I recently visited China – Beijing and Shanghai – and I listened to what a great many people in the media, both native and foreign, had to say on the media landscape in China right now. I’m serialising this blog to deal with several key features in digestible chunks – there’s a lot to get our heads around.
One of the reasons this blog is retrospective is because it was so difficult to roam the internet in China – at least along the usual routes. There were still ways I could have filed copy without going too out of my way, but I quickly realised I needed to try and appreciate the whole thing first, not just jot down my impressions as I went along.
It’s good to start this blog with the topic of internet access, or potential lack thereof. It provides a window into how the media and communications systems work, in the broader sense, in China. I should be clear – it is now much harder to roam the internet freely in China than it used to be.
Proxies and virtual private networks (VPNs) don’t work. At least, not many of the free ones do (I’m told you can pay for VPNs that will still get you around in China – not me though).
My friend – who I might say ‘knows about these things’ – was swiftly blocked from the internet on his phone after he made preliminary research into VPNs. Then the phone went caput altogether. Curious, he took it in to a local phone shop where he was informed that the SIM card would not work because his number ‘had been recalled’. Not a bad day’s work.
One working journalist told us that several years ago they were able to conduct their work with minimal use of VPNs. Now, they need to use their paid-for VPN service every day.
China isn’t finished there either; this is only the beginning. The Chinese government’s approach to internet security is a little more stringent than, say, the UK’s occasional dalliance. China is after a little more than the laughably limited yet significantly expensive attempt in the UK to ban the popular sports streaming website First Row.
A ‘central internet security and informatisation leading group’ was formed by the Chinese government this February just gone – with the president Xi Jinping sitting as chairman, supported by his number two, the government’s premier Li Keqiang. Long have we watched the evidence mount that the internet might well be an untameable beast – but nevertheless China is making a concerted effort to wield control.
There is much more to discuss here in terms of social media. But that’ll have to wait until after part #2 of this blog, where I’ll recount what we experienced in terms of broader freedom of the press in China.
Stick with us!
Words: Sean Gibson
Photo: Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo