This past week, even as net users across the country were discovering that China’s Great Firewall has been upgraded and that many VPNs no longer work, China’s state-run Xinhua wire service was busy using Twitter. It’s the kind of frustrating irony that Chinese web users are used to by now; the nation embracing popular foreign web platforms to try to get its own message out while simultaneously working tirelessly to ensure that its citizens cannot access those same platforms.
When it comes to the web, China has continually struggled to choose between its impulse to control things as tightly as possible and its recognition of web platforms as a powerful way to broadcast its propaganda both at home and abroad. In the past few years, its apparent strategy has been to attempt to have its cake and eat it too: to broadcast its own message using all the Western web channels at its disposal while blocking those channels for domestic web users. Unfortunately for the government, having your cake and eating it is impossible, and this policy — if it is continued — will prove to be an utter failure.
China’s censorship of Western web platforms like Facebook and Twitter is predicated on the idea that those platforms, because they are uncensored, threaten China’s domestic stability. In the wake of the 2009 Urumqi riots, numerous Western social media sites (including the aforementioned Twitter and Facebook) were blamed for facilitating the organization of protests and the spread of “harmful information,” and were subsequently blocked.
Blocking websites does increase stability in the short term, because people with dissenting messages have fewer ways to spread them. In the long-term, though, this kind of stability is unsustainable. Censorship, after all, does not eliminate dissent; it merely silences it, or more often pushes it into different channels. And while China’s Great Firewall (GFW) makes organizing dissent more difficult, it also foments dissent by frustrating people who are trying to do normal internet things but can’t because of the blockages.
Moreover, it encourages creative ways to circumvent the blocks both technologically and ideologically (China’s net users may be the world’s most creative when it comes to using puns and homophones to discuss sensitive issues without setting off keyword blocks). The Great Firewall also effectively moves many dissenters from foreign sites (where most of the audience can’t understand them) onto domestic services like Sina Weibo. And while Sina Weibo and other Chinese social services are monitored and censored, they’re often not monitored and censored quickly and efficiently enough to stop so-called “harmful information” from spreading.
The harder China cracks down on VPNs and other GFW-circumventing technology, the worse this is going to get. If Ai Weiwei and his followers (for example) are prevented from using Twitter, does the government really think they’re just going to stop expressing themselves and give up? No, they will turn to domestic sites, and while domestic censors will block their accounts and delete their messages, some of those messages will get through. And in a country where strident dissent is often illegal, its impact and its spread are intensified.
To put it another way, if the Chinese internet was uncensored, the dramatic statements of Ai Weiwei and other dissidents probably wouldn’t be considered remarkable. And if everyone had the freedom to express themselves without fear of censorship and reprisals, Ai Weiwei’s fearlessness wouldn’t be particularly important. Honestly, if the government really wants to effectively silence Ai Weiwei, they should dismantle the Great Firewall tomorrow.
A Death Blow to Business
What’s effective in fostering stability is, I’ll admit, debatable, but it’s less debatable that China’s internet policies have had a strong negative impact on businesses. If the recent blocking of foreign VPNs proves to be the new normal — and we have every sign that that is the case — I expect numerous foreign businesses to move some or all of their operations out of China. In addition to the fact that many businesses use blocked web services for communication and marketing, VPNs provide a crucial layer of security to corporate communications by encrypting the connection of those using the service. Without that layer of security, companies worried about cyber attacks, IP theft, and corporate espionage are going to be pretty exposed, and some of them will inevitably decide that the advantages of doing business in China are outweighed by the potential costs of having products or plans stolen by competitors.
(True, many businesses use their own VPNs rather than the commercially-available ones that are currently blocked. But the Chinese government has said that all foreign-run VPNs are illegal unless they register with and are approved by MIIT, which none of them have.)
