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China’s Internet “Firewalls” Serving the Needs of the Country and 632 Million Netizens

Feb 26 , 2015

Anyone living in China has always found it hard to understand what all the fuss, if not hysteria, about Chinese “firewalls” and “censorship” has been about.

Reading much of the foreign press, especially The New York Times and The Washington Post (see below), one gets the impression that Chinese citizens cower under draconian restrictions on Internet access and usage, both in domestic and international linkages, by which measures the Chinese government has sought to keep its people isolated, benighted, and docile.

Nothing could be further from the truth. This is not to deny the presence, and indeed a continuing strengthening, of Chinese Internet “firewalls.” But it is to say that for virtually all Chinese citizens, largely thanks to herculean government-supported efforts, the Internet in China is an vast, open, richly bountiful conduit for private and public communications, information gathering, transacting business, the functionality in private as well as public realms, equal to that in the United States, Japan, and Europe.

How can foreign (particularly American) perceptions be so different from reality? This is not hard to explain. For reasons elaborated below, Google, Facebook, and Twitter, that is, some of the “pillar” Internet services and SNS platforms, used by most people in the United States, if not the rest of the world, are not available in China.

For most Americans these giant companies are synonymous with the Internet. This identification leads easily (particularly if exaggerated by tendentious articles and editorializing in the foreign press, see below) to the misconception that if Google, Facebook, and Twitter are not available in China, then Chinese citizens either cannot access Internet or are denied most, if not all, of its information, entertainment, and communication features.

The reality could not be more different. The most recent statistics from the China Internet Network Information Center put Chinese Internet users at 632 million. Thus, Internet usage now extends to 46.9% of Chinese citizens. Data for the first half of 2014 showed that Chinese “netizens” on average spend 25.9 hours online. Moreover, Chinese netizens are unusually interactive, responding to surveys at a rate of 45 percent, the highest in the world.

Probably fewer than 5 percent of Americans are aware of it, but China has its own Google, Facebook, and Twitter equivalents, which robustly satisfy the needs and cater to the tastes of Chinese netizens. The Chinese companies are sometimes identified by the acronym BAT. This stands for Baidu.com, Alibaba.com, and Tencent, three towering Internet conglomerates comprising dozens of Web-based subsidiaries offering a cornucopia of online products and services tailored to Chinese tastes and needs.

Nasdaq-listed Baidu.com is a powerful global search engine unrivaled in its Chinese language functionality and scope. NYSE-listed Alibaba is, as we all know, the Chinese Amazon.com, E-bay, Paypal and more. Hong Kong-listed Tencent, established in 1998 and now employing 25,000 people, provides the hugely popular WeChat social networking Skype/Twitter-like app used by an estimated 600 million persons in China and 100 million abroad.

During the past twenty years, and particularly the last decade, the Chinese government has had a choice: to provide a level of market protection and support to nurture home-grown Internet enterprises like Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent; or, to accept the likelihood of the complete initial capture of China’s domestic user market, and the stunting, suppression and possible long term (or even perpetual) eradication of the Chinese Internet industry.

Chinese leaders made the only responsible and morally justifiable choice. And the result has been an unalloyed boon for China’s citizens, economically, culturally, and socially.

Of course, there have also been political and national security justifications for China’s firewall and other restrictions, including the recent strengthening of interdictions of firewall-bridging VPNs (virtual private networks).

I have commented before (November 3, 2014, “Dealing with the Scourge of ‘Schadenfreude’ in Foreign Reporting on China”) that it is completely justifiable for the Chinese government to selectively block foreign media sites (such as The New York Times) that have practiced a pattern of hostile and biased reporting that would threaten social order.

Firewalls and controls on foreign-source network equipment and software are also indispensable national security protections. This should be indisputable following the revelations by Edward Snowden of planting of malware in Chinese systems (“U.S. spy agencies mounted 231 offensive cyber-operations in 2011, documents show,” The Washington Post, August 30, 2013).

As seen in the case of Huawei, the United States is, moreover, probably the international leader in restricting or precluding introduction of foreign hardware and software in sensitive domestic communications or infrastructure projects.

Still, a double-standard seems to exist against China, as evidenced in an article in the February 2 Washington Post, bearing a Beijing dateline, entitled “Why Internet users all around the world should be worried about China’s Great Firewall.”

The article provocatively begins: “What may be the world’s biggest censorship and Internet monitoring operation does not just affect netizens in China, it is becoming a potential concern for Internet users elsewhere in the world, experts say. News that China is building that firewall steadily higher only heightens those concerns.

“Last week, foreign business groups – including the American Chamber of Commerce in China and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce – wrote to the Chinese government to protest new rules that would force companies in the banking and telecoms sectors to use only “secure and controllable” IT services – in other words, services the Chinese government can monitor. An ongoing review of cybersecurity in general, which includes the testing and auditing of foreign IT firms and services operating here, threatens to widen those restrictions.”

There is feigned injured innocence in the tone this article, as well as in the protestations of the foreign companies involved. It is surely the case that Chinese companies seeking to sell similar technology to American telecom and banking institutions would face comparable, if not more onerous, requirements, or (as with Huawei) outright bans.

China has pursued policies toward Internet access and technological development, which are both necessary and hugely beneficial for security, safety, and prosperity of the Chinese people, as well as for their cultural and intellectual growth and enrichment.

The success and wisdom of these policies are evident to any objective observer. They and their authors warrant commendation, not condemnation.

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