Dictionaries define the internet as “a global computer network providing a variety of information and communication facilities, consisting of interconnected networks using standardized communication protocols.” However precise this definition is, one aspect of it is about to become questionable and open to modifications. This aspect is the internet’s globality. The ubiquity of the internet is contentious not only because 4 billion people around the world still cannot access it. The internet is not global also because some countries either want their sovereign internet or already have it. Thus, Russia has recently surprised everyone by expressing a desire to unplug itself from the worldwide internet. Its plan is to isolate its internet infrastructure – RuNet – from the rest of the world in case of a cyber-attack. If anyone tries to damage Russia’s online infrastructure, it will cut itself off from the global internet and will switch to its own local internet and online services.
Doing this is technically difficult, but the example of China shows that having its own internet, disconnected from the global network, is practically possible. For some years already, China has its own versions of all well-known websites, blocking the western ones so successfully that its young generation does not know anything about Twitter and Facebook and has no interest in using Google or Bloomberg. Expats living in China may well try to use a VPN for China to circumvent the country’s censorship; but the majority of the locals would not even understand why they need to resort to this software: they feel perfectly in accord with the government’s control of the internet.
Matters with the internet were not always so gloomy in China. The country did enjoy happier, more democratic times. In the 90s, access to western websites was free; the information posted on them was used by people to highlight their government’s shortcomings. Indeed, as soon as the internet was welcomed in China, the citizens understood its political force. In 1998, a software engineer sent 30,000 Chinese email addresses to a pro-democracy magazine based in the US. The following year, the spiritual organization called Falun Gong organized a silent demonstration with the help of email and mobile phones to protest their inability to practice freely. Around 10,000 followers came to the Communist party’s central compound to support the organization. The power of the internet was demonstrated at its finest.
And yet, the internet in China was not at the zenith of its influence for long. Trials ensued. The engineer and Falun Gong practitioners were imprisoned. China’s leaders quickly defected to the draconian measures for which the country is known since its first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, whose censorship had long become proverbial. Fearful of dissenting opinions, the emperor ignominiously burned scholarly texts in 213 BCE and buried alive 460 Confucian scholars in 212 BCE, thereby causing not only the destruction of the imperial China’s best minds but also the loss of the majority of philosophical treatises of the Hundred Schools of Thought. The Chinese government at the end of the twentieth century exhibited similar close-mindedness towards the internet and people who used it as a vehicle for gaining knowledge and criticizing their rulers. Like their notorious predecessor, the Chinese leaders blocked hundreds of western websites and incarcerated those people whose opinions threatened their security. As a sad corollary of these restrictions, the majority of the Chinese citizens remain now totally unaware of the websites and search engines that are indispensable in other countries.
A number of blocked western websites and media channels in China is truly staggering. There is no access to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr, Snapchat, Picasa, WordPress.com, Blogspot, SoundCloud, Google+, and Hootsuite. People are also disallowed to use Whatsapp, Messenger, Viber, Telegram, Periscope, Line, and Discord. Nor do such search engines as Google, Ask.com, Yahoo!, and Duck Duck Go exist in the country. Video sharing through YouTube, Vimeo, Daily Motion, and Nico Video is forbidden, and so is watching movies on Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, BBC iPlayer, and SoundCloud. The Chinese government has taken a step further and banned even media channels. Try as they might, people in China cannot read The New York Times, Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, Bloomberg, Reuters, The Independent, LeMonde, L’Equipe, and Google News. Many pages of Wikipedia and Wikileaks are inaccessible, too. To make its citizens look for the information on the internet and communicate with each other, the Chinses government has compensated for the absence of the Western websites by creating local ones. A rich arsenal of Chinese websites – Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent – has lately emerged to perform the same functions, though all of them came with heavy censorship.
The government has also developed new technology enabling it to control the internet tighter. To this end, the Great Firewall of China was designed allowing the rulers to block foreign websites and slow down cross-borders internet traffic. The Great Canon soon followed, which, unlike the Great Firewall, does not block traffic but adjusts and replaces content as it is being transmitted through the internet. The Great Canon helps overwhelm unwanted websites with the traffic redirected from Baidu, a local search engine, and, in so doing, makes their own content unavailable to users. The Chinese government also stifles any rumors travelling through the internet. People who spread rumors or lies in their posts face defamation charges and three years of imprisonment. The effect of these measures is sadly palpable. According to the latest polls, people’s willingness to posts anything on the social media in China fell by 70 percent in comparison to the earlier years.
The stringent internet censorship practiced in China is bound to affect negatively its scientific and economic development. Yet the Chinese government seems ready to risk the country’s blossoming, as long as its control of the internet guarantees the hegemony and security of the Communist party.