Rachel Michaella Finn looks at how China’s young smartphone owners are making use of apps that can bypass the country’s strict internet censorship laws, but how it could be creating an even bigger gap between rich and poor.
With almost 650million internet users, China has the most people regularly going online than anywhere else on the planet. At first glance, that number might not seem majorly significant, but it makes up 22% of the entire world’s internet users. That’s more internet users than in the US, India and Japan combined. With the most internet users in the world, internet in China is big business. Companies like Google know this, which might be part of the reason why the company holds three major offices there. If you look further, Google’s investment in China is especially odd, seeing as Google has a history of being banned and un-banned in China. Currently, it has been banned again since 2010, when all Google search traffic in the country was moved from Google China to Google Hong Kong after Google stated it no longer wanted to censor internet searches and the government was unwilling to let them do so. By the time I arrive in China, in 2015, Google Hong Kong has now also been blocked by the government, including all its associated services such as Gmail and Google Play. On a normal browser, I am also unable to access Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Youtube and the large number of other major Western sites. Large foreign media publications’ websites, such as The New York Times, also get the axe, as well as a large number of Japanese websites and a whole range of popular porn sites.
But the longer I stay that and the more young Chinese people I talk to, the more I find they don’t particularly pay attention to what they are and aren’t supposed to access. They add me on Facebook and they email me using Gmail. It’s almost as if the so-called bans aren’t even in place. “Everyone uses a VPN,” Jenny* tells me, a university lecturer at a major university in Shanghai who is in her early 30s. “I do. All of my friends do. I got Facebook when I went to study in Canada when I was younger and I carried on using it. Sometimes it is slow, but I’d say so many people use [a VPN]”.
A VPN – or Virtual Private Network – is an app you can install on your phone, tablet or computer that redirects your IP address to a country of your choice. So, for example, you set the VPN to make your phone’s ‘seem like it’s located in the UK, and it will re-route your IP address, bypassing China’s internet censors and allow you to access the internet as you can in the UK itself. The Chinese government will inevitably find a lot of these VPNs and shut them down, but new providers quickly pop up, creating a game of cat-and-mouse where, for now, the smartphone user is still winning. VPNs are a commonly used tool for both natives, expats and tourists alike, but like Jenny says, it can be slow. With every search and web address you type being filtered through the aptly titled ‘Great Firewall of China’ to check for sites or content that are deemed inappropriate, your internet speed is slowed down to a frustrating level, sometimes being cut out completely. Even China’s Prime Minister, Li Keqiang, admitted at a committee meeting in March this year that he has visited “developing countries that have faster internet connections than Beijing”. The slowness of the internet in China is an ongoing joke, but there seems more at stake here than simply a bad internet connection.
China’s internet access varies massively from urban cities to rural areas. Whereas the majority of the urban middle-class will have their own personal internet connections and easily use software such as a VPN, this varies massively outside of this demographic. According to a survey by the World Bank, only a quarter of villages in the provinces surveyed (Guizhou, Jilin and Shandong) had public internet access, such as in a library – an area which, by the fact of its very public location, is unlikely to allow the user to set up VPN software even if they knew how. Furthermore, Reuters reported in February 2015 that 86% of China’s internet users access the internet on mobile. But with only around 38% of China’s 1.38billion population owning a smartphone, the rest are left to use a public internet connection that is likely to be censored, or to have no regular internet access at all.
But what exactly is China’s censored internet trying to hide?
Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index 2015 ranks censorship in China as one of the worst in the world as 176 out of 180 countries surveyed, ahead of only Syria, Turkmenistan, North Korea and Eritrea. Despite this, according to 2014 research by the BBC World service, which surveyed people in 17 countries about their views on the internet, media freedom and surveillance, China topped the list of perceived freedom of internet and surveillance freedom, with 76% of Chinese people surveyed saying they feel free from government monitoring and surveillance. Even more surprisingly, only 5% of Chinese people considered their country’s press and media to be ‘not free’.
Activist group Great Fire (greatfire.org) has published data online since 2011 in both English and Chinese about topics, internet searches and websites that are banned or censored in mainland China. The things being blocked in search engines range from the seemingly trivial (searches for ‘marijuana’ for example tend to get blocked) to search terms into topics of major political and social importance. Worryingly, a quick search of Great Fire’s database says that keywords ‘homosexual love’ (同性恋) and ‘democracy’ (民主) are censored around a third of the time. The phrase ‘Chinese democracy movement’ is censored 100% of the time. 13 differing searches for ‘human rights’ are censored between 33% and 100% of the time. Unsurprisingly, the Great Firewall also censors its own existence, and greatfire.org’s site itself is censored in all cases.
It would be naive to say that the blocking of search terms or websites means Chinese people don’t know about them, or don’t find their own ways of getting around the censorship. But that is largely assisted by technology such as a smartphone, computer literacy, and knowledge of how to set up software like a VPN – the kind of resources that Jenny, a young city-dwelling professional, has. In most cases, that also requires money, effectively meaning middle-classes and above can buy access to a free internet, where those who earn less cannot. To give one example, on taobao.com, a popular Chinese online shopping price, the iPhone 6 is listed as having a reference price of 3888¥, which is about £400. Based on the average annual salary of a private sector Chinese worker in 2014 of 28,752¥, or just under £3,000, the average person would have to hand out almost 15% of their annual salary to buy the iPhone 6. In comparison to the average annual UK salary of £26,500 in 2014, by the same price ratio, the same iPhone in the UK would cost almost £4,000. It’s easy to see how so many Chinese people are priced out of the smartphone market and thus unable to gain access to the simple software available that could allow then to bypass the Great Firewall.
China’s middle-class may have found a way to bypass their country’s internet censorship and be given greater free speech as a result, but with the majority of the country’s working-class or rural populations still unable to do so, that can only cause more inequality in an already uneven society.
* Name has been changed.
Rachel Michaella Finn