China’s Great Firewall represents yet another example which makes it clear that investors who view China through a Western lens will be in for more than a few shocking surprises. As much as the Internet has been a massive source of freedom in the Western world pretty much right from the beginning, it has been dramatically censored in China… once again, right from the beginning.
For the sake of simplicity, while the technology behind the Internet has been around for quite a while, we can say the “commercial Web” (as in the Internet once it began being used by the average citizen properly… the Internet once critical mass had been generated, if you will) emerged as of the early nineties (in China specifically, it has been available since 1994). The term “Great Firewall of China” appeared relatively shortly thereafter, being coined back in 1996 by Stephen Guerin (a person behind a Web consultancy agency from Beijing) and let’s say made mainstream by Geremie Barme in 1997, as it started appearing in various print publications.
As its name suggests, the term represents a combination between the Internet security term “firewall” and the Great Wall of China, a combination which makes it clear what it is all about: a bundle that consists of a legislative framework and its technological implementation, put forth by the People’s Republic of China so as to (try to) control the domestic flow of information.
In a nutshell, just like a traditional firewall blocks the access of an unsuspecting user to potentially-dangerous websites, the Great Firewall of China limits the access of Chinese consumers to various websites, apps and content types that are deemed inappropriate, with measures as dramatic as blocking many of the West’s most popular resources altogether. From banning Google Search, Facebook or Twitter to making foreign countries abide by very strict guidelines if they wish to have access to the Chinese market, the Great Wall of China represents the world’s most (in)famous effort that pertains to controlling the flow of information online.
For two main reasons:
- The ideological dimension, with the Communist Party of China being afraid of potential systemic disruption brought about by information that contradicts its ideology. In fact, right from the beginning, the Communist Party of China has been concerned with the fact that the China Democratic Party (against which dramatic action has been taken since) might use the Internet to build a network/infrastructure capable of destabilizing the ideological grip on China of the CPC. In fact, the first phase of the Great Firewall of China (which arguably ended around 2006) started shorty after China Democratic Party members were imprisoned en masse and the CDP banned altogether
- The economic dimension, with perhaps the most important economic ramification of the Great Firewall of China being the fact that since the most popular foreign services of the West are either banned or severely limited in China, this paves the way for local companies to become dominant. A textbook example to that effect is represented by the emergence of the so-called Chinese BAT (Baidu – Alibaba – Tencent), to which an entire ChinaFund.com article has been dedicated
Does the Great Firewall of China work?
While it is anything but foolproof, it does work for two main reasons:
- Ironically, perhaps the main reason is represented not by effectiveness when it comes to technological implementation but rather by the psychological dimension of the firewall. In light of the fact that the GFC gives people the impression that they’re being watched, the average Chinese citizen tends to have a more “tame” online presence than he normally would have had as a result. In other words, Internet censorship ends up leading to self-censorship, which is something the authorities in China have no problem with at all… on the contrary, they consider this a more than desirable consequence
- Many Chinese citizens are not technologically sophisticated enough to bypass the GFC. While the firewall represents a humongous financial and logistical effort of the authorities and you would think it has to be close to foolproof as a result… that is hardly the case. A technologically-savvy Internet user can easily bypass the firewall by using proxies, VPN services or combinations thereof. While there is a “cat and mouse” element to this and strategies need to be tweaked every now and then, again, it’s hardly something sophisticated computer users have problems with. Consequently, as the population of China matures from a technological perspective as well rather than a strictly economic one, the effectiveness of the GFC will be put to the test more and more
It remains to be seen what the future holds as far as the Great Firewall of China is concerned. As time passes, the very idea is attacked on all fronts, both internally (with increasingly sophisticated citizens being less and less willing to tolerate such forms of censorship) and externally (with commercial partners considering the firewall a massive barrier to trade and attacking China on diplomatic fronts so as to facilitate more robust access of foreign companies to China’s Internet landscape). As such, the likelihood of the GFC remaining in place (at least in its current form) tends to go down as time passes.