The Chinese ‘Black Mirror’: heightened censorship in the land of the dragon
“Stressed spelled backwards is dessert.” It is late October, rainy. I am having coffee with a couple who just left Beijing after working there for several years. They seem happy to be somewhere else, even with the bad weather. The small Italian café has encouraging signs on the walls, telling you to live a full life and eat your sorrows away with sweets. “I need to send a photo of this to my friend! She is feeling very down right now” my friend bursts out. “You see, the government just blocked the access to all English pages in Beijing.”
With the move to escalate censorship in the lead-up to the Congress, the Facebook-owned communication app WhatsApp was fully blocked after a longer period under partial restrictions. WhatsApp has for a long time been the company’s last available product in Mainland China. In comparison, Facebook was cut off almost 9 years ago. This new block was confirmed just a month before Beijing recently cut all access to non-Chinese pages.
Despite these Chinese platforms, many still try to get around the block using VPNs – virtual private networks. Using a VPN you are able to access all global sites, climbing the walls the censorship system has built up around Chinese internet users. However, while providing hope, these services has been under attack by the government for a long time.
Stepping up their game, the Chinese leadership has recently ruled in favour of completely blocking access to the global internet by a full shutdown of VPNs in the country by 2018. The order is to be executed by the country’s three telecommunication companies, all state-owned. According to Xiao Qiang from the University of California, “[t]his is a significantly escalated form of internet control and shows there is unprecedented urgency and desperation at the top of the government.” As well as harming private users, larger companies and academics have voiced their concern. The full VPN block would prevent access to international academic journals, as well as communication with businesses outside of China.
I have personally felt the frustration of these bans twice when stuck in transits at Chinese airports. From the first attempt to connect to the WiFi, to the moment you give up and settle for some quality time with that book you probably should have read anyway, you are cut off from all outside communication. At the same time, locals are able to scroll through as many messages as their hearts may desire. In the vacuum caused by the censorship a wide range of Chinese platforms has emerged. They often both replace and go beyond what the international products were able to offer. Two good examples of highly successful companies is the Chinese version of Amazon, Alibaba, and the communication platform WeChat. In fact, according to the New York Times, WeChat has 963 million active users and is even starting to outcompete the use of email.
Queue at the airport in Kunming, China. Photo: Signe Davidson
Being denied free use of the global network is to a millennial growing up alongside it, to put it mildly, a disturbing thought. However, with so many up-and-coming domestic platforms providing Chinese residents with more than their daily internet-fix, maybe the everyday-citizen will not even notice the recently expanded censorship.
From early released documents on the system, it is clear that it will encompass every Chinese citizen and organisation. If you like the rest of us are a frequent Netflix-binger, you might have watched the dystopian show ‘Black Mirror’. If you have, this proposal might have you instantly drawing parallels to the episode ‘Nosedive’. The episode introduces the viewer to a world where social scores determine all aspects of life. While a high score gives you benefits, even more drastic is the effects of a low score, rendering you incapable of using even the simplest services the dystopian society has to offer.
It is easy to forget that what we watch on Netflix as a dark twist on life might be the reality for someone else. Strikingly similar to the episode, the social ranking programme in China aims to enter everyone into an extensive national database containing all personal information. This includes everything from small traffic violations and behaviour patterns, to whether birth control has been taken. The result of the information – a number ranking each citizen.