Jumping the Great Digital Wall

An article which appeared in The New York Times on January 29, 2015, entitled China Further Tightens Grip on the Internet, stated, “China has long had some of the world’s most onerous Internet restrictions,” perhaps shedding some light on why The New York Times website is blocked by the Great Chinese Firewall and thus unavailable to anyone in China.

It has always been relatively easy to get around the GCF, however, by subscribing to one of the many VPN’s available here for a small subscription fee. Known colloquially as ‘fence-jumpers’ these VPN providers typically don’t hide your ISP address (Talking about censorship, many U.S. retailers, as I have so frustratingly learned through first-hand experience, will not accept online orders, even with a valid U.S. credit card and shipping address, if the ISP originates in China.) but they can get you access to pretty much any website.

We can rest assured that the government knows these providers exist and could shut them down at any time. They haven’t historically, however, simply because, one can assume, the websites they offer access to are generally in a language other than Chinese and thus not of interest to most of the population.

The NYT, however, suggests that the government is starting to crack down on these fence-jumping providers and thus frustrating some artists, academics, and foreign investors who rely on them in their line of work. Gmail, in particular, has become difficult to use here in recent months, although the government denies any involvement in disrupting it.

Generally speaking, the Chinese government, as the article points out, defines the issue as a quest for cyber sovereignty rather than censorship, an ideal, I’m sure, many other governments would support. At the very least, I’m sure there are websites blocked by the security services of most Western governments, although I can’t name one for the simple reason that I have no interest in them.

And as the father of two daughters I do think it’s difficult to make a convincing case against the government for blocking access to all Internet pornography. Despite having no redeeming social value there is a social cost to pornography, since society as a whole pays for the Internet and it is estimated that as much as 30% of the Internet bandwidth available in countries like the United States is consumed by the online distribution of pornography.

But if The New York Times is correct and the government is clamping down on some of the fence-jumpers, why the change in heart? Not being a member of any political inner circle, of course, I can only conjecture.

I suppose you have to start with Hong Kong. The government has consistently noted that the pro-democracy movement that paralyzed parts of Hong Kong for a couple of months was enflamed by outside agitators with an agenda beyond the popular vote. In the end the demonstrators never really offered an alternative plan. As a practical matter, therefore, they were, by definition, largely protesting for the sake of protesting.

And contrary to Western myth, the government is not attempting to isolate the Chinese people from the world, as is the case in North Korea. I have yet to discover a single instance where my Chinese friends and colleagues weren’t fully informed about world events. (My fence-jumping provider has not been blocked, so I still get my news from Western sources.) And their take on events is largely the same as my own. There is no obvious slanting of perspective.

But what about the news about China? Is the government censoring news about itself that might be more legitimately reported by foreign news media.

I’ll answer the last part of the question first. I do not, in fact, believe that the foreign news media is in a better position to report the Chinese news more impartially than the government itself. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest the opposite. If the world relied solely on foreign media for its news on China I believe it would get a very biased view indeed.

Not by intent, mind you. I am not accusing the Western media of intentional bias. We all have a perspective, of course, and journalists are no exception, but that’s not my point here.

My point is that everything about China, including the news, must be taken in context. And you cannot provide that context unless you fully understand Chinese culture and the inductive worldview on which it is built. Most foreigners don’t.

To the second question, of course the government does censor the news. As do all newsrooms. But the Chinese do not go to the official news outlets for their news. As is the foundation of their culture, they go to each other. They get their news from bloggers and We Chat (the Chinese version of Twitter) and the other personal interactions that dominate their time away from work.

When it comes to context, however, I believe there are two over-riding issues that come into play here.

The first is that I have yet to experience a people, OR a government, that is more self-aware than the Chinese and the government of China. They know full well what their short-comings are and they talk openly and candidly about them. You will find not a single Chinese person who is less informed about the issues facing China than even the most ardent and critical Western Sinologist.

The second is the importance of the individual versus society as a whole. As Westerners, we are consumed with individual rights. We are all libertarians to a degree. It is the foundation of liberal democracy.

The Chinese, by contrast, and with some notable exceptions, are collectivists. They are more concerned with social progress and cultural leadership than they are with individual rights.

For all of these reasons, therefore, I hear no general outcry over the existence of the Great Firewall or the inability to access certain foreign websites. To their inductive thinking, it simply is what it is. There is no cause and effect.

And while I am certainly a proponent of open debate and the Socratic Method (which I believe has been largely lost in today’s pop culture) I believe every organizational leader would agree that there has to be a point at which the debate draws to a close and action is taken.

While some would argue that constant and ongoing criticism keeps everyone honest, I would further argue that it can lead to complete and total paralysis. You need look no further than the current American political process. We change the players but the game remains the same – nothing happens.

So, to what extent is the government’s control over foreign Internet access impeding the country’s development or actually promoting it? You’ll have to decide for yourself where you come down on the issue.

The Chinese, I’m quite sure, will come down in favor of balance – the harmony of yin and yang. And for now, I believe, there are relatively few who believe there is more need for a foreign perspective regarding events occurring in China or elsewhere.

In order to interpret the news about China you must first understand the context within which it unfolds.
In order to interpret the news about China you must first understand the context within which it unfolds.

Note: The author also writes novels under the pen name of Avam Hale. You can find them in the Amazon Kindle store and they can be read on any mobile device loaded with the free Kindle App, available for all operating systems.

Copyright © 2015 Glassmaker in China

Notice:  The views expressed in this post are strictly those of the writer acting in a personal capacity.  They are not in any way endorsed or sanctioned by his employer or any other individual with which he may be personally or professionally affiliated.