The great firewall, China’s main weapon against free online access for its netizens, is often thought of as a blunt instrument but besides its blanket blocking of facebook or Twitter, there is a more subtle edge to what gets through and when.
PC magazine’s, Sascha Segan, took a trip across the border from Hong Kong to Shenzen to compare services directly behind the great firewall and that a bit further away.
HONG KONG—Here in Hong Kong, the Internet is global. But just over the border in the Chinese boom town of Shenzhen, major international websites get shut down behind the famed “Great Firewall of China.”
Watching the vibrant economic ferment in Shenzhen, it’s hard to remember that you’re in a totalitarian state. The Chinese folks I encountered were generally pretty blase about politics. Then again, Shenzhen is one of the richest cities in China, and the people I spoke to came from the relatively well-off professional classes.
So it was shocking to pull up a chair at Coco Park—a shopping mall in Shenzhen that’s so expensive that I couldn’t afford most of the things sold there—and be unable to access my Facebook page. Here in Hong Kong, Facebook is everywhere: ads on the subway regularly include companies’ Facebook fan pages. Just next door in Shenzhen, Facebook is silent.
China’s firewall (which is really called the “Golden Shield”) is more subtle than you might imagine at first glance. I didn’t have trouble accessing English-language news sites that were critical of the Chinese government—for instance, a BBC article about artist Ai Weiwei being freed from jail, or various articles about the Taiwanese presidential elections. News sites tend to become blocked or unblocked around major news events, according to frequent reports.
Some foreign-based social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Foursquare are blocked. This doesn’t seem to be merely about preventing Chinese people from discussing controversial topics. It’s also a way to nurture Chinese alternatives which both feed the Chinese economy and which the government can control, as the Telegraph explains. For instance, Sina Weibo is basically the Chinese Twitter.
MySpace is fast, easy, and permitted, but nobody seems to use it. MySpace owner Rupert Murdoch bent over backwards to make his global site into a “local” Chinese Internet property, but it’s widely considered a failure when put up against other social-networking sites that are actually Chinese.
China’s relationship with Google is very uneasy. Google isn’t blocked—not exactly. But access to Google services is hideously slow, to the point where you wouldn’t want to use them.
Various phrases also get blocked in Web searches. The government hates the meditation/exercise group Falun Gong, for instance. When I searched for “Falun Gong,” not only did my computer return no results, it actually shut down my access to Google for about ten minutes.
The Great Firewall has plenty of holes. Smart Chinese netizens tend to use proxy servers or VPNs to get around restrictions. Aforementioned artist Ai Weiwei has more than 89,000 Twitter followers. The government shuts down access to various proxies from time to time, but it’s clear the firewall is about making certain choices inconvenient rather than totally inaccessible.
The government has also allowed some businesses to use the unrestricted Internet; at the JW Marriott, my hotel in Shenzhen, the Internet was routed through Hong Kong. This week, Engadget reported an office park in Chongqing is getting the full-scale Net as well.
Take a look at this slide show for a bit of a tongue-in-cheek look at the world behind the Great Firewall.