Though heated debates rage in the United States over the freedom of the internet–from Twitter’s reluctance to ban Neo-Nazi content to Facebook removing Alex Jones’ profile–in China there is relative quiet. The Great Firewall established under China’s Communist Party (CCP) and regulated by the propaganda department bubbles the nation to the issues afflicting today’s free market internet of the West. However, access to technology which scales this wall, such as VPN services, is widely available and becoming more and more affordable for the average Chinese citizen. Yet in spite of this access to the open internet resting quite literally at the fingertips of today’s young Chinese people, only half when provided access to the uncensored internet even chose to access sites that would’ve otherwise been blocked in the country. This raises the question: Would the fall of the Great Firewall change the way the youth of China interact with the web?
Frankly, it is less an issue of restrictions than it is a symptom of a generation who has grown up in an internet culture which caters to their audience in an intentional, targeted manner. A recent Stanford study run in conjunction with Beijing’s Peking University found that providing technology to access the open internet to college students across Beijing for over a year did not result in a notable increase in accessing of blocked news media sites. Half of the students who participated in the study did not make any use of the program at all, and almost none trafficked websites with censored content. For though they lack access to Facebook and Twitter, the Chinese internet provides messaging, blogging, and alternatives boasting a host of other features which satisfy the expectations Chinese youth have of their media socialization.
Moreover, the censorship of the internet in China enables a web environment which is notably more optimistic than found in the West. While in the United States, the sensationalism of controversies and tragedies appears alongside positive media, in China this dualism is simply not present. The overwhelming presentation of news media across Chinese outlets is tailored to project consumerism and nationalism under a system of ideological control built to convince its consumers that they are living in a society on the up and up. This media flooding of positivity has seen a measurable impact on the philosophy of its audience. Nearly 8 in 10 of the users surveyed by Tencent–a leading media outlet in China–reported that they believed they were living a good life and overall held an optimistic perspective regarding themselves and the future direction of China (and its CCP policies.) In this way, the Great Firewall becomes less of a deterrent run on fear of coercive surveillance, and instead acts as a formalization of self-selection conducted by consumers who are satisfied with their current content.
It is ironic then that there is another growing sect among the youth of China dedicated to breaking through the Firewall, but not to promote and speak out for an open internet. Rather, the wave of cyber-nationalism that has come crashing through youth culture has been increasingly internationally recognized in recent years. The most notable effort occurred in 2016 when an anti-Taiwanese independence group called Di Ba circumvented the Firewall to bombard the newly elected Taiwanese president’s Facebook page with unification sentiments. Called the “fen qing”–or the “raging youth”–these young people exemplify the disparity between Chinese desire to create an internet culture which promotes the ideology of the CCP, yet does not provide the platform to express that crafted viewpoint outside of the Chinese web. For those who are determined to express themselves on the open internet, the tools are already at their disposal.
This year has boasted the highest investments being put into maintaining and evolving the Great Firewall, both internally by the CCP and externally as Western internet giants such as Google attempt to break through with versions of their services that conform to the restrictions placed upon the Chinese internet. Yet,
in this culture of satisfaction-derived apathy and frustrated nationalism perhaps it is money being thrown to an audience already too busy on their devices to notice.