Want to make a fortune in online commerce? China is a dream market, but with the phenomenal growth of e-commerce comes unprecedented Internet censorship.
The Chinese internet is a mighty dragon, a beast with many heads. It has developed beyond comparison with Ireland, Europe and the US. Even as the Chinese Communist Party does its best to build a wall.
Climb the Great Wall and watch the Internet phenomenon in the Middle Plains. On the one hand, censorship is widespread and the authorities are repressive. On the other hand, investments in IT solutions, network services and e-commerce are spectacular.
What is the Internet environment like in China?
Is there Internet in China? Yes, the majority of Internet users live in China. There are almost 900 million people, although “only” slightly more than half of the Chinese population. In comparison, more than 70% of the population are Internet users.
At the end of last year, about 66% of the world’s population had access to the Internet (data from Internetworldstats.com). This is a huge army of over 5 billion people. More than half of them live in Asia, 30% are Chinese and there are more than 700 million users.
The Internet is ubiquitous in China, especially in the wealthier cities and rural areas on the east coast. Residents of large cities have access to 5G internet, but Chinese living in rural villages do not have access to websites and electronic services.
The Communist Party government is committed to developing the technology and wants half of China’s internet users to have access to 5G by 2025. It is not just about digitalisation in the short term. They also plan to build 30 “smart factories” in the next few years.
“They will be fully robotic and automated thanks to 5G technology, AI (artificial intelligence) and IoT (Internet of Things). These factories will mainly employ engineers and computer technicians,” writes author Rezek Surajik on China.
Mobile internet is developing very dynamically in China, just like wireless and fibre broadband in County Mayo. People are paying with their mobile phones everywhere, and it is more widespread than PIN payments.
However, the Internet in China also has an ugly side.
Censorship of the internet in China
In China, it is not the big media companies that determine what is published on the internet. Communists do not like sharing power.
Piotr Lewandowski states: “In the People’s Republic of China, which has a strong, modern and forward-looking economy and the fastest growing IT sector, there is arguably the largest and most effective censorship system in cyberspace.” (“Freedom of Expression and Cyberspace Censorship in the People’s Republic of China”).
In China, you can get rich, but you are not allowed to say anything that is bad for the party.
China ranks 177th out of 180 countries in suppression of freedom of expression, including online (World Press Freedom Index 2021).
Reporters Without Borders reports that “President Xi Jinping’s regime is using the massive use of new technologies to impose a social model based on controlling news and information and controlling citizens online.
Unruly journalists, bloggers and sometimes even ordinary Internet users are often imprisoned in extremely dangerous conditions. The Tibetan guide Kunchok Jinpa was sentenced to 21 prison terms for reporting on Tibetan protests on the microblog WeChat. The heavy sentence for ‘revealing state secrets and providing information to foreign media’ came to a tragic end. Jinpa was beaten and suffered a brain haemorrhage and died in February 2021.
What does Internet censorship look like in China?
Internet censorship in China includes:
Continuous network monitoring,
Restricting access to “harmful” information (blocking websites and services such as Facebook, Google and Twitter),
Blocking IP numbers and domain names,
Setting up a multi-level system to monitor the flow of information on the Internet (including Internet service providers, Internet café owners, government officials, national security services, browsers that search for inappropriate words on the Internet).
Control of technical infrastructure, user control (authentication requirements) and DNS (Domain Name System),
Obligation to install the “Green Dam Youth Escort” software to block pornographic content and communist threats,
For example, after the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the writer Liu Xiaobo, an automation was added to block access to websites containing blacklisted words: “empty chair” and “empty table”.
The creation of a search engine controlled by public authorities (Baidu – currently the second largest search engine in the world),
Inspection of data flows – DPI (Deep Packet Inspection),
Checking emails and SMS messages.
What does the internet look like in practice in China? The most common practice is to block websites containing blacklisted words such as Tibet, Uighurs, Tiananmen Square protests, democracy, corruption, Taiwan or opposition activists.
Another way is to redirect traffic from one domain to another if the first domain contains content not approved by the authorities (so-called “red-ends”). The army of officials monitoring the web has grown to several hundred thousand digital investigators. The use of algorithms to enforce internet censorship is increasingly important in China.
The Great Digital Wall – applications banned in China
A system to block content that offends those in power, called the Great Digital Wall – “China’s great firewall” – and officially the “Golden Shield” project) is evolving rapidly as the number of Chinese internet users increases.
The authorities have found a way to deal with this. Effective control of the growth of broadband internet in China will be ensured by cooperation between service providers and government authorities and by the use of artificial intelligence. Owners of companies providing digital services have to follow very detailed rules. They do not want to lose their licences and cooperate closely with the public and the secret police.
Applications banned in China
China’s great firewall blocks some of the world’s most popular services, and among the applications banned in China are the following:
Facebook + Messenger,
Facebook + Messenger, Twitter + streaming platform Periscope,
Vimeo, Flickr, Facebook, Flickr Watch, Flickr, Vimeo,
Google and related services,
However, some services, such as Slack and WhatsApp, are unstable.
How is the internet used in China?
If you want to use the internet for business purposes, this is not a problem. In China, e-commerce can make you an incredible fortune.
If you want to use western sites or even Irish fibre broadband service like Atlantek Broadband, you have a problem. It is impossible to access Western information on a “normal” browser that has not been censored by the authorities in Beijing.
The easiest way to get around the “digital wall” is to use a VPN service. You need to get official permission to use a VPN in China. Services that allow you to bypass digital censorship are also often blocked. For travellers, the ideal solution is to install the software before crossing the Chinese border.
Chinese equivalents of Western services
How to use the internet in China? If you want to browse Facebook or Instagram and recognise that China has an alternative internet to the West, you need to use a VPN. The main services have their own equivalents. Here is a short list of websites and services with Chinese equivalents:
Didi – Uber,
Douyin – TikTok,
YouTube, Hulu, Netflix – Youku,
Baidu – Google,
WeChat – WhatsApp,
RenRen – Facebook,
Sina Weibo – Twitter
Aliexpress – Amazon
However, it is important to remember that these services are not an exact copy of “our” services. They offer features tailored to the preferences of Chinese users. Many of them are evolving, such as Youku, which was considered to be the most popular service in China.