Internet Sovereignty and the Great Firewall of China

Growing up, some of my favorite stories that my parents told were tales of their youth during the Cultural Revolution in China. They were high school age during it’s height in the late 1960s and early 70s. The regime under Mao ZeDong, in a drastic leftist move, revolted against all that was considered bourgeois and sent all the youth down to the country to re-educate them about the proletariat ways on the rural lands of China.

Despite the hard life that was forced onto them, my parents’ stories always delighted me because as a 1.5 generation immigrant to America with a much more privileged life than they had, the stories always kind of reminded me of the adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. (Note: this is happening in 20th century China, but Mark Twain’s stories takes place in the late 19th century). I think what also made their experience seem less arduous was the fact that all of their peers were there with them, going through the same thing, so it literally just sounded like a hoot and a half! Even my parents say they do have some fond memories since a lot of the enforced activities were community-based, and good times were to be had if you happen to fall on the right side of the community.

It wasn’t until much later in life that I finally understood what that period in their life was about on a national and global scale. As I have family on both sides of the political divide (in this case the “proletariat” vs “bourgeois”), literally down the maternal and paternal line, it is safe to say no political move benefits everyone. Ultimately, such heavy-handed authoritarian mandate by Mao uprooted China’s economy, and left behind detrimental human impact for generations to come.

I am my parents’ only child, like many of my peers in China born after the one-child policy was enforced. Now fast forward to my parents and I residing in Beijing in the late 80s, and this time the students are revolting against the government for democratic freedoms. I’ll never forget the images and sounds witnessed and processed through my 6 year old brain, and have spent a life time making sense of the events. It’s what led me to be curious about economic development, the policies enforced by the government, and the impacts of those policies.

In the readings that I have been doing on the internet, one thing that stuck out to me the most was learning about the degree of censorship the Chinese government enforces on information out there about these kinds of political events. What’s on the internet internationally isn’t available to the internal people of China, with the exception of certain elite groups. So I began to do some surface reading about the current state of China’s censorship laws, which of course due to the rise of internet technologies and social media, has become increasingly complex. China seems quite proud of their nuanced “internet sovereignty”, so much so that they also encourage the rest of the world to take notes.

The below are just a few bullets of what I found interesting from two articles of the Washington Post, one from 2016, and the second from 2017:

1. China’s scary lesson to the world: Censoring the Internet works
2. The walls are closing in: China finds new ways to tighten Internet controls

  • China’s new Cybersecurity Law that came into effect this June.
  • Made to keep foreign ideas and uncomfortable truths out with censorship and surveillance, while the economy is still connected to the outside world.
  • There is this new concept of “social credit” that is determined by an individual’s online conduct that can impact a person’s access to financial services, transport and foreign travel.
  • All this is in light of the discovery that chat groups can shape public opinion of the government
  • One in four internet user is behind this “Great Firewall of China”
  • Also called the “Golden Shield”, which blocks sites that is detrimental to the Communist Party’s narrative.
  • The degree of censorship varies by region, as some people have VPN access to the outside world.

I’m not writing all of this to take a stand on anything, but only to reflect on my story, and what has led me to explore these topics. I am a little bothered by the fact that not everyone has equal access to information in this era, information that very much establishes the identity of a person, that helps them understand where they come from, and why they are the way they are. Perhaps that urge is particularly stronger in me because I am an immigrant, and I am grateful that at least I can read about certain events that happened to my family from a distant perspective. I can certainly see the motivations behind why censorship may be necessary, and it’s very hard to make that judgement call between what is right and wrong from a place where the economic infrastructure is more stable, and the cultural/demographic makeup is drastically different.

All I can say is, we really don’t know what we don’t know, or are not allowed to know, and that makes me feel a little less of a human being, but perhaps a happier one.

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