In the global information age, China lives within the “Great Shield” or as it is also called the “Great Chinese Firewall” (a national firewall or a technological barrier created to restrict Internet access). Last year, it was 20 years since the Chinese government decided to restrict the population from content that is undesirable from the point of view of ideology, and to exclude the availability of a number of information resources (mainly Western).

There is an opinion that the rapid development of the economy, which led to a rapid increase in Internet penetration, made adjustments to the original project of the “Great Shield” and turned it from a system that collected data about citizens at all levels, from local to national, into a system for filtering all traffic and content entering the country.

Today, most of the major international social networks, search engines, video hosting services, messengers, streaming services are “behind the Great Chinese firewall”. It is impossible to use them while in China – it is impossible to get access without means to bypass the lock. However, many blocked resources have allowed local analogues – Sina Weibo instead of Twitter, Youku instead of YouTube, Renren instead of Facebook. A number of news sites, such as The New York Times and Bloomberg, are also banned in the country. According to some reports, the list of prohibited resources exceeds 140 thousand URLs.

Formally, all these measures are taken for the sake of countering terrorism, extremism, maintaining public order and stability, so the powers of law enforcement agencies in the field of Internet control are very extensive and are expanding. Undesirable information means not only extremist and terrorist content, but also any information that undermines social stability. This is a fairly broad concept in China, which allows you to censor any criticism of the authorities or a description of pressing social problems.

On the one hand, the Chinese cybersecurity system operates throughout the country. However, Hong Kong and Macau are special, autonomous Chinese regions where access to the Internet is not yet restricted by anything.
But how does this affect the residents who grew up behind the “Great Shield”?

In the PRC, Internet providers and Internet cafes have been providing Internet access for many years only upon presentation of a passport. And in 2017, the law on cybersecurity of the People’s Republic of China came into force. It requires all organizers of the dissemination of information on the Internet, as well as any companies, including foreign ones, to store the data of Chinese users on the territory of the PRC, thus transferring unlimited control over big data to the authorities.

But even such a policy of the Chinese authorities does not stop the growth of the number of Internet users in the country. By the end of 2018, the number of users in China increased to 772 million people (in 2017 – 731 million people). Today, China ranks first in the world network in terms of the number of users, despite the fact that Internet penetration is still estimated at only 55% (for example, in the United States, with a network access level of 88%, the number of users is about 290 million people).

The Internet business is also growing: for example, the capitalization of 102 national Internet companies listed on exchanges within the country or abroad has reached $ 1.4 trillion. Tencent, Alibaba and Baidu account for 73.9% of the total amount. Every Chinese corporation from the top three has at least one product whose Western counterpart has been blocked in the country at least once. According to the international consulting company McKinsey, China has already become a world leader in the online commerce segment.

Despite this, there is an opinion that the firewall causes considerable harm to the national economy, and the Chinese technology sector remains without innovation. There is also a social effect: for example, a special study of the situation in the field of limited access of citizens to the Internet showed that the challenges in such a controlled Internet go beyond simply restricting access to valuable information.

In fact, according to a study published in the American Economic Association, censorship in China contributes to the development of a society in which people no longer need uncensored information. Yuyu Chen from Peking University (China) and David Yang from Harvard University (USA) prepared a report based on the results of the study, which notes: “Citizens who have access to the Internet without censorship may not search for politically sensitive information due to lack of interest in politics, fear of reprisals from the government or due to ignorance or distrust of foreign news agencies,” the researchers write.

“Even if they do acquire such information and become fully informed, their attitudes and beliefs may not change.” Scientists Yuyu Chen and David Yang came to this conclusion by giving students access to an uncensored or restricted Internet. They measured changes in participants ‘ desire for uncensored information during an 18-month experiment.

The researchers observed more than 1,800 students in Beijing. The subjects were randomly assigned to users of the “censored” and unlimited Internet. Even with free tools available for full access, less than 5% of the observed users used uncensored content. the number of students searching for uncensored content increased only after they were given incentives and instructions.

The researchers found that students who were constantly exposed to obscene foreign media became more informed about events that are usually not reported in the Chinese media (because they are related to the affairs of President Donald Trump in China and surveillance in Xinjiang).

They were also more pessimistic about China’s economic prospects and skeptical of the Chinese government. These changes were limited to people who watched the Internet for themselves without censorship. For example, the roommate of a student who has access to uncensored content will be informed about the same events by an average of only 13% more. This means that the” social transfer ” of information was relatively small.

In order to gain access to blocked sites, most people use a VPN that redirects Internet addresses to foreign servers, i.e. your computer behaves as if you are not in China. And yet, according to a US Congressional report, less than 10% of Internet users in China regularly pay for a VPN to circumvent censorship. According to Freedom House, a US-funded democracy advocacy group, in 2018, China became the owner of the least free Internet in the world for the fourth time in a row.

Since the early 2000s, the Chinese government has developed one of the world’s strictest Internet censorship systems to block and regulate content for its citizens. In 2017, China passed a controversial cybersecurity law that prescribed strict surveillance and data storage for firms operating in the country.

As part of the experiment, the researchers divided the groups: some students were asked to find access to information without censorship.

The researchers found that both financial incentives and providing information about what was happening in the outside world worked much better than just handing out a VPN. In addition, by attracting participants to surveys on news topics with monetary rewards, scientists were able to engage them more in current affairs and they were more likely to find uncensored information on a regular basis.

But they are not limited to bans in China. According to the logic of the Chinese authorities, law – abiding should be beneficial: by 2020, the so-called social credit system-a system of assessments of the reliability of all citizens-should be introduced everywhere in China. In addition to credit history and information from law enforcement and judicial structures, a person’s behavior on the Internet, the nature of his posts in social networks and the content consumed will also affect trustworthiness ratings.

Recognition as unreliable means various administrative obstacles, such as a ban on buying air tickets, the inability to get a job in the civil service or to send a child to a prestigious school. And for trustworthy behavior, users are promised various bonuses: cheap loans, an appointment with a doctor without waiting in line, renting a car without collateral, etc. It’s not even about the restrictions themselves. The entire system of Internet censorship in China and related legislation is designed so that people and companies not only cannot bypass the barriers established by the state, but so that no one even thinks of doing something unreliable: this is how self-censorship develops.

This social phenomenon is still being studied by scientists. At the same time, the Chinese authorities are not going to abandon the “Golden Shield” and the national firewall, and the expanding Chinese companies are becoming real competitors for the largest American corporations (isn’t that the goal?).


China studies centre
Nur-Sultan, 2019

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