The Great Firewall of China

In addition to the current workshop topics for the upcoming conference, we will be presenting ‘The Great Firewall of China’ regarding China’s Internet usage and social media.

The Internet and, more recently, social networks, have been heralded as powerful tools to combat oppression, censorship and misinformation. Twitter was famously used to coordinate protests during the Arab Spring while YouTube has been used as a platform to distribute videos of Syrian violence. The situation in China, however, does not fit this cohesive narrative. While Internet usage has expanded rapidly, with more than five hundred million current users, it remains highly controlled. The “Great Firewall of China” blocks access to websites deemed sensitive by the authorities (including Facebook and YouTube) while a network of Chinese censors prowl microblog sites, blocking offensive material. The Internet has even been used as a means to surreptitiously co-opt dissidents, seen in 2010 when the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists were hacked. Yet the Internet has also been an undeniable force behind China’s rapid modernization – allowing millions of rural Chinese to access the outside world, providing a means to share information across the country and generating significant economic benefits.

In the coming decades, will the Internet become the force for free distribution of information that so many hoped it would be? Or will it remain a subtle tool for control? Would liberalization of the Internet result in political unrest or is China’s current policy of censorship an overreaction? Does social media provide a tool for resistance that the traditional Internet does not?