China Technology

Observing the Great Firewall

I recently compiled a list of popular English language sites which are currently blocked, or have been at some point in the past, in China (you can find the most current version on table
Red = blocked, Greed = available, Yellow = unstable

What struck me is how this has changed over the past few years; before mainstream news organisations (e.g. BBC) and various activist groups were the clear targets but today this has dramatically shifted towards social media (e.g. Twitter) and services which allow the free sharing of content outside China’s digital borders (e.g. YouTube). Within China clones of sites like Facebook (e.g. RenRen) have been allowed to flourish under the direct control of the government who are free to monitor and censor at will.

After the 60th anniversary celebrations at the beginning of the month commentators were expecting the government to ease the blocks but in fact the situation has actually gotten much worse with many more sites being block without warning. There are even proposals being floated to only allow content to be posted by accounts liked to a users national ID.

From all this I think we can infer a few things:

  • The Chinese government really doesn’t like *the people* expressing themselves without any means of control or identification (obviously)
  • Freeing the mainstream media allows them to avoid the old accusations of media censorship so the issue fades from the spotlight (if anyone questions this they can just say that bloggers aren’t reputable and need controlling etc.)
  • If your web app contains any kind of social or crowd-sourced component forget about trying to launch in China (unless you’re prepared to do the government’s bidding – Google is having a rough ride here trying to balance on the wall)
  • Blocking foreign sites may be bad for foreign companies but is good for the local competition who take over and fill the gaps
  • The Chinese government clearly has the technology to enforce these policies (probably provided by western companies) and see no reason not to use it – bypassing restrictions will be a constant cat-and-mouse game

In summary this was succinctly put by@illuminantceo who tweeted  “China no longer has internet. It has LAN”. It’s a pretty sorry state of affairs to be experiencing in 2009 after the amazing Beijing 2008 Olympics which were supposed to a key moment for China to turn the corner towards freedom. Sadly it looks like we’re a long way from seeing a truly open China.

The GFW actually creates more problems than it is intended to solve. It creates more anger and dissent. It creates more obstacles to trade and discussion of ideas, yet at the same time increases and furthers more bad-mouthing of China. It makes the government look stupid, scared, paranoid and childish as well as being totalitarian. It does nothing to encourage trade and business, if anything it scares investors, expats, foreign experts and others away. [from Lost Laowai discussion]

Ultimately China will suffer from this restrictive approach which stifles creativity and innovation which is exactly what Chinese needs in order to develop from a follower into a world leader. The inconvenience alone makes me seriously consider my future here, let alone the issue of human rights.

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