Hi again everyone! I again apologize for my infrequent postings… it is hard to keep this updated with all my thoughts and adventures since being here in Beijing. However, my recent trip to China’s most famous landmark has inspired me to share some thoughts about current events in China. If anyone has been following the news over the past month or so, there has been some major political events in China as of late that have led the government to once again revisit its policy on social media and the role it plays in a modern China. When asked about their general perceptions of China, many westerners will cite China’s internet censorship as a radical example of an authoritarian regime oppressing the masses. The issue, as I’ve found since coming to China, is a lot more complicated than the basics. But before I delve into my thoughts on internet censorship, first a little about my trip to the Great Wall.
My program arranged for us to spend two days hiking the Great Wall of China, and I have to admit, I was less then thrilled at the prospect of another “hike”. However, despite my misgivings, the experience was definitely a defining moment of my time in China. The part of the Wall that we hiked was not one of the typical tourist destinations, which meant that we were basically along on the ups and downs through 30 towers of the hike on the first day. After some strenuous exercise and some great picture taking, we arrived at our overnight location (a home on the edge of a small village right next to a remote area of the Great Wall) and as expected it lacked amenities one would expect for an overnight stay in the west. We slept seven girls across on large stone structures called kongs, which have space underneath to light a fire in order to keep warm during the winter. The next morning we were woken up at 4am to a beautifully clear starry sky and were literally led by moonlight toward what I had been dreading all week… the sunrise hike straight up to the highest tower of the Great Wall. As I dredged along through the fields approaching the wall, I could not help but feel a palpable sense of history. Everything about the area is untouched by modernity, and the Wall was no exception. The hike straight up a giant mountain in partial darkness was as difficult as I had expected. I thought several times that there was no way I was making it, and even if I did, it could not be worth the intense physical endurance that put my fitness and my knee problems to the test. I was ultimately, big surprise, proven wrong. As I reached the tower and could see over the forest we had just hiked through, you could see the sun barely peaking out over the mountains in the distance, and the Wall snaked through the sunlight visible to the naked eye for miles. Sitting on top of the highest point of Great Wall on Easter morning felt like a true new beginning, and once again my reasons for being here in China were revalidated.
Now, you may be wondering what this experience on China’s most historic site has to do with internet censorship. Since being in China, as I mentioned, I have learned a lot about what censorship means to many Chinese people and why it has become such a contentious issue in politics. The Great Firewall in modern China mimics the purposes and effectiveness of its of its historic centuries-old counterpart. The Great Wall, which currently stretches almost 4000 miles across Northern China, was originally constructed to keep out intruders, and its defensive capabilities were tested for centuries. The Great Firewall was created for a similar purpose: to protect China from intruders, and create a physical barrier separating China from the rest of the world. The flaws with the system are numerous. The firewall prevents anyone in China from accessing all types of information. Social media, blogging, and news sites are all heavy monitored and some are blocked all together. This concept is, for obvious reasons, difficult for Westerners to understand… and even many Chinese students who “understand” the reasons for the policy are angered by the limited access they have. One Chinese student I spoke to recently was venting her frustrations with the policy. She has a VPN, which allows your IP address to appear like you are in another country in order to let you circumvent the wall, but is often baffled by the differences between the sites she can access with her VPN on, and the sites the Chinese government allows. She feels as a student she is at a disadvantage, because students in other countries can access any type of information they desire. This student often obtains her news about her own country from foreign news sources such as CNN and the New York Times.
The firewall policy and the reasons it exists are not as straightforward as the reasons for constructing the Great Wall. Just as information slips through the cracks of the firewall, the Great Wall was by no means impenetrable, and now could easily be crossed and demolished by modern weaponry. China’s new form of protection through censoring the internet seems like it should also theoretically begin to crumble under increased public pressure for more freedom, but despite the fact that the China of today is a whole lot more open then it was forty years ago, it seems like censorship just gets increasingly more stringent. For example, if you Google a sensitive topic, such as “Tiananmen Square Protests”, you might be able to get through to a select few sites that have very slanted and limited information, and then you can expect your internet access will be cut for a short period of time, maybe 10 minutes or an hour. Similarly, the other day for causes we can only speculate, China shut down internet access for two hours, and disabled any use of VPNs, disturbing the day-to-day operations of the many international businesses (and those of us who were trying to access Facebook). My Chinese history professor, who has lived in China many years, has said that this kind of a disruption has never been done for that length of time before, and he guessed that the government could have been testing its ability to pull the plug if ever needed. This scary realization (accompanied with my professor reminding us to know the location of the nearest U.S. embassy) reminded me that I am in a country that still operates under an authoritarian regime.
The opinions I’ve heard about the policy aren’t all bad. One of my Chinese friends has explained that China is “still like a small child” and the censoring policy is just like “safety locks” limiting the child’s ability to stray to far until it is mature enough to do so. From my experience, it seems like the Chinese people are able to handle freely accessing information and using social media, but as mentioned, the policy is becoming more severe. While the government tries to give the people an outlet to do similar activities through regulated blogging sites and social media, any sensitive posts or comments will immediately be removed. While China has progressed so much, it seems like the firewall, just like the Great Wall, is becoming increasingly outdated, but whether or not it will become an ancient thing of the past remains to be seen in modern Chinese society.