Thoughts on Governmental Control of the Internet

Posted by Jacob Kingsley on 4/24/2017


            After living in Beijing for two months now, I want to talk about the assumptions and stereotypes that I came into China with, specifically the idea of censorship surrounding the government. Recently, specifically with the changes made by the Xi Jinping administration, it has become a pretty commonplace idea that the Chinese government controls the internet, what is accessible (and what is not), and has a firm grip on anti-governmental thoughts. I had heard that speaking ill of the government in China could land you in prison, an idea which probably arose around the time of the Hong Kong protests. I’d like to share my experiences of what this is really like from inside China and try and bring some clarity to the situation.

            No, you cannot use Google, YouTube, or Facebook in China. Technically. Before addressing the ways around this, its important to acknowledge that Baidu is pretty much just a Chinese Google in the way that we primarily use Google – to look up facts and find websites conveniently. Where America has Facebook, China has WeChat. Features and usage are similar enough that it appears to me that the lack of access to some American websites is made up for nicely by Chinese equivalents to them. I would argue that even with access to some American websites, China would pretty quickly revert back to their equivalents for familiarity and a program designed around their native language.

            But you must be saying, ‘but choice is important! Chinese people have the right to know about events their government covers up!’ I completely agree. So for the group who obviously would want to use their search engine for something other than a quick fact check, I wondered what was flat out accessible through the Chinese firewall. So I checked, and the Wikipedia page for the 1989 Tiananmen protests is not only not blocked here, it’s not even edited. So I checked again to make sure that wasn’t a fluke. And sure enough, I was able to view So if the all-powerful Chinese government isn’t cracking down on these news sites, what are they cracking down on? Not VPNs I’ll tell you that. VPNs, for those that don’t know, are handy little applications which help your devices completely bypass the Chinese firewall. Whether you want to find New York Times articles on Chinese corruption or just want to use Facebook, you can do some for just a few bucks a month. But not only do us visiting Americans have them, my host sibling has one on his computer. Additionally, I am friends with several other Chinese kids on Instagram, another banned site here. And so far, none of us have gotten house calls from your friendly government police.

            Lastly, free speech is on the rise here. I’ve had open discussions with some of the exchange students about Chinese government, and it seems like the country is moving closer and closer towards free speech. Of course, there are still no pundits on TV berating the president as is now commonplace in the Trump administration. There are no protests in the capitol, like, oh I don’t, the massive one in America a month or two ago. But on the other hand, there are no mass jailings. There is no anti-American or anti-democracy propaganda, at least not aggressively or notable enough that I, as an American, was left with any lasting impression. China is not America, but it is certainly not the authoritarian government we often make it out to be, and it is definitely becoming a more free country. This of course, is just my take as one foreigner living in the middle of Beijing. I am sure that there are censorship problems that I cannot see from my position right now (probably in Hong Kong and Taiwan), but this is how I wanted to address these stereotypes and I do believe that they are misinformed.