It has been a couple of weeks now since I returned from China. The people and country surprised me almost daily and I am excited to go back, whenever that happens.
But I feel obligated to present the yin and the yang so to speak, the enjoyable parts of travel and the “learning experiences” a country provides. The internet in China is one of those for me.
It’s not that China doesn’t have internet access. Connectivity is actually fast and there are tons of internet companies. The problem is the government blocks certain international websites from infiltrating into the public eye and replaces them with their own, government approved sites. The official reasons for this are threefold: blocking competition, sensitive content and national security. I have no comment on sensitive content or national security, but with eliminating competition I have something to say. I hate it, but I think it actually makes sense for China. Here’s what one blogger wrote:
Without blocking Google, Baidu cannot succeed. Without blocking YouTube, Youku cannot succeed. These huge International Internet Companies do not need to pay taxes to China’s Government, but the Internet Companies in China pay taxes. In addition, they want to “protect” Chinese websites and hence block successful International websites.
China has enough people and resources to find successful internet companies around the world and copy them, keeping revenues and tax dollars in China. If you want to communicate with people in Mainland China, you have to download WeChat, a Chinese version of WhatsApp that you can use anywhere in the world. It’s the perfect protectionist policy. Brilliant.
Now if the blocked sites were obscure Dalai-Lama sponsored hackers calling for Tibetan independence I would not care. I can live without reading up on my Free Tibet news for a couple of weeks. Not that the Dalai Lama would hack anything anyway…that’s besides the point. The websites that China blocks are much more intrusive to the average social-media reliant millennial like myself. As mentioned, Google (and all its branches like Gmail, Google Maps etc.), YouTube, Facebook, Wikipedia, Instagram, Amazon… you name it, there are over 3,000 websites blocked.
I had no idea just how reliant I was on these websites until they were suddenly, mercilessly yanked away. 90% of the websites I use became non-existent to me overnight. I couldn’t work, I couldn’t whittle away the time watching people wiping out on YouTube, I couldn’t stay updated on the comedic happenings at the White House. I felt like I could suddenly relate to the “land before time” series. Okay, I exaggerate. But it really is crazy how much I NEED the internet to exist in the modern world. I don’t even use it as much as most people my age. Maybe that’s just what I tell myself. I definitely don’t even support giant companies like Google, I think they need some competition or they will monopolize the industry. I’m just enslaved to they’re conveniences.
This is how I felt the first few days in country. It was the first time I seriously contemplated crossing an international border exclusively for internet hunting. Then I discovered a magical thing; the VPN or virtual private network. I’m not smart enough to describe how it works, other than saying it lets you use blocked websites in China. I was back in business, at least for the sporadic instances it worked. At least I could reassure the world of my existence via Facebook.
I would love to conclude this post with some meaningless saying about how I learned to rely less on the internet during my time in China and that as a result I became a better person or had some light bulb ah-ha moment. I can’t say that. What I do know is that the internet connects people but it can’t be our sole connection. We must use it as a means to an end of interacting with real people. It should be a catalyst, not a crutch. Yes, we need it in today’s world but it should never take the place of the real, face to face interactions with the always interesting, sometimes bizarre, often hilarious thing called humanity.
Thank you so much for reading.