Internet Censorship in China: NO access to Facebook?!

Posted on May 28th, 2013 by BreAnn

Hello from Vietnam! Yes, six weeks in China have flown by and we’re already in a new country. Wow… How did that happen so quickly?

Confused? Well, you may have been wondering why you haven’t heard much about our experiences in China yet since we’ve been there most of April and May. And there’s a reason for it all…

James and I have been holding off on posting much about China–especially anything negative–until we’ve left the country, as we’ve been told there’s a possibility of getting in trouble with the government if we’ve posted anything portraying the country in a non-positive way.

Why is that? Well, you see, China is a communist country and is VERY careful about its impression on and reputation to the rest of the world.  And it’s even MORE sensitive to the information that its own people receive (or don’t receive). The government dictates what information is or is not allowed on the internet and they also will track your computer individually if they suspect that you are writing negatively about China or “misrepresenting” the country.

Information censorship is a huge priority in China, as the government goes to great lengths to protect itself and its citizens from negative information about the country and/or government.  The “claim” is if you are free to write online about the country, the government, about wanting freedom, or anything else similar, these stories could endanger the country because they are “sharing state secrets.”  Well, that’s how they like to make it sound.  So, in turn, the authorities censor any information they regard as harmful to the country’s economic or political interests.

Post something about freedom, democracy, or anything negative online about the country while inside of China–whether you are a resident or just a traveler–and you may face consequences for your actions. For us, it was the possibility of getting stopped on the way out of China and having them confiscate our computers and cellphones for a period of time while they search through files and read through text. For citizens, it could mean prison time.

Because of this, many journalists are pressured into self-censorship in order to avoid penalty for what they write. If a journalist defies these rules put in place by the government, they face prison terms and harassment. In 2008, a man by the name of Tan Zuoren was put in prison for a five year term for drawing attention to government corruption and poor construction of school buildings that collapsed and killed THOUSANDS of children during an earthquake in the Sichuan province. Of course, any information written online about this incident is now blocked from Chinese citizens, and apparently Zuoren’s volunteers were also harassed or beaten afterwards. Another man, Liu Xiaobo, who is a Chinese rights activist, was sentenced to eleven years in prison for his controversial opinions online and attempting to call for freedom of speech and democratic reforms. He actually earned a Nobel Peace Prize for his writings, but Chinese censors quickly and fiercely blocked the news about the prize, refused to release Liu from prison for the ceremony, and attempted to get the organization to discredit the award immediately.

Now, this extreme lack of freedom of speech and media/internet censorship may sound ridiculous or shocking to you, but there are actually quite a few other countries out there who have similar internet censorship.  Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, and Iran– just to name a couple–also have some form of internet censorship (and people can be possibly jailed for things they have posted online), and places like North Korea ARE BLOCKED FROM INTERNET ALTOGETHER!  But then you may wonder just how “restricted” are the people who use the internet in China compared to the rest of the world?  Well, in 2012 according to the group Reporters without Borders, China is ranked 174 out of 179 countries in its worldwide index of press freedom.  Yep, there are 173 other countries out there that have much more freedom of press than China. That is pretty astounding if you think about the fact that CHINA HAS THE LARGEST POPULATION IN THE WORLD, AT 1.3 BILLION PEOPLE (as a comparison, the US has a population of “only” 315 million people) and is ranked second for overall world GDP.

The internet censorship in China includes blocking more than 2,600 websites including Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Picasa, some Google websites (google+, docs, drive, etc.), IMDB, most porn sites, and blogging sites such as Blogspot and WordPress (our blog here isn’t blocked since I built it on my own website and domain).  And when you search a topic on Google when in China, you often cannot click on a lot of the links provided, as they are usually links that are blocked!

THIS would be why you may have heard this referred to as “The Great Firewall of China.” 🙂

This censorship system filters and blocks the internet in two ways:
1. Removes some websites completely from search results on search engines.
2. Turns on a “safe search” feature if a person attempts to search for a sensitive word or phrase, which in turn limits the result pages.

Just so you get an idea, here are some of the terms that trigger this feature:
Democracy, human rights, dictatorship, anti-communist, genocide, oppression, Red Terror, revolution, freedom, dissident, equality, Sino-Russion border, Tiananmen Square massacre, Chinese democracy movement.

Also, you might be greatly filtered if you search for anything related to Hong Kong or Taiwan, and especially if you search for the name of any dissident or politician that has ever spoken out against China or its government.

In general  though, no matter if a search term is sensitive or not, many popular websites are removed from search results including some foreign news websites like Voice of America and BBC, sites with dissident political content, and a few Taiwan and Hong Kong websites.

An American guy we met in China (who has been living in China for a few years) said that a girl friend of his JUST FOUND OUT a couple years ago, in her 20s, about the Tiananmen Square incident through friends or reading it on unfiltered internet. She felt SO cheated and completely lied to, and wondered what else was out there that the government was keeping from her.

Interesting point of view, eh?

Note that Hong Kong is completely different and is not censored in this way (read more info about HK and its differences and relationship with China here.)

Anyway, this information censorship didn’t affect us too much on our 6 weeks in China, as we already have a VPN (Virtual Private Network)–Thanks to my sister for helping us figure out what this was and how to use it! I was still pretty paranoid on a daily basis, wondering if there was any way the government was tracking what we were doing, where we were located, or what I was writing about.

SO… what can we learn from this?


I think on a daily basis, all of you reading this (yes, YOU!!) probably email, IM, text, blog, or post on facebook and twitter and most likely NEVER think about the consequences of what you’re putting out there.

Think about it the next time you post or write something about political beliefs, sexual orientation, religion, or anything else that may be considered “controversial.”  You might get some nasty comments if your opinion offends other people, but you most likely will NOT be jailed or fined.

And then take a moment and give thanks and appreciation for the freedoms you have.



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