The Great Firewall of China (GFW), called The Golden Shield Project in China, is a censorship and surveillance project which intends to block information and data which is considered unfavorable by the government.

Regardless of the politics behind it, the GFW is a nuisance for Western brands trying to access China as many of the sites which are used in the West are unavailable in the country.  These include core internet services such as Facebook, Google, Twitter, Snapchat and YouTube as well as many Western publishers.

Recently, however, there have been a number of news stories about the GFW, some positive and others decidedly negative.

Twitter is one of the blocked sites 

The good

Loosening up of the GFW being discussed

Starting with the good news, Voice of America recently reported that a 'ranking member of China’s top political advisory body' has proposed that China adopt a more open approach toward internet censorship.  The member, Luo Fuhe, indicated that China has gotten to the point where it can begin to cut back on censorship and blocking of non-sensitive content.

Luo's main point was that blocking all of the major Western websites and apps is heavy-handed and ends up making life difficult for those, like scientists, who are not interested in sensitive content.  Instead, he suggested, China should come up with a specific 'negative list' of sensitive sites and stick to blocking those.

While there was no reporting on the likelihood of the measure being passed, Luo's proposal is one of the first instances of open dissent against the existing GFW policy.

Google will re-enter China in 2017

One company which has been affected significantly by the GFW is Google. Google left China in 2010 after it experienced an attack on its infrastructure, purportedly by the Chinese authorities in an attempt to access the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists.

While after the event Google kept a presence in Hong Kong  (which operates under different laws from the mainland), the Google sites and services were withdrawn from China and they remain inaccessible through the GFW.

Recent reports, however, indicate that Google may be re-entering China, slowly. The Washington Post reported in March that the Google Translate app is now available in the country for the first time in seven years. Discussions are also in place to re-launch Google Scholar in the country as well.

Additionally, The Information recently reported that NetEase Inc., China's second-largest online games provider, will form a joint venture with Google to launch the Google Play service in the country.

While neither of these announcements indicate that sites which matter to brands (i.e. Google search and YouTube) will ever be available in the country again, these moves are at least a start in the right direction.

The bad

Pinterest is now blocked

Just as things seemed to be going in the right direction, CNNMoney reported in March that Pinterest, previously available in the China, is now blocked by the GFW along with most other Western social media sites.

No specific reason was given for blocking Pinterest, but many speculated that the site was banned in order to ensure that similar, local internet services could be developed without foreign competition.

While it's not certain which sites would take its place for the Chinese consumer, XiaoHongShu is a contender.  The app allows Chinese consumers to review merchandise bought overseas and start discussions with other brand fans in China.

NYT reports on harassment in China

The New York Times (NYT) website has a long history in China which started after a ban on the site was dropped in 2001.

Since a crackdown in 2012, though, the main NYT site has been blocked by the GFW and the company's local office has faced a continuous stream of harassment in the country, chronicled in a recent article.

According to the report, surveillance equipment has been installed on their communications lines, their landlord has been asked not to renew a lease, and their Chinese employees are occasionally questioned by state agents. Also, Apple has removed NYT's app from the Chinese app store, likely due to Chinese government pressure.

Chinese VPN users now face fines

While the concept of a national firewall seems quite heavy-handed to Westerners, there was a sense that people in China who wanted to get around the GFW could do so without too much effort.

Chinese netizens can, for a small fee, subscribe illicitly to a foreign-based Virtual Private Network (VPN) which allows them free and full access to the Western internet.  And while it seemed that doing so was viewed as mischievous, it wasn't widely regarded as criminal. 

That seems to have changed.  Recently, China has introduced a fine for VPN users of up to 15,000 yuan or approximately three months of the average salary in the country.

So is more openness on the horizon?

It doesn't look likely, sadly.  In addition to reporting on the proposal about loosening the GFW site restrictions, Voice of America noted that:

...as news of the proposal began to spread in China, the country’s internet minders moved in to tamp down any discussion, blocking access to the proposal and stories about its content online.

It seems that the Chinese will be using a walled garden version of the internet for some time to come.

Jeff Rajeck

Published 6 April, 2017 by Jeff Rajeck

Jeff Rajeck is the APAC Research Analyst for Econsultancy . You can follow him on Twitter or connect via LinkedIn.  

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