The Media Today

In China, an entire generation is growing up with censored internet

August 8, 2018

Free speech and censorship are hot topics in North America, with heated debates over issues such as Facebook’s decision to delete pages belonging to conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, Twitter’s refusal to ban neo-Nazis, and whether Google should remove controversial or offensive YouTube videos. But none of these topics stir much interest in China, according to a recent piece by Li Yuan, a technology writer for The New York Times—mostly because an entire generation has never heard of Facebook, Twitter, or Google, and censorship isn’t something they seem to care much about.

For anyone interested in the open, uncensored web, Li’s portrayal of how the younger generation in China experience the internet is likely to be profoundly depressing. She mentions an 18-year-old named Wei Dilong, who lives in a city in southern China and likes basketball, hip-hop music, and Hollywood superhero movies. He has never heard of Google or Twitter, and has a hunch that Facebook might be a bit like Baidu, the Chinese search engine. Wen Shengjian, a 14-year-old, said he had heard of the platforms, but said a friend of his father’s told him they were blocked because some of their content wasn’t appropriate for the development of socialism with Chinese characteristics. “I don’t need them,” he told the Times.

As depressing at it might be to consider, it appears the Chinese government has achieved some or all of its original goal in blocking certain sites and services: In other words, it has managed to keep almost an entire generation away from content it disapproves of, and replaced Western apps and services with its own heavily censored versions, to the point where young Chinese men and women show little or no interest in—or even awareness of—the alternative. In a study earlier this year, Li cites, two economists found most college students were not interested in uncensored sites even when they were given free tools to access them.

This has become particularly relevant with the news that Google is reportedly trying to re-enter China after almost a decade of being blocked there, and in order to achieve that goal it is considering offering the Chinese government a search app and a news app that will both be heavily censored. One of the fears that some critics have of this move is that not only will Google be acceding to the demands of a repressive and totalitarian state, but its decision to cater to China’s demands could lead to requests from other repressive governments around the world for their own censored versions of the internet.

Here’s more on China and its tangled relationship with the Web:

  • A Chinese-based cloud: According to Bloomberg, Google is in talks with Chinese internet giant Tencent about a partnership that would see it offer cloud services such as Google Drive and Google Docs in the country. In most markets, Google’s services are hosted on its own servers, which it runs via giant server farms in various locations around the world, but Chinese law requires that any such service using Chinese data must be located in the country, so Google is reportedly looking for partners.
  • Baidu talks tough: After news of Google’s plan to possibly re-enter the country broke, the chief executive of China’s largest search engine, Baidu, said he was confident his company would be able to prevail over the US-based giant. Robin Li wrote on his WeChat account that if Google returned, “we are very confident we can just PK and win again,” using a popular video-game term meaning “player kill.”
  • A disappearing article: People’s Daily, the largest newspaper in China and an official organ of the Communist government, published a piece of commentary about Google’s plans in which it said the company would be welcome to return to China, provided it abided by all of the requisite laws of the country (such as censorship). A number of China-watchers note that the article in question seems to have disappeared.
  • Questions from Congress: A bipartisan group of six senators have sent Google a letter asking the company to explain its plans to re-enter China by acceding to the government’s demands for censorship. The group, which includes Senator Marco Rubio and Senator Mark Warner, called reports of the plans “deeply troubling” and said that a move back into the country “risks making Google complicit in human rights abuses related to China’s rigorous censorship regime.”
  • WeChat is everything: Young Chinese internet users may not have heard of Facebook, YouTube, or Twitter, but they have something that is like all three of those put together and then some: WeChat, which is a discussion platform but also a news source and a payment service. Mia Shuang Li wrote for CJR about how it has become the single most important service for journalists and the media in general.

Other notable stories:

  • Alex Jones, whose conspiracy-peddling Infowars site has been blocked by Facebook, YouTube, Apple and Spotify, has accused the tech giants of censorship, and called on his followers to rise up against anti-Trump “sociopaths.” Jones told The New York Times the moves were part of a plot involving Democrats, China, “globalists” and “corporatists,” and argued that his support for Donald Trump was the main reason he was being censored, not his role in publishing misinformation or hate speech.
  • Two months after the European Community introduced its GDPR or General Data Protection Regulation, which imposes strict requirements on the handling of user data by publishers and platforms, more than 1,000 news websites are still unavailable in the European Union, according to a report from Nieman Lab. Some publishers appear to have decided that serving EU users isn’t worth the cost of complying with the rules.
  • Grace Shulman, who was the poetry editor at The Nation from 1971 to 2006, says in an opinion piece for The New York Times that the magazine “betrayed” poet Anders Carlson-Wee and its own principles when it apologized for a poem that Carlson-Wee wrote in which he used black vernacular (Carlson-Wee is white). Shulman criticized what she called “the backward and increasingly prevalent idea that the artist is somehow morally responsible for his character’s behavior or voice.”
  • According to a survey done by Ipsos, more than 40 percent of Republicans said the President should have the authority to shut down media outlets if they misbehave, according to a report from the Daily Beast. Almost half of Republican respondents also agreed with the statement, “The media is the enemy of the people,” a phrase that President Donald Trump has used many times.
  • Jim Friedlich writes for CJR about the legacy of H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest, the Philadelphia-based cable TV mogul turned philanthropist who passed away on the weekend at the age of 88. Lenfest bought The Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News four years ago and then created and funded a nonprofit organization, the Lenfest Institute, designed to enable the newspapers to continue publishing in perpetuity.
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Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.