Browsing for Freedom

Social media in China is heavily censored. Lam, Tsz Ying finds out whether users on the mainland really care

“Facebook and YouTube were censored early enough to be well-known among the mainland Chinese people. We’re quite used to it.”
How many times do you go on Facebook per day? What would life be like if there was no Youtube, no Facebook? Many forms of social media are censored in mainland China, and not only whatever people write on the internet will be censored but they are also prohibited from going on Facebook and Youtube. We all understand that Facebook is now one of, if not the, major tool with which we connect with others. This is especially true at universities, the original target market of the website, where Facebook plays an important role in advertising different events and societies. In China, a democratic country, some think this censorship actually goes against the human rights of accessing information and having freedom of speech. Andy Shu Xin, the Social Media Manager and Website Editor of the Co-China Forum, thinks so. Although he was born in mainland China, he left for Hong Kong to study Communication. He is very clear on his ideological background, saying that he volunteers with the Co-China forum, an organisation championing the broadcasting of independent opinion.

In 1979, Xiaoping Deng, then first Vice Premier of the People’s Republic, innovated a policy of ‘reform and opening up’. The Chinese began to have more opportunities to connect with the world as more people moved West to study and international trade took off. This has brought immense changes to Chinese society and its economy. However, as Deng said: “If you open the window for fresh air, you have to expect some flies to blow in.” The government knew the risks and instituted a vast monitoring network to protect the regime through the process of opening up.

In 1994, the Internet reached China. The government understood that the window would have to be opened yet further to allow China to stay competitive. In the People’s Daily, Wu takes a militant line saying, “If we increase our use of the Internet, we can use it for our purposes and turn it around on them. Just as we weren’t defeated by a well-armed American military in the Korean war, we won’t be defeated in this Internet war by reactionary intra-national and international ideologies.”

In China censorship is conducted in two ways, through input and output. The former is mostly based on a ‘banned keywords list’, these keywords are usually about sensitive political issues or obscenities. With regard to input, there are a range of websites that cannot be freely accessed, such as social media (Facebook, Youtube), online news; web pages of some Hong Kong and Taiwanese political parties; controversial religious websites (Falun Gong); and pornography. For output, what people deliver on the accessible platforms will be examined: if there are words from ‘the banned list’, the message cannot be sent off, or it will be blocked afterwards.

“If an incorrect message is spread on the internet, triggering public protest, it only risks destroying social stability”

Recent research conducted by the Carnegie Mellon University illustrates that terms such as ‘to blockade’, ‘Dafa’ (Falun) and ‘Jiang Zemin’ (the former Secretary General of the Communist Party of China) are amongst those most commonly deleted from Twitter. The research also shows there is a great contrast in the deletion rate in the outer regions such as Guangdong, Beijing and Shanghai and the relatively stable areas, such as Qinghai. Censorship in restive areas is clearly much tighter.

“The censorship is implemented by what is usually called Great Firewall (GFW), a Government-run Internet censorship and surveillance system. The system is said by some to be the most advanced and effective of its kind, reportedly supported by several Internet device providers, including Oracle and Cisco.” Andy Shu Xin, the Social Media Manager and Website Editor of the Co-China Forum, was born in mainland China, leaving for Hong Kong to study Communication. He explains that “from my personal experience, without special efforts to circumvent the system, access to Facebook and YouTube is impossible in mainland China after the ban.”

His background with the Co-China forum, an organisation championing the broadcasting of independent opinion, may go part of the way to explain Andy’s strong views. Jamie, a first year maths student at York from Beijing is more ambivalent: “We don’t think it’s a problem because it’s the norm to us. We have a Facebook account, but we seldom use it, it is only for group discussion with non-Chinese students.” Here Andy agrees: “Facebook and YouTube were banned early enough to be well-known among the Mainland Chinese people. For most people, the ban on Facebook and YouTube is not a serious issue because they do not use them anyway and their needs are well satisfied by the local websites of similar nature such as Renren (like Facebook), Youku (like Youtube).”

“It is true that it causes inconvenience since we can’t access or share some bits of information.”

Andy does, to an extent, see it as a justifiable piece of state intervention: “There are always two sides of the coin. Internet censorship in China is good for us in that it prevents us from planting incorrect messages.” After my time in England, I am amazed that a man of liberal persuasion could say this. But even this doesn’t prepare me for the comments of my fellow students. Peter, a second year ABFM student, believes censorship to be important as it allows political stability to be maintained: “If a wrong message is spread on the Internet, triggering public protest, it only risks destroying social stability, and yet the protest itself is meaningless.” Andy demonstrates that this view isn’t homogenous across China: “[It is easy to be] resentful, but you get quite used to it. When I was younger and less technically skilled, I used to be very frustrated by the fact that there are a lot of good things out there that I simply cannot see.”

But for the more rebellious there is a solution for people wanting to access banned information: “I have many friends whom I can only find on Facebook. When I go back to mainland China, I will use my proxy software to keep myself connected. I often don’t really feel the barrier,” Andy explains.

Jamie adds, “China is a communist country, which cannot be compared with Britain. The Chinese need a different system to manage the country. If people are given too many human rights, some beneficial policies will be prevented because humans are selfish and we cannot always see the bigger picture or real needs.” Andy vehemently opposes this view: “Freedom of speech is one of the key components of human rights, granted under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which the Chinese Government signed. The right to access information is very important as well as the fact that, without it, citizens would have few ways of ensuring that their government is acting in their interest.”

But Andy acknowledges that western concepts of freedom may not be applicable to many Chinese citizens: “My impression is that the majority of mainland Chinese people are unfamiliar with the very idea of ‘freedom’ or ‘rights’. Maybe for many of them, freedom is ‘I do whatever I want’, and freedom of speech is ‘I say whatever I want to say’. Most of them do not have the awareness to monitor what the Government is doing, either out of fear or blind trust, or both.”

Despite contrasting opinions, they can both see the situation improving. Andy believes that “the government is becoming more and more incapable of hiding things and the people are becoming more and more aware of what they deserve and more able to connect and associate with each other.” Therefore, openness may indeed be on the rise in the future.

Although students at York say they don’t think they are able to change anything, Andy believes that those from abroad who have experienced a lack of censorship can help to inspire other Chinese people to question freedom of speech and access the rights he believes they are entitled to. “If you look at the past hundred years of Chinese history you will see that most key changes occurred under the influences of foreign ideologies, either from the west, or from the north. People who have visited western countries have also played an important role in spreading the ideas of human rights.” Andy is optimistic, seeing this process as almost a duty that Chinese citizens abroad must propagate: “Individuals must help to spread these ideas by talking about their experiences abroad with their friends and relatives in China, the effect of which could be amplified by social media.” Andy is cautious in talking about the speed of time, but strongly optimistic: “The government is becoming more and more incapable of hiding things and the people are becoming more and more aware of what they deserve and more able to connect and associate with each other.” It seems Chinese people may get web freedom in the not too distant future. Whether they want it or not.

*Names of York students have been changed

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