But the Great Firewall doesn’t just damage foreign companies in China, it is also crippling to Chinese companies that are looking to expand globally. Without access to social media tools like Facebook and Twitter, Chinese web companies are at a significant disadvantage when it comes to everything from market research to actual marketing. And although companies can establish overseas offices or find other ways to circumvent censorship and access these platforms, with all of them so widely blocked in China, there’s little impetus for Chinese developers to try to work with them. Chinese startups are focused on developing products that work with Chinese social platforms like Weibo, and that’s great, but it ultimately limits the scalability and global relevance of their products. At present, China’s regulatory environment might encourage the development of some truly remarkable domestic services, but it is difficult to imagine a globally dominant web startup from China because the Chinese internet is so thoroughly walled off from the rest of the world.
Soft Power in Chains
Of course, the Great Firewall does more than just prevent Chinese web services from going global; it is also a huge hindrance for Chinese cultural exports. I was reminded of this just recently while writing about the award Korea’s Ministry of Culture gave to Google because Youtube has been such an effective platform to spread Korean culture. In China, the success of Korean pop star PSY’s Gangnam Style video prompted a lot of discussion about whether China could ever produce its own PSY. I’m not sure what the answer to that question is, but it is irrelevant, because even if China could produce its own PSY, it could never export it. PSY’s song exploded in large part because his video went viral on Youtube which — surprise, surprise — is blocked in China.
Now granted, even if VPNs were totally blocked, a Chinese PSY could just fly out of China with a USB stick and upload his video to Youtube from abroad. But I highly doubt the global response would be the same, because whether we’re aware of it or not, a big part of enjoying any cultural experience is interaction. Gangnam Style was catchy and weird — certainly China can produce something like that — but it ultimately also got the Western media to interact with Korea and Korean culture, and we all learned a little something about the Gangnam district and Korean satire along the way.
That is the part of Gangnam Style that China could never produce, because the government actively discourages that sort of interaction. While it wants to promote Chinese culture, it does not believe that pop music — and certainly not politically satirical pop music — has any place in that promotional effort. Instead, the government pushes Confucius and other valuable-but-unappealing-and-mostly-irrelevant aspects of Chinese culture to Westerners while keeping its citizens and whatever culture they create quiet. Chinese and foreign net users are carefully segregated, and while China is happy to use foreign platforms to promote the party line through official channels like Xinhua, it is unwilling to trust its own people with access to almost any foreign social communication platforms.
The problem (for China’s government) is that culture doesn’t work that way. Great cultural works are rarely produced by the state; they are produced by artists, creatives, academics, entrepreneurs and other regular people. Chinese artists have produced many great works, but China’s government is generally not willing to let these people communicate directly with the outside world. In an age where global communication and cultural broadcasting is simpler and more direct than ever before, China has shackled its own soft power by ensuring that its cultural producers have access to almost none of these new platforms.
True soft power — in fact, true culture — cannot come without discussion and interchange. When was the last time you saw a really powerful movie or read a really powerful book and then discussed it with no one? Culture is by definition a discussion, an exchange, and a kind of ongoing communication. But China’s government has for the past several years been attempting to shove its own message into the global internet’s cultural exchange while doing what it can to keep the West out of China’s culture and keep Chinese people from easily interacting with the outside world. That is why Xinhua has a Twitter account but the average Zhou cannot. It’s also why Xinhua’s Twitter account isn’t actually following anyone. China is interested in using social media services only to broadcast itself; it has no interest in interacting with the outside world in a meaningful way.
No Hope for the Future?
It is a terrible sign that China’s crackdown on VPNs does not seem to have lessened after the conclusion of the 18th Party Congress. And at the same time, despite a couple years of massive expenditures in return for almost nothing in the way of results, China has shown no signs of wanting to adjust its shut-up-and-let-me-talk-dammit approach to soft power.
China’s state media frequently complains that the West doesn’t understand China, but China has steadfastly refused to use internet platforms like Twitter and Facebook to attempt to increase that understanding in any meaningful way. And although the government remains dedicated to improving Chinese soft power, I have seen no signs that it is inclined to attempt a shift in strategy anytime soon.
In the long term, I suspect the Great Firewall will prove to be domestically unsustainable. But until the wall comes down, China’s attempts at soft power are little more than a pipe dream, and its economic growth, especially in the tech arena, is ultimately going to be limited by the severe barriers it has erected between itself and the world at large.