised at how lovely it was. At least the China that I saw. It is very much a land of the haves and have-nots. And most people seem content to accept their place in society. It is clear, though, that their exposure to the foreign world is limited. The gawks and stares and even requests for photographs made us feel like mini-celebrities.
In the small city of Hangzhou, where my older brother, an American businessman, is trying to keep up with the outside world, internet censorship is more annoying than profound. He fails to see pictures from home that I post on Facebook. I send him articles that have big blank boxes where YouTube videos ought to be embedded.
I find all of this especially bizarre in light of the popularity of QQ. In case you haven’t heard of it, QQ is an instant messaging service used extensively throughout Mainland China. It was developed in 1999 and based on the ICQ protocol (early chat program for you youngsters). QQ has now evolved into a platform that provides chat rooms, games, avatars, events, groups, online dating, video sharing. In fact, it’s a lot like…Facebook.
Why allow one network and not another? My take on it: control and monetization. The police have ensured that identities and names are real and traceable – especially those that administer special interest groups. As for the money? I can’t say that the government makes money off of it but for premium services, users are required to pay and there is a big market for QQ branded merchandise.
Denying access to social networking platforms like Facebook doesn’t stop Chinese socialization. Hiding the actual results on Google for a search on Tiananmen Square doesn’t do much to change Chinese history or their way of life. However, preventing its citizens from interacting with the virtual world doesn’t stop the cultural shift at hand. In fact, it only makes it more pronounced.