Posted by: Sam Olsen | October 23, 2011

Great Firewall of China

You may have wondered at the lack of posts over the last few days. The reason? Because the Chinese Government wouldn’t let us.

The Great Firewall of China blocks lots of websites that are considered not in the public interest, including Facebook, Twitter and of course WordPress.

Each time I tried to log in to any of these sites, the server would have a long think, then announce that the internet connection had been broken. If I tried repeatedly, all my internet explorer windows would crash.

In other words, social media in China is out. Or, to be precise, Western social media. Several local equivalents were accessible, like Renren.com, a Chinese equivalent of Facebook (although the Renren site was down for maintenance, which at 10am seemed strange). Blogs too – in Chinese or English – are there if you want, but Chinese hosted only. Direct foreign online influence is definitely not for the masses.

Is this though a bad thing? Are Chinese users missing out on social media by only having local versions? Interestingly, one of the only references I could find on Baidu (China’s Google equivalent) for Facebook was a blog comparing Renren.com to the Mark Zuckerberg creation. Renren.com, which translates as ‘Everyone’s Network’, bills itself as “China’s most authentic and most effective social networking platform; use Renren.com to find old friends, and make new friends”. And according to this blog (in English), it is superior to Facebook (naturally, you might suppose). The anonymous author lists four reasons for it being better than its American rival.

First, “It’s encouragement to produce more, not just consume”. Renren.com therefore has at least one moral advantage. Secondly: “The recent effort to help the drought victims in Southern China”, which Renren.com achieved through setting up a direct donation link. This might seem a strangely specific example to use, but it may be part of the general competitiveness of Chinese and Sinophiles to show China as a more caring society than the US.

A final advantage is “The ability to see who visits you”. Privacy in China is viewed differently to in the West, as the explanation to this point shows: “At first I did not like this function, it made me feel really exposed and I thought that I liked the privacy of Facebook. However, with a News Feed and such, I’ve found that I don’t really visit individual’s pages unless I am engaging in stalker-like behavior or pro-active enough to write or post something on their page. This function on Renren helped me only visit people I felt I had a genuine connection with, decreased the amount of mindless browsing I did, and acted as a way of saying “hi” without too much effort. I guess there’s a moderating effect with this function that leads to more restrained Renren usage, but with an increase in quality of the time I do spend on it.”

The block of non-Chinese social media means that the Government here can continue to isolate its people from non-Chinese thinking. The use of Twitter and Facebook in the Arab Spring revolts no doubt sharpened minds in Beijing as to the potency of Western-style democratic thought spreading through Western-originated technology.

Beijing is intent on creating a new, modern China in an image of its own making. And no external forces – even those strong enough to ferment revolution elsewhere – are going to be allowed to get in the way.

 But now we are back in liberal, British-themed Hong Kong, expect normal blogging service to resume.

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