Thursday, October 22, 2015

The Great Firewall of China — Chinese attitudes

Talking with an American friend earlier this morning (yesterday evening in America), I finally found a way to explain the Chinese attitude toward the blocking of foreign websites (such as Facebook, Google, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, and others)...

My American friends often think the so-called Great Firewall of China must chafe horribly on the Chinese. I wish this were true.

Imagine that the US government suddenly blocked most of the famous overseas websites or internet services, such as WeChat, Alibaba, YouKu, Baidu, and others. (To match the cutesy name "Great Firewall of China," let's call it The American Civil Wall.)

You've probably heard of WeChat and Alibaba, if not the other names. You've probably never  used them, or if you have, you wouldn't miss them very much.

There are domestic alternatives in the US, so at most you lose some cool functions that the Chinese services have and the American ones don't have. Maybe you lose contact with a few people who use WeChat but not Facebook. Probably those aren't very close friends, anyway.

Now suppose you could install VPN software to get around the American Civil Wall. But you have to figure out where to find the software, which one works best, how to install it and use it.

It's also illegal, so there's a slight chance you could get in big trouble for even having it on your computer.

Not to mention, do you even know you can trust the maker of that VPN? Perhaps it's an NSA front, so everything you do is routed directly to the US government.

Is the hassle worth it? Probably not.

This is exactly how most of my Chinese friends feel about the Great Firewall of China. They know it's there, and they abstractly disapprove of it — but it's a relatively small concern for them. They can do everything they need to on the domestic internet. They are not burning with desire for Facebook and YouTube.

The people who do care are people with strong political interest (generally anti-Chinese-government), or people with strong personal ties or commercial interests overseas, or people who want to get out of China. (Big overlap between that last category and the previous two.)

If you're in America, the US internet is the end-all, be-all of the online world. After all, the 'net was invented and created in America, and probably every website you go to is American. But the Chinese could say the exact same: for most of them, every website they go to is Chinese.

To the Chinese, the US internet is about as interesting as the Chinese internet is to an American citizen. And it's almost as daunting, since most Chinese people's English isn't that great.

So when people think "surely the Chinese people are ready at any moment to throw off this yoke of internet blocking," they're missing the point. The Great Firewall of China is the last thing that will cause unrest, and it's the last thing the government will compromise on.


  1. Good to see you back. I was worried you'd stopped posting. I've just got back to London from Dalian visiting family. Looking forward to the next posts. Tom

    1. Yes, it's been a while. I do more on Facebook these days, only posting the longer pieces over here. Thank you for the implicit compliment!