Every second, 40 000 burning questions funnel into the Google search bar from millions of internet users worldwide. Doing the math gets the daily take of searches up to just over 3.5 BILLION! Not being able to consult Dr. Google about every aspect of life might be a genuine concern for many users. Well, their worst fears are actually realised, and somewhere not too far from home...
Just a hop, skip and a jump eastwards lands you in The People's Republic of China whose relationship with the internet raises eyebrows around the world. The nation is famous for its ever tightening censorship of information found on the internet and its "Great Firewall of China" (The censorship system which keeps slow moving possibly harmful, political ideas outside the country's borders). Many other different types of social media such as Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube along with 6 000 other websites cannot scale the Great Firewall and land themselves in mainland China.
"When you open the window, the flies come in."
The pivotal sentence expressed by former leader of the People's Republic, Deng Xiaoping, was the catalyst for the nation to begin its ongoing goal of creating a controlled and censored internet for its people.
However, many opinions state that the "Great Firewall", is greatly impeding economic growth in many Chinese businesses by creating recurring dillemas over the strict policies and regulations, which are the bricks in the wall.
Many foreign companies who wish to have access to the booming Chinese marketplace need to be aware of the Government's iron fist. Apple Inc., for example, the technological giant, who stood proudly and battled with the government in the U.S. against installing backdoors into password protected devices, have bent over backwards to have access to mainland China. Many apps were removed off the app store quickly and quietly as well as several data centres being built on the mainland, all running in line with Governmental requirements.
The "Great Firewall" coupled with the restrictions on the foreign companies crowned China as having the least online freedom on earth. The "Great Firewall" is arguably undemocratic and could very well be a good example of ultra-protectionism by the Chinese Government.
Yet, the Great Firewall did something that had people scratching their heads. Many of the domestic Chinese companies would have been slaughtered on the global playing field by U.S. and European counterparts during their humble beginnings. The "Great Firewall" actually created a cocoon for Chinese internet companies like Tencent, Baidu and Taobao to grow and develop to contend with other global internet giants. In fact, Tencent, Baidu, and Taobao have websites which all appear on the Alexa and SimilarWeb list of the world's top 10 most visited websites, which is considered the gold standard in studying website popularity. Its almost ironic that as China continues to pave its way towards internet dominance, the "Great Firewall" of China, which should hinder its progress, is actually doing the opposite.
Having been to China myself and finding most of my social media rendered useless, I can say that I didnt mind all that much. While China threw most of the world's most popular social media back over the Great Firewall, they made sure to create very viable and useful alternatives. WeChat, China's free social communications app, combines aspects from Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, and even several mobile payment apps. While using WeChat during my stay in China took some getting used to, it had functionality would I wouldnt have thought of a mobile communication app.
Firstly, WeChat contains a link to your bank account, allowing you to make on the fly purchases quickly at restaurants and stores. You can even send money over the application. Yet for me, its most useful use came with the thousands of bicycles lining the streets of Guangzhou, which with a quick QR code scan, are yours for an hour for just 1¥ (~R2).
However, many people in China use VPNs to access global social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, in fact during my stay many of my friends would have about four or five different VPN apps on their phones, after about two days of usage however, the "Great Firewall" would come knocking. When it did, they switched to another app, and carried on Facebooking away. Interestingly though, a week after we left the country, a large chunk of VPN apps disappeared off the Apple iStore, and it was later unconvered that the Chinese ministry of Information was forced to deny that they intended to remove these apps...
China's censorship policy and the "Great Firewall", will continue to baffle people worldwide. In fact, the most interesting thing I find about the "Great Firewall", is that around four times more people (2 million) are currently laying the bricks of the "Great Firewall", than people who built the actual Great Wall of China. I doubt that the great Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China, ever considered that his Great Wall would be left in the shadow of "the Great Firewall".