I’m out of China now so I feel comfortable enough writing this. Not like state security is on your ass, like, ever but you never know. I felt weird even using a proxy and all my Skype calls had this red RECORDING sign which seemed unusual. But I’m in Sri Lanka now and, no disrespect or disrepute intended, here’s my experience of Chinese Internet.
In Beijing and Shanghai – each first world countries in their own right – everybody is on the net. They’re on Weibo (Twitter like), RenRen (Facebook like) and numbered sites and apps I don’t quite understand. I’ve seen dudes scratching out characters on a touchscreen (which convert) or typing english chars that presumably convert. However they’re doing it, Chinese people are bout it bout it. I met a reporter who has 8,000 followers on Weibo and a TV actor who said he had like 100,000 before he shut his account down. A Chinese blogger – Han Han – is on billboards throughout the subways. He’s awesome btw, a friend had his number but I was way too scared to call.
Only things Chinese people aren’t on are American based sites like Facebook and Twitter. These are completely blocked. As is YouTube (YouKu instead). Makes you wonder about the feasibility of their long term business models if the biggest social media market is excluded. Even if Zuckerberg is learning Mandarin. GMail works, Google kinda dodgily works, but a lot of Google services (like Docs) don’t work or have problems. Google Maps works as an app (on the iPad say) but not as a website. Flickr works half of the time, but like half of the photos don’t appear.
Why are these things blocked? For two reasons that I can ken – 1) Chinese social media companies will action takedown requests faster 2) There’s a ton of money to be made. That is, this is partly a censorship policy and partly protectionist economics. RenRen et al are making a TON of money that FB would otherwise be making, and you know the government is in on the take, either directly or through friends and family. Seriously, their policy is part censorship, part protectionist piracy. FB and Twitter drove and created this market and the Chinese government essentially blocked them and encouraged other people to pirate them. I think there could be a sorta case against this under the WTO, it’s pretty damn uncompetitive.
So, while western innovations are essentially pirated, it’s not like Chinese people don’t have access to the same online social behaviors you and I (where are you reading from?) take for granted. The government has some control over this stuff, but I think it’s honestly growing too fast. While I was there, for example, this horrendous photo of a woman after a forced abortion (7 months in!) was circulating like wildfire. Here’s the NYTimes article on that. I won’t link to the photo cause it’s seriously horrifying, but you can find it easy enough, as can Chinese people. Hence the government couldn’t do much except, like, actually fire the people involved. Who knows what doesn’t get out though.
Here it seems easy enough to slip into the ‘government bad’ view of China. I must reiterate that this was not my experience at all. My general experience was that China is awesome, the people are truly charming and the government is not especially visible or malignant at all. The Internet is censored, yes, but it’s also just evolved differently. Chinese people are on the net all the time. You honestly feel the inconvenience more as an English speaker coming in, Chinese speaking people have plenty of social media options beyond the ones we consider de rigeur.
That said, I think the Chinese government does fail at points where things fall apart. That is, it’s quite fine to run amazing trains and public transit and even support art districts, but when citizens have problems or disputes (over stuff like land or corruption or legal issues) that is where I think the Chinese government is less effective. What I hear is that you can be broadly critical of the party (the party pollutes the environment) but specific allegations (this party functionary is polluting this stream in this village) can get you in trouble. But it is often the specifics that matter most, and those add up.
Getting Round The Great Firewall
So, anyways, how easy is it to crack the great firewall. Honestly, pretty damn easy. I was on an iPad, so I just searched for ‘VPN’ in the app store. I found an app called VPN Express which downloaded some settings to my pad. Then – under VPN in the iPad settings – I could literally make one swipe to turn the VPN on and everything was fine. Flickr, Facebook, whatever. This costs though, the first few whatever were free, after that it’s $0.99 per 2GB. Which is fine. I use Flickr too much and I literally can’t blog without it. So that was fine, I only had to re-up once.
And that was it. I just flipped a switch when I wanted to use Facebook or YouTube. And that was it. I felt guilty – like ‘are they watching me?’ – but it was pretty easy. China is honestly weird like that. You can kinda do anything in China up to a point, but once you get to a certain size or influence (which is undefined) the hammer and sickle comes down, hard.
One final word. Chinese mobile Internet, as far as I could use it SUCKS. Speed whatever fine, but I’d reload for Rs. 1000 (like 50 quai (yuan (RMB)) ) … I’d reload for 50 quai and the connection would be cut in like 24 hours. Word is bond, I’d check my mail, read a few news articles, and then I’d be out of credit. That’s way too expensive and it sucked.
Was it my connection? Maybe, but I just got a regular prepaid SIM. Incidentally, anyone can get these, there’s no ID required or anything. Compare that to India where getting a SIM is damn near impossible for Ferengi. So that’s cool, but the absurd data rates are not. I simply stopped using it and looked around for WiFi, which most cafes and stuff seemed to have. But I honestly can’t sit in cafes that much. I just used the net over WiFi at home.
So that’s my experience of the Chinese Internet. It’s hella annoying if you’re used to the American Internet (which is blocked), it sucks on prepaid mobile (expensive) but it seems OK for the Chinese. Which is ultimately all China cares about. So I guess it’s OK.