TED Talk: A look behind the Great Firewall of China [video]

Understanding the Great Firewall of China

Chances are, you’ve heard of the “Great Firewall of China,” that notorious digital barrier that keeps much of the Internet that we enjoy here in the United States out of reach for Chinese citizens. YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Google — all these sites and services that we in the West take for granted are inaccessible to people in China.

Because of this intense censorship by the national goverment in China, the country repeatedly lands on lists of countries that pose the greatest threat to the open Web, ranking up there with counties ruled by totalitarian regimes like Syria and Iran. But as Chinese journalist Michael Anti explains in a recent TED Talk (video below), just becasue China blocks the major players on the global Internet does not mean that the “Chinanet” is a barren “wasteland.” In fact, quite the opposite is true.

“In China, we have 500 million Internet users,” explains Anti. “That’s the biggest population of Netizens, Internet users, in the whole world. So even if the Chinese’s [Internet] is a totally censored Internet… Chinese Internet society is really booming.”

For example, China may not have Google (anymore), but it does have Baidu. There is no Facebook — but there is Renren. YouTube is blocked in China, but Youku and Tudou are allowed to exist. This practice of creating clones of popular social networks is part of the Chinese government’s strategy for keeping their people complacent. Sure, the Chinese might not have access to the same sites we can use, but they have a comparable alternatives — alternatives that are approved, monitored and censored by the Chinese government in Bejing.

Take Sina Weibo, for example. Weibo is the Chinese version of Twitter. It launched in August of 2009, not long after Twitter.com was blocked by the Great Firewall. Weibo has around 300 million users — that’s more than twice the total number of active U.S. Twitter users, and roughly the equal to the entire population of the U.S.

While the Internet in China is populated and active, it is also heavily censored, says Anti. The names of government leaders are all blocked. And anytime someone talks about a “get together” or even going for a walk, the tweets are censored. Those who do managed to meet up offline are often met by police. Still, says Anti, the sheer number of Web users on China’s Internet make it a revolutionary sphere — the first national public sphere China has ever had.

Anti, whose real name is Zhao Jing, famously had his Facebook account and his thousands of followers deleted because he used a pseudonym, which violates Facebook’s real-name rules.

For anyone interested in the open Web and the forces that stand in its way, Anti’s TED Talk is a must-watch. Check it out below.

Image via karen roach/Shutterstock

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