Last year, an interesting report by Gady Epstein for The Economist offered social, political, commercial, technical, and international perspectives on the muddled past, present and future of Chinese internet censorship. Its publication led the China Digital Times to refer to China’s internet connections, the third-most-restrictive in the world[1], as “a giant cage.”

Epstein reflects on the initial hope the internet provided for the democratization of China, opening his article with Bill Clinton’s now (ironically) famous analogy comparing the attempt to control the internet in China with “nail[ing] Jell-O to the wall.”  Optimism spread that this new technology would serve as a powerful tool for the population and “erode China’s authoritarian state,” playing a similar part, perhaps, to the telegraph in Russia’s Bolshevik revolutions in 1917, and the short-wave radio in the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991.  Instead, Epstein laments, the Chinese state has “deployed an army of cyber-police, hardware engineers, software developers, web monitors and paid online propagandists to watch, filter, censor and guide Chinese internet users.”

Epstein goes on to discuss “the Great Firewall,” explaining how China blocked social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, and forced Google out of their market in 2010 after only four years (by hacking them, though Google provided only self-censored services).  Instead, it allowed microblogging as a “trusted and controlled alternative.” Explaining just how “controlled” it is, Epstein refers to the sentencing of Chinese writer Liu Xiaobo to eleven years in prison in 2009 for co-writing and circulating an online manifesto calling for an end to authoritarian rule.

China may soon find censorship becoming more difficult, however: Epstein notes that only 20 million people had Internet access at the time of Clinton’s “Jell-O” statement, and now there are over 560 million users. Largely due to a surge in mobile device ownership, the fastest growth has been in rural areas.  Instead of the relatively wealthy public (less likely to be frustrated with the government) monopolizing internet usage, now the disenfranchised have a greater level of access to an arena in which to freely obtain and exchange information and voice any subsequent dissatisfaction with the status quo.

As a result, small victories are being won, such as when an army political commissar became abusive towards a flight attendant: she posted pictures of the incident online, and internet users “ferreted out his name, job title and location and he was eased out of his job.”  Sadly, these victories seem to be limited to lower level officials, and hints of dissent against the highest authorities are stamped out when they’ve barely begun (as in the case of Liu Xiaobo).

While pressure is on for the authorities, it has ultimately led to what scholars are calling “adaptive authoritarianism,” essentially meaning that those in power become more efficient at being authoritarian – allowing criticism but eliminating online discussions that could lead to collective actions. China has allied itself with many other countries, united by the aim of increasing access while retaining tight political and technological control.

The Economist has since run a follow-up article, “How does China censor the Internet?”, which summarized:

“China is having it both ways: it is allowing its citizens to benefit from the social and commercial aspects of the internet, while placing strict limits on its use for political activism … so far the government has managed to prevent the internet being used to campaign for broader political change. Indeed, by providing people with an outlet to vent their concerns and giving the illusion of public debate, the internet may even be delaying the radical changes that China needs.”

However, if citizens are allowed to benefit from the commercial web, how will innovative entrepreneurs manage their online business despite current restrictions?

Kristie Lu Stout, Hong Kong anchor for CNN International, says that some entrepreneurs are able to come up with creative ways to bypass [restrictions]. But these workarounds have costs. Writing for The Atlantic, Beibei Bao says, “the existence of the Great Firewall hurts China’s economy – but the issue is more complicated than you think.” She points to a case that demonstrates Epstein’s point rather well: Steve Fan had left China to study at Stanford University, but returned after four years, in 2012, to begin a start-up business to fill an online niche. One of his obstacles was the seemingly random blocking of Google. For example, running a search for the word “river” will result in the IP address being blacked out for ninety seconds, because that word is pronounced the same way as the surname of a former Chinese president. Fan’s company was able to resort to using a VPN, but it was very expensive: he calculates that his business suffered a 10% decline in efficiency.

Many entrepreneurs in China today face the same problem. Michael Li, the owner of a social network that connects Chinese entrepreneurs with venture capitalists, believes that the Firewall creates a deficit in knowledge of the latest trends sweeping the world, making it impossible to take advantage of them. Even when the censors can be bypassed, the tools necessary to do so are slow, hindering creativity. Li Gong, CEO of Mozilla Online, developer of Firefox, and Boyang Gong, founder of Shenzhen Thindov, shared their tips to would-be internet entrepreneurs in China. “Observe political and market rules” (and restrictions) is the first out of top five factors entrepreneurs in China should not forget… Indeed, Chinese entrepreneurs are jailed in this increasingly balkanized network.

Some say that the lack of the outside world intruding on the Chinese web is a good thing: Kaifu Lee, the founder of Innovation Works, a Beijing-based innovation incubator, and Bill Bishop, the Beijing-based editor of Sinocism, believe it has allowed certain Chinese web creations to flourish without opposition, citing the Facebook imitation, RenRen. Overall, however, the lack of a global perspective will eventually be detrimental to the people of China, and with so many entrepreneurs frustrated by the Firewall, time will tell if the resulting economic suffering will lead to a stronger fight against state censorship.

–Jean-Loup Richet

About the Author

Jean-Loup Richet is the Information Systems Service Manager at Orange and a Research Fellow at ESSEC Business School – Institute for Strategic Innovation & Services. He graduated from the French National Institute of Telecommunications, Telecom Business School, and holds a research master’s from IAE/HEC Paris. He is an expert in information security and has presented at several national and international information systems conferences. He has published articles in academic and trade journals, and he is currently a lecturer in IS Risk Management at the Sorbonne Graduate Business School (International MBA).

[1] Of those countries that allow access at all. See generally Freedom on the Net 2012, Freedom House, (last visited Feb. 24, 2014); Freedom on the Net 2013, Freedom House, (last visited Feb. 24, 2014).

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