If there was one thing I didn’t like about my time in China in 2013-2014, it was the censorship of the Internet. With the recent news that Skype has been removed from app stores in China, I wanted to rehash some reasons why I prefer Formosa over the Middle Kingdom. One of most obvious reasons for me is the censorship of the Internet in China.
Sure, you can just get a VPN service, but you still live in a country that basically wants to force you to use an “Intranet” instead of an Internet. Information is controlled on popular Chinese websites like Weibo and even search words can be outright banned.
Searching about the 228 Incident and the Tienanmen Square Massacre
Internet services in Taiwan are not restricted. You can search for whatever you want, on any platform you want. As long as you aren’t doing anything inherently illegal like downloading the illegal kind of porn or soliciting anything illegal, nobody is going to care what you do.
Here is an example of two different search terms in the Chinese version of Google, Baidu. The first one is “二二八事件” meaning the 288 Incident and the second one is “六四事件” meaning Tienanmen Square Massacre. The 228 Incident was an event in Taiwan that ushered in a crackdown by the KMT, which resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands and it an open topic of discussion today in Taiwan. The Tienanmen Square Massacre is already quite self-evident.
I have screenshot the search results below from Baidu searches for news topics related to the two issues.
As you can see, on Baidu, there are article pertaining to the 228 Incident in Taiwan.
However, something interesting happens when I tried search for the Tienanmen Square Massacre in the Baidu search engine.
Not a single hit or result in the news part of Baidu searches. This doesn’t surprise me considering the Communist Party in China wants to make sure everyone in China is aware of the KMT’s martial law era and the atrocities while making sure nobody in China discusses, or can find information pertaining to the massacres and disasters the Communist Party in China caused.
Below is a search in China’s copy of Twitter, Weibo. I search for the Tienanmen Square Massacre here and the result was a notification that due to the law, the search results for this search cannot be shown.（根据相关法律法规和政策，“六四事件”搜索结果未予显示）
In Taiwan, you can use Facebook, Google or pretty much any platform you want and not have the information censored. If you want to know what the KMT did during the White Terror era (白色恐怖) you can google it and find out. If you want to know about why Chen Shui-bian — former president of Taiwan — was arrested for corruption, you can.
In other words, there is no restriction on your freedom to search for whatever you want and there is no law that prevents you from wanting to know more about issues that might be sensitive. There is Internet in Taiwan, not an Intranet.
In China the following online services and websites, according to Sapore di Cina, are outright banned in China.
Social Media: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr, Snapchat, Picasa, WordPress.com, Blogspot, Blogger, Flickr, SoundCloud, Google+, Google Hangouts.
Services: Google Drive, Google Docs, Gmail, Google Calendar (generally all Google services), Dropbox, ShutterStock, iStockPhotos,
China might have substitutes for all of these platforms and services, but they are usually just knock offs that compete in an enviornment that doesn’t allow for outside competition.
If Baidu had to compete with Google, or Weibo with Facebook and Twitter, there is not doubt who would win in those two encounters. Although Alibaba came out on top of Amazon, I doubt Baidu or Weibo can hold a candle to their competitors if the playing field was level.
A VPN is Not a Solution, But a Band-Aid
You can still access the Internet rather easily with a VPN. Even with some chatter that VPN services would be completely cut in 2018, such talk by the Beijing government is nothing more than posturing. If VPNs were cut, there is a likelihood that many foreigners would leave China and businesses would suffer immensely. VPNs are like foreign teachers working without a working visa.
Nobody cares about them as long as they don’t cause too much trouble. There is posturing from the government from time to time, but it is little more than grunts and moans about a situation the makes them look good and keeps foreigners in their country happy.
But still, VPNs might allow you to jump over the firewall, but it is still a step that you shouldn’t have to take. It is not something I think I want to have to do in a country that I reside in. In Taiwan, I don’t have this issue and in many ways, civil society is more open, more structured and social movements can organize and protest unhindered.
I even interviewed someone from the Taiwan International Workers Association who criticised the government, society and even the idea of what it is to be a citizen. This would never happen in China, and if it did, you would not feel safe posting it online like I have.
The need of VPNs in China just shows me a government that is afraid of its own people. They are afraid of having a transparent system of information, and a forum for people to organize together and discuss issues that matter to the people. You know, the people in “The People’s Republic of China”
I used VPNs when I lived in China and I thought it was a simple work around. I never really questioned the importance of having to use one because it was just a part of daily life there for me. When I returned to Ireland and realised I could delete my VPN app and access the Internet freely, it dawned on me that VPNs are not a normal part of what a free and open Internet is.
The restrictive nature of the Internet in China is something that frightens me. It is a push to control information and reality.
Small Case Study of Why the Firewall Exists
When you consider the cases like the Wenquan earthquake in 2008, and how civil journalism led firstly to reports getting out about the damage and loss of life before Xinhua could get there, and the subsequent criticism of the local governments and their lack of care in the construction of schools that collapsed as a result, killing many children, the Internet was restricted to prevent transparency in China.
Obviously this wasn’t the only reason behind the firewall emerging in China, but it is a small example how transparency and freedom of information is seen as a threat in China to the fabric of society.
Taiwan clearly has a freer Internet and civil society here has blossomed. You can find a myriad of NGOs, citizen organizations and forums and individuals who criticise, defend and want to create dialogues with the government and society.
China obviously hasn’t come that far yet and with Xi Jinping look to become more overbearing in the future and China’s future looking to be more isolated and inner focused as a result of their economic attention turns away from export led growth to domestic consumption led growth, the issue of the firewall and Intranet are only going to get worse.
As much as I loved my time in China, and despite my respect of China culture, peoples and the unforgettable time I spent there, I can’t accept the fact that if I returned, I would need to use a VPN.
(On the upside, they still haven’t banned Reddit in China.)