Monday, January 26, 2015

A few thoughts on China and the internet

The last few weeks have seen an intensification of the Chinese state's attempts to control which parts of the internet its people should be able to access.

After having blocked nearly all major foreign websites (Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, Gmail, Google...), the authorities are now cracking down on VPNs, the softwares which people use to get around the "great firewall". Over the last month some popular VPNs have been blocked. Anecdotal evidence suggests that all VPNs are becoming increasingly unstable and hard to use. Although I am still managing to use my own one (otherwise I would be unable to access this blog), I have also found that it frequently stops working and needs to be restarted.

I doubt the authorities would go so far as to completely block all VPNs even if they were able to, since that would be a real headache for multinational businesses operating in the country. I must say that a part of me almost hopes they did, since it might finally precipitate a public debate on the issue. In any case,it will now become even harder for the less determined to view censored websites.

This crackdown on VPNs would seem to be part of a more general tightening of the screws on all kinds of dissent which has taken place since the new leadership came to power in 2012. Over the last couple of years, liberal and independent thinkers of all kinds have found themselves increasingly attacked and marginalized.

I think there are some general conclusions to be drawn from all of this. It used to be a common trope that as time goes by and the economy develops, China would "naturally" progress towards being more free and democratic. In my view it is high time to put that old chestnut to rest.

The truth is that a lot of progress was made towards allowing the Chinese greater social freedoms and freedom of expression during the eighties and nineties. Then again, when the baseline was the Maoist years it would have been hard not to improve in these respects. By the start of the 21st century however, China had stabilized at a certain level of freedom (or un-freedom).

While the economy has continued growing at great speed since then, and the infrastructure has continued improving, there has been no great progress in terms of granting citizens genuine freedom of speech and other basic political rights. Further progress would probably necessitate profound reforms of the political system which would ensure a separation of powers and subject the state's actions to constraints and oversight, but the people who run the country are just not willing to undertake such reforms, as much as they may pay lip service to concepts like the "rule of law".

Another thing to realize is that the government still enjoys much support and legitimacy in the eyes of the middle and upper classes of urban China, exactly the people who would have the ability to affect change (the peasant workers who man the country's construction sites may view things differently, but they have little possibility to act upon their feelings). Free thinkers and dissidents like Ai Wei Wei do not represent the mainstream, and never have done.

This holds true for a variety of reasons: partly because of how the state is seen as ensuring economic growth and providing new infrastructure (Beijing has just opened three new subway lines), partly because there is a good degree of social freedom (like the freedom to work where you want, dress how you like and spend your free time how you like), partly because people buy into the line that stability is what matters most and democracy would make China descend into chaos, and partly because they truly believe (or have been convinced) that the current government is what defends the nation from foreign intrusion and restores its honour after the "century of humiliation".

What's more, most of the Chinese public remains only vaguely aware of things like the current crackdown on the internet and on dissent, and has little interest in finding out more. As long this situation continues, the government is on solid ground. This doesn't mean that outside observers have to ignore the obvious negative sides of China's system, or refrain from criticizing these policies. At the same time, there is no use in kidding ourselves: China's internet isn't opening up any time soon. And what's more, most Chinese couldn't really care less.


JR said...

most Chinese couldn't really care less

That's a trend indeed, and not only in China. I realize that when taking a look at what is actually sought and read (among my blog posts in English and German), and what isn't.

Fashion and pop culture matter a lot. Politics doesn't matter a great deal. And outside-the-mainstream political journalism will hardly be noticed.

Ji Xiang said...

@Jr: most people are fairly apolitical everywhere. As long as problems don't touch them personally, they might as well not exist.

At the same time, in most countries in Europe and Asia most people (at least young people) would consider it a problem if they found themselves unable to access the world's most popular websites.

Only in a country as big and insular as China could most people be unaware. As long as they can use Baidu, Weibo and Youku, they are fine without Google, Facebook and Youtube.

FOARP said...

I think it's important to recognise the trend that the Chinese government is following here: where something is disapproved of, it will eventually be forbidden as soon as it is possible to do so. If the Chinese government could eliminate VPNs, it would, and eventually it will try to. If the Chinese government could completely eliminate "western values" from the Chinese public sphere without causing excessive harm it would, and eventually it will try to.

I'm beginning to think that we may one day be faced with a situation where not only "unfriendly" academics, artists, and actors may be forbidden to travel to China, but even private citizens.

Ji Xiang said...


I can't imagine how the Chinese government could determine if private citizens are "unfriendly". I doubt they have the ability or the will to pour through people's old blog posts and comments on internet forums.

In general, I think there are two different pull factors at work. On the one hand, the Chinese government want to impede the spread of ideas which undermine their prized "stability" and their hold on power by any means necessary.

On the other hand, they have to make sure that the middle and upper classes who generally support them don't feel that they are being repressed (which they currently don't). It would be impossible to completely eliminate the awareness of "Western values" (by which they mean freedom of speech, multiparty elections, separation of powers etc...) without sealing the country off again, preventing people from travelling abroad, watching American TV shows, reading foreign books etc... I can't believe that China could go back to that nowadays. If it did, public support for the regime would probably collapse.