Life behind China’s Great Firewall

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We’ve all had it happen: You’re surfing the Internet at work, or maybe the library, and you try to get to a site somebody doesn’t want you looking at. Blocked. Access denied. You are stopped by an invisible firewall that stands between you and the information you’re seeking. It’s frustrating, isn’t it? Now imagine if this invisible firewall existed beyond the computer.

Now stop imagining, because, in many countries, this is reality.

China may be the most famous country to have erected a firewall around itself and its people to keep certain ideas and information out. They call it the “Great Firewall,” and it is not confined solely to the cyber world. Under communist rule, China has implemented measures to hide or otherwise gloss over things it deems inappropriate or dangerous; things it does not want the average Chinese citizen to think about.

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about this specific breed of government-decreed censorship, thanks to reading about Google’s battle to retain operation of its search engine in China while refusing to censor its search results any longer.

In the past, Google — along with any other search provider in China — had to edit its results in line with the stance of the Chinese government. In January, however, Google was contemplating pulling out of China because it no longer wanted to censor itself. An outcry by Chinese users persuaded it to stay, but Google decided to go rogue and started directing all searches from mainland China to its unfiltered Hong Kong site.

The Chinese government was not happy about this, and threatened to suspend Google’s Internet license. A compromise was eventually reached: Google went back to its old filtered search engine, but now gives users the option to click a button to be taken to the Hong Kong site. However, Beijing’s controls could still block banned results from showing up in searches in mainland China, even through the Hong Kong site.

Crazy, right? At least, it seems that way to me, an American who has the freedom to search for anything on the Internet and get a variety of results that aren't pre-approved by my government. But that’s communism for you. China utilizes its “Great Firewall” to block access to materials it views as “subversive or pornographic.”

And, surprisingly, for the most part, people in China accept this.

I visited Beijing and Shanghai briefly in 2007 as part of a large tour group (my college marching band). China surprised me in a lot of ways, but one thing that stuck with me (and made me slightly uncomfortable at the time) was this whole topic of government censorship and the “Great Firewall.”

We were on a tour bus, crawling through the Beijing traffic on our way to the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. As an American, I am aware of what happened there in 1989 — events often referred to as the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Anywhere from 241 to 10,000 people died in military violence, depending on who you ask (China says 241, NATO says 7,000, the Soviets at the time said 10,000). But, in China, this event is simply referred to as the “June Fourth Incident.” Media and websites are forbidden to mention it, and photos and video footage from inside the actual square on that day are virtually nonexistent. According to the Chinese government, it didn’t happen.

As our Beijing tour guide — a bubbly, twenty-something Chinese woman from rural northern China — talked to us about Tiananmen Square, she acknowledged this void of information. She told us that she could search phrases related to the incident on the Internet and get no results. She told us that she — like many Chinese people her age — is aware that something happened in Tiananmen Square in 1989. But she doesn’t know what, and she isn’t sure if anyone was hurt.

All of us on that bus knew that we, as Americans, could go home and type in the same search and get over 1.2 million uncensored results. We knew that we could find out that thousands of people were hurt and killed in 1989. But, whether out of fear (we've all heard stories about Chinese prisons), sheer bafflement, or pity, none of us could bring ourselves to tell any of this to her. And she never asked.

I often wonder: What kind of implications does the “Great Firewall” really have on China? Is it detrimental to a country and its people to withhold certain information — information about their own history, no less — from them? If they knew what was being kept hidden behind that firewall, would they still love their country as much?

Somehow, I think they might. There’s a different mindset in China. People don’t seem to resent communism. In fact, many that I met in my short time there were thankful for their jobs and the way the government takes care of them and their cities. Perhaps it’s just blind patriotism and ignorance. But perhaps it’s not. Perhaps I just have completely different views because of where I grew up — here in the U.S., where we’re obsessive about our freedoms.

Recently, I met a young Chinese man who is enamored with America and its history. He knows all 50 states, and the date that we signed our Declaration of Independence. He was astounded when my dad explained to him that anyone in the U.S. who isn’t a criminal can legally buy a gun. He invited me to visit him in Shanghai, and requested that I bring American history books along with me.

I wonder if he has ever read an American history book. I wonder how they compare to the government-approved history books that I’m sure he read in China as a student. I wonder, if I tried to mail him these books, whether he would even receive them, or if they would simply “disappear” somewhere along they way.

Just thinking about all this makes me even more contemplative. And confused. And maybe even a bit angry. But then I have to remind myself that I am an American, and that I don’t know nearly as much as I think I do. I have no right to judge. I can only learn, and ponder, and hope that I never have to know what it’s like to live behind a Great Firewall.

"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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9 Comments on “Life behind China’s Great Firewall

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  1. I really enjoyed your views on China and the Great Firewall. It’s a breath of fresh air amongst the so many travel blogs. It’s a bit heavy in a way, but I’m definitely for some weight once in a while. I think I’ll some business here and look around… oh… and Hello!

      Hi, Mumun! Thanks for stopping by, and I’m really glad you enjoyed this post! It is indeed a little heavy. But sometimes that’s okay!

    I defend the right to say, not what you have said. I love my country, though there are many problems.Given much more time,it will be better.The new China has just found for 60 years, imagining 200 years for our country, what will it be like?

      Of course you have the right to say whatever you’d like! And, I actually do point out in this post that the people I met in China really seemed to love their country. Which is why, at the end, I question whether I have any right to judge at all, since I don’t know what it’s like to call China home. I don’t think there’s really any way for me, as an American, to understand China the way you do.

    Very interesting article. I have wondered as well what it might be like. Would maybe my interests just end up away from certain things? Would I maybe just look at video games instead of history? Who knows?
    One thing I will say though is that for a lot of Americans the information is just as filtered. Not because that can’t find more, but often because they either don’t want to, or there is so much info out there they don’t know what to trust. I have heard plenty of stories from Germans that have traveled in the States to questions of “Does Germany have running water or cars?” A number of them will say similar things about the Americans that you have written of the Chinese. The sad part is that the filtering in the US is often self imposed.
    I usually defend my countrymen, explaining the vast size and that if you lived in a small town it could be an hour to anything the Germans would even call a village sized place. In a situation like that what the nightly news shows, with its biases in many directions, is what most people believe. Sure the Internet is open, but if you choose not to look or search, that has the same effect as not being able to.

    People should have freedom of searches, but also the desire and interest to seek out that knowledge. I like travelers (especially American ones), because they are often the people like your history buff friend who break out of the (sometimes self imposed) rut and seek out new knowledge, even if it makes them uncomfortable.

      You make a great point, Andrew – that self-imposed censorship can be just as detrimental. In fact, you may be able to argue that it’s even worse, since it means there’s a general sense of apathy and lack of inquisitiveness that leads to the self-imposed filtering. … Now you’ve got me thinking all over again!

        No, mister Bond, I expect you to Think.. Mwhahahah

    Nice conclusion. I think Americans err on getting too entrenched in every other country’s way of life, trying to change it etc. Not everyone is going to live in a democracy like we do. However, I know I would not last long in China. I don’t like being told the half truth in any situation. I kind of think natives would care if they knew the extent of the situation. That’s a big reason why so many Chinese, among other people, have ended up in the US, looking for that freedom our country supposedly gives.

      Yes, I suppose you do make a good point there. However, I’m still not totally sure what I think. It’s such a different culture, and, like I said, it’s almost impossible for me as an American to really comprehend (and therefore analyze) it. But it certainly is something to think about, isn’t it? I don’t think I would last long there, either.

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