Over time, empires and nation-states have erected walls to protect their people and limit their interaction with the “outside world.” Now, walls are not only built in stone, but also in the digital world. For instance, while the Chinese were long shielded by the Great Wall, today they are additionally surrounded by the “Great Firewall” — a digital wall that limits internet users’ access to the World Wide Web from within the People’s Republic of China.
Just like a physical wall, the Great Firewall constitutes a barrier that limits the flow and exchange of information. Google, Facebook, Twitter, Dropbox and foreign websites, particularly news agencies such as the BBC or Reuters, are all inaccessible to a Chinese internet user. Instead, Beijing has supported the development of Chinese providers, most importantly Baidu, a Chinese equivalent of Google, or WeChat, a social media platform. In contrast to foreign companies, these national providers fully cooperate with Chinese authorities.
In addition to limiting information flow across the wall, Chinese authorities restrict the information exchange between people living within the wall. Censorship is pervasive. The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) propaganda department sends out memos to radio, TV and newspaper agencies informing them on how to report on certain incidents.
Although the privatization of Chinese media has reduced the official grip on the broadcasting of information, media outlets practice “self-censorship,” attempting to anticipate what might be censored so as to not be fined or closed down by authorities. Private websites, blog articles and social media accounts of citizens are similarly censored if the party-state regards them as too critical or as having the potential of stirring too much public debate.
As a consequence, the “Great Chinese Firewall” severely hampers access to information and freedom of expression. The Bertelsmann Transformation Index (BTI) 2018 survey on China, for instance, rates Chinese citizens’ freedom of expression at two out of a possible 10 points (whereby one is the worst and 10 the best). This rank is only worse in countries such as North Korea or Oman, which have a ranking of one point. Since 2016, censorship has been tightened even further, increasing the amount of foreign and domestic websites blocked on the Chinese internet.
Information Propagates the Official Line
The Great Firewall and domestic censorship limits information flow across and within China and also shapes and directs public opinion, and thereby influences how information that contradicts the official “line” is perceived. Information is not only censored but tailored to promote a specific view on Chinese history, the CCP and foreign countries, aiming to foster nationalist sentiments.
Student textbooks, for instance, teach Chinese children to be patriotic and critical of “the West,” whose arrival in the 19th century has resulted in “100 years of humiliation” of the “great Chinese civilization.” Chinese citizens encounter these views and praise of the CCP in the form of billboards and posters in streets, public transport or at the workplace. Public opinion is also shaped in a more subtle manner by governmental social media accounts or the so-called “50-cent army” — state-employed bloggers who influence opinion online by posting positive comments and news about the government.
Thus, the Great Firewall creates a certain space in which information is limited and targeted in a way so as to direct public opinion and indirectly preempt the potential impact of critical information.
This is not to say that Chinese citizens blindly believe and follow official propaganda. Many have become wary of official media outlets and propaganda posters. Foreigners and Chinese alike use virtual private networks (VPNs) to circumvent the Great Firewall and access uncensored information. Others circumvent official censorship by using code words and metaphors to criticize the government and the lack of freedom of speech. When the true meaning of these puns is discovered, new ones are invented.
Crackdown Underway on Opposition
Nevertheless, despite these efforts, the Great Firewall and official censorship can only be circumvented and not directly opposed. Specialized or insider knowledge is needed, for example, to access VPNs and understand coded language.
With an increased crackdown on both — VPNs and critical bloggers — the already limited freedom of expression and access to uncensored information has been reduced. Moreover, the party-state is becoming increasingly savvy in their efforts to more subtly influence public opinion, potentially becoming more successful in shaping Chinese citizens’ perceptions and interpretation of information.
The Great Chinese Firewall, therefore, not only constitutes a barrier between the outside world and China, but it simultaneously creates a space in which the party-state can flexibly influence public opinion. With the tightening of control under President Xi Jinping, the space for freedom of expression and critical thinking will further shrink in the future. However, despite its potential to indoctrinate Chinese citizens, it is yet to be seen whether this strategy can promote the two main objectives of the party-state: economic development and social stability.
Expressing criticism lets off steam that may otherwise be channeled into open protests. Critical thinking and free access to information are needed to be innovative — a key skill the party-state needs for economic development. This means that Beijing will need to find the right balance between allowing and censoring information and freedom of speech to meet its key goals for the future.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.