During winter break, Wharton sophomore Nancy Zhang had to edit a video for her business fraternity. The challenge: the video was on YouTube, which she couldn’t access from her home in Beijing — the site has been blocked since the summer.
She tried having the file e-mailed to her, but it was too large. So she used Skype to call her boyfriend in the United States, who played the video for her over his webcam.
Such creative solutions to get content despite the “Great Firewall of China” are merely a fact of life for students who live or study abroad in the country, where many web sites that they have come to rely on in the United States are largely unavailable.
The Chinese government uses the Firewall to block access to sites — or ideas — it deems inappropriate for the general citizenry.
And the list of inaccessible sites may soon grow as internet giant Google has threatened to stop cooperating with China’s online censorship after the company discovered evidence suggesting that hackers inside China attempted to access the Gmail accounts of several human rights activists.
But particularly for those who have lived in China, the regulations and ensuing dance to void them are just part of everyday life — a minor inconvenience that does not pose any real threat to their lives.
“It’s not a big deal at all,” said College junior Leila Decker, who taught English to adults in Beijing one summer. “Anyone with a high school level of education can get around it,” she said, referring to the notorious Firewall.
Political Science professor Avery Goldstein called internet censorship a “cat-and-mouse game,” in which the Chinese government increases its restrictions and internet users find ways to circumvent those restrictions.
“When you talk to Chinese people, especially Chinese youth, they’re not particularly upset about it,” Decker said. She added that young people often find the government’s censorship to be appropriate to prevent access to information that might be “incendiary.”
It tends to be American students who are more indignant about the restrictions.
“Americans generally vastly overestimate the extent to which censorship affects people’s lives in China,” explained sixth-year Annenberg Ph.D. student Lokman Tsui, who is studying new media and global communication.
Anne Waters, executive director of Penn’s Office of International Programs, said the predeparture orientation for all students studying abroad includes a discussion about differing definitions of fairness and privacy outside the U.S.
“We’re not making a value judgment,” Waters said. “Students need to be prepared that all of their expectations will be challenged.”
Subverting the system
Terry Crossman is just one of many people living in China who use a “VPN,” or virtual private network, to circumvent the firewall and access restricted sites like Facebook.
Crossman, a 1978 Penn alumnus and former director of the Penn Clubs in Hong Kong and Beijing, said VPN use is widespread in the country. The Penn Club in Beijing has a vibrant listserv of 280 people, many of whom are “Hai Gui,” or “sea turtles,” people who returned to China after studying abroad and tend to use Facebook and Twitter.
Crossman admits that the internet restrictions may be a challenge to “newbies who haven’t figured out how to jump the wall,” but that they quickly learned through word of mouth to set up a VPN.
But restrictions weren’t always this tough, he said. Facebook and YouTube used to be available without a VPN and only suffered occasional blockages until this past summer, when they were shut down completely.
Crossman said the tumultuous summer months, which saw election riots in Iran and the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests, caused the communist government to get “nervous” about the potential for unrest.
“It’s this idea of group mobilization that [the government] is concerned about,” Tsui said. “What they are afraid of is not just sensitive information, but also the ability of the internet to organize mass protests.”
But finding a way around the new restrictions was only one reaction. Some students, like College junior Yufei Cao, who spent winter break with her family in Beijing, simply went without wall posts and status updates while away from Penn.
“Even though Facebook didn’t work, I didn’t miss it because I was home for such a short time,” she said.
Her Beijing cousins have turned to local Chinese sites like QQ (an AOL Instant Messenger substitute) or Xiaonei (the Chinese equivalent of Facebook), which are not blocked. Crossman and students said those sites, though popular among locals, haven’t really appealed to China’s ex-pat crowd, which prefers the social networking sites in their original forms.
A Google-free China?
With the population already finding so many ways to get around internet restrictions, what would a government block of Google really mean for people in China?
The implications on communication would be small, Crossman contends. His VPN would continue to provide him access to the site and all it offers, as is the case for many people living there.
Global implications may be more serious. “Right now, I am afraid that even though Google is standing up against censorship, it might change for the worse in terms of how we communicate with each other,” Tsui said. “It’s hard to predict what will happen, but I’m afraid it will change the way that Chinese people communicate with people here.”
For now, the future of Google in China is unclear. The company has only said that it will “review [their] business operations” in China. It is considering shutting down the Chinese version of Google or even withdrawing offices from the country, but no firm decisions have been made.
But any Americans hoping the Chinese people will rally around Google may be holding their breath. “The reaction among some Chinese has actually been critical of Google,” Goldstein said. “The Chinese government has succeeded in portraying this as Google trying to tell China how to run its country.”
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