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The Great Firewall of China: everything you need to know about internet censorship

There are many hurdles a Western organisation looking to do business in China needs to jump: The culture clash, the language barrier and navigating digital eco-systems such as Chinese social media platforms and search engines like WeChat and Baidu. However, one of the biggest hurdles any expanding business will face is a large barrier of pervasive censorship and surveillance known as the Great Firewall (GFW) of China. The question organisations need to answer, is: How does one clear a wall, let alone a great old firewall?

Like so many things in life the answer can be found in a well-known children’s song: We’re going on a Bear Hunt (bear with us)! When the children meet a series of challenges the refrain is always:

We can’t go over it

We can’t go under it

We’ve got to go through it

They determinedly go through a series of things until they achieve their objective. Applying this solution to the GFW, the way forward is not attempting to leap over it, nor to undermine it. International businesses (such as Google) have entered the fray and wanted to play by their own rules, and have been effectively shut down. However, other businesses such as LinkedIn, Microsoft and Apple have worked with China, understood the rules and restrictions, and managed to gain a foothold in the market.

In fact, Facebook has been looking at ways to enter the Chinese market. According to Bloomberg View, CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been seen visibly courting the Chinese, he has learnt Mandarin and the company has been developing tools that make sure certain topics don’t enter feeds in ‘specific geographic areas.’

If international businesses want to reach the Chinese market then understanding the GFW, its restrictions and challenges is essential. Below we look at how you can find your way through the Great Firewall.

What is the Great Firewall of China?

The Great Firewall of China is actually a termed used to describe the Golden Shield Project. The project was primarily concerned with two key things:

  1. Censorship
  2. Surveillance

The result, according to the New York Times, is an incredibly complex series of filters and blocks which shut out any foreign site the [Chinese National] communist party doesn’t think it can control. Instead of an internet service, the Great Firewall of China has created a national ‘intranet.'

What does this mean in practice?

There are two key rules for having an online presence in China.

  1. You can’t hold views contrary to the government
  2. You must make all data available to the government

As the International Business Times elaborates:

If foreign companies are completely complicit with censorship and are willing to share sensitive data with the authorities, then they are welcome to do business in China — see Apple and LinkedIn. If the authorities wanted a domestic company to succeed they would have shut Apple out of China long ago, despite Apple's willingness to do whatever the authorities ask of them.

Therefore, big social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube (all of which have large amounts of personal data) haven’t been willing to compromise. The result is that the majority of social media networks that we use just don’t exist in China. Instead, Chinese developers have created their own equivalents, which have been shaped by the demands of the Chinese consumer. They have evolved to the point where their capabilities outstrip the original models. As the New York Times suggests, if developers want a glimpse into the future ‘then they need to be looking to China.’

What’s off-limits?

Volume 8, edition 4 of the journal China and the Internet: International Debate cites that the official stance is that content can’t be ‘superstitious, pornographic, violence-related, gambling, and or “generally harmful” in nature.'

However, if that were the case then many international sites don’t actually fall into those categories. The actual litmus test comes when the government feels that a site doesn’t align with their message, a sentiment which can change on a weekly basis.

There is also a group of ever-changing blacklisted terms in China. Some are more obvious like ‘Tiananmen Square’ and ‘Tibet’ but other, not-so-obvious ones include: ‘kang’s instant noodles,’ ‘yellow duck,' ‘toad’ and ‘candle.’ If you want a really comprehensive list of terms, greatfire.org provides a fantastic, up-to-date list of words that are currently off-limits.

A Chinese address

Another way to make sure your site isn’t coming up against the GFW is to have a Chinese IP. Most international sites are automatically filtered, so having an address that comes from China or Hong Kong will increase your chance of success. To do so you must obtain an ICP (Internet Content Provider) identity approved by the Chinese authorities and go from there.

How to tell if your site has been blocked

The government is not going to send you an email to let you know that you’ve been blocked. Nor is there an official list, so you could be conducting business for months without knowing that your online presence is rendered invisible (or may as well be as loading speed can take a couple of minutes). However, another site, greatfirewallofchina.org allows you to enter your site and see whether your website is blocked or not. If you find that you have been blocked, you can have a look through and see if you are using blacklisted terms, remove them and then hope for the best.

Breaking through the barriers

We hope that the above has given you a clearer idea of how to navigate your way through the GFW, with as much skill as nursery-rhyme children. If you feel like you need a guide through the ins and outs of doing business in China then you need to refer to our free whitepaper: Stoking the Dragon, which contains everything businesses need to know about entering the Chinese market. Download it now.

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