Although Chinese citizens gained permanent Internet access in 1994, they have never truly been able to browse all contents on the web, including material that is against China’s political values, sexually explicit, violent, or involves gambling. Internet censorship in China is notoriously known as “The Great Firewall of China”, and the rhetoric surrounding this topic often cites Internet censorship as a violation of the freedom of the press. Spending a large portion of my summer online in China, I have had plenty of time to contemplate my relationship and opinions regarding this issue. Internet censorship in China is not as extreme or limiting as how Western media portrays it.
The restricted access to mainstream social media and news sources, namely Facebook, Google, Instagram, Snapchat, and The New York Times, is what bothers me most about Internet censorship. However, I am able to still post on Instagram, read American news articles, and access various other sites because of Virtual Private Networks (known as VPNs), which connects a network in one location to a network in another location where there is no restricted Internet use. For my purposes, censorship merely seems like a nuisance; however, for a tiny minority of users who are advocating for social justice, freedom of the press, and opposing political causes, censorship poses a grimmer reality. Occasionally, individuals are arrested and incarcerated for spreading anti-communist messages, since the government views this as a threat to social stability. Despite many restrictions, most web users are able to easily circumvent the firewall with VPNs and educate themselves at their own will. The government cannot dictate what the people think and believe, and ultimately citizens of China have the choice to pursue own political beliefs, whether that aligns with the ideology of China or not.
The portrayal of Internet censorship in Western media often is only a simplified, overdramatized version of the whole story. I have read an abundance of articles condemning China and their Internet laws, embellishing the situation until it reads like a passage out of George Orwell’s 1984. American news sources seems to have trouble accepting the truth that the thoughts of Chinese people are not governed by the laws, and that Chinese people do have access to the diversity of thought in America, which is only an VPN app download away.
I would consider myself a prime example a Chinese citizen who is not inhibited by Internet censorship, but rather more motivated to search for the content I need. Even though finding the right news source about the topics I wanted to read about was a cumbersome challenge during the summer, it also helped me appreciate the easy access and quality of my news and information now that I am back in America. Additionally, Chinese censorship has also prompted me to think about information in a more critical way, so I am less complacent to all types of media input. I recognize that I am privileged for being able to attend school abroad, and that many other Chinese citizens may not be exposed to the diversity of knowledge that I have. Nonetheless, I believe that Internet censorship has enriched the way I interact with modern media in and out of China.
Next time you read an article about censorship in China, it may be important to consider the perspective, background, and motives underlying the piece. The use of extreme examples is not a good representation of the true picture— many people in China do have access to foreign resources, and that most VPN users or distributors are not incarcerated for browsing foreign websites. It may be easy to overdramatize the situation when a reporter has not spent time in China living under the Internet laws. If I were not accustomed to Internet censorship, I would also be tempted to fall back on the dystopian rhetoric. While I recognize that the system is imperfect and that the root of the problem is yet to be attacked, I believe that the Internet situation in China is not fully represented by Western media and that media consumers should be slightly suspicious of media portrayals of issues they bear a distance to.