“Congratulations! You don’t need to climb over the Great Firewall anymore,” a colleague suddenly said to me last Saturday. It turned out that an app giving Chinese internet users access to blocked websites was now available on the Chinese internet. Netizens spread the word excitedly, and even my colleagues in Singapore got to hear of it.
But the new app was taken down in less than a day and I did not have the chance to download it. The small crack in the Great Firewall has, once again, been sealed up.
...the internet speed was slow when browsing foreign websites; many websites seemed to have been filtered off and sensitive words blocked; and the information available was very limited as well...
A way over the Great Firewall of China
The app called Tuber is developed by a Chinese enterprise. When it was released on 9 October on various app stores, millions of users downloaded it immediately. Some media companies tested the app and found that after registration, one could gain access to a plethora of foreign websites outside of the Great Firewall.
But Chinese netizens’ enthusiasm for Tuber had nothing to do with it being able to provide absolute internet freedom. Those who tried it said that the internet speed was slow when browsing foreign websites; many websites seemed to have been filtered off and sensitive words blocked; and the information available was very limited as well, and mostly related to entertainment, technology, and society news.
Moreover, the app requires registration using your mobile number and real name, and comes with a set of stringent user guidelines. It emphasises that users must not violate the “seven baselines” and “nine must nots” (a set of official guidelines guiding citizens’ online behaviour), or their account would be unconditionally blocked. Any acts of violation of rules and laws, as well as the browsing history of these users, would be reported to relevant authorities for further investigations. The “seven baselines” pertain to the guidelines of the socialist system, the state’s interests and so on. The “nine must nots” include jeopardising national security, subverting the country’s political power, causing harm to national unity, destroying national reputation and interests, and so on.
At the very least, the release of the app has legalised the climb over the Great Firewall that has thus far been a grey area, and provided a ray of hope that this small crack in the firewall could gradually become bigger.
A sign of things to come?
Rule-ridden and with the information available carefully filtered, there is indeed a huge gap to be bridged in building a free cyberspace. But the release of the Tuber app has whetted the appetite of long-deprived Chinese netizens with a whiff of openness. At the very least, the release of the app has legalised the climb over the Great Firewall that has thus far been a grey area, and provided a ray of hope that this small crack in the firewall could gradually become bigger.
China is arguably the country whose internet applications are the most developed. Over the past two years of my stint in China, I have used various apps that have revolutionised the way I live. Be it shopping, ordering food, heading out, or making payments, the internet has infiltrated every aspect of my life. Each time I speak with Singaporeans living in China, we all agree that the thing we will miss most the day we leave China is the convenience that the internet brings.
Strangely enough, the internet is also what many foreigners in China have trouble getting accustomed to. Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube — these websites that overseas users know and sometimes cannot do without are all blocked by the Great Firewall, and many people who work or travel in China are not used to that and feel like they have been cut off from the world. Many would ask about a reliable VPN service before heading to China.
Apart from obtaining information for everyday life, finding information for work can be troublesome too. SPH’s system uses the Google platform, and our office messaging and email and online meetings are all on Google. And with me being in China, each time there is a meeting, I get anxious and worried that the VPN will not work properly, or that the sound or video or connection will break off during an important meeting.
The Great Firewall is there but there is already a tacit understanding that those within it sometimes have to “step outside” for various reasons.
Already half the way there
Getting past the Great Firewall is troublesome and the Chinese authorities occasionally give reminders of the legal consequences of doing so too. However, many people do so in China. Apart from ordinary netizens who are curious about the world outside of the Great Firewall, some China celebrities and bloggers are also branching out into overseas social media to expand their influence and profile, and to maximise their commercial value. Over the past few years, Chinese state media have also used VPN to get on overseas social media, setting up accounts to “tell the China story”. Some government ministries and officials are active on these platforms. The Great Firewall is there but there is already a tacit understanding that those within it sometimes have to “step outside” for various reasons.
Stopping information from coming in also means obstructing the China story from going out.
For China, the Great Firewall is necessary in safeguarding ideology, but with rapid technological development and globalisation, it will get increasingly difficult to block off information through the firewall. Stopping information from coming in also means obstructing the China story from going out. On the removal of Tuber, a Chinese netizen joked: “I was intending to go up against overseas netizens and show what our country is like and spread some positive energy, but now it looks like I have no chance.”
With China’s rapid development, the people are more discerning about the information they receive and identify more with national policies. If the firewall can be appropriately relaxed to allow information flow on the internet, it would show that China is confident and unruffled. That would not be a bad thing.