Less than a year ago, I bid farewell to my established life in Shanghai. Since, I feel like I live in two parallel Internet universe. My China life on WeChat, and the rest of the world on Facebook/Twitter/Instagram. There is very little intersection between the two worlds, and it has me reflect deeply on life inside the Great Firewall. The effects have always existed in a subtle, non-threatening manner, but the divide has never been as evident now that I am no longer in the inside.
In 2012, I made a hasty decision to move to Shanghai. I was in my mid-20s, and despite my ability to speak Mandarin and a childhood spent in Taiwan, I knew very little about China. My limited knowledge came from frequent CCTV viewing with a Chinese family in Cameroon. I could sense the rapid growth from the glossy ads on China’s infrastructure, high speed rail, and even tourism. That was CCTV’s coverage. Meanwhile, mainstream Western media reported on China’s human rights issues and one factor that would affect me personally – Internet Censorship.
Like any Millennial, Facebook was essential. Writings on my Peace Corps and grad school experiences had led to a good readership, and I had hopes to grow my blog writing about my life in China. I knew a VPN was essential to bypass the Great Firewall. Prior to departure, I had it all set up with PureVPN. In my mind, the firewall is not a hindrance; a little annoying, but not a big deal.
WeChat had just starting to gain traction in the fall of 2012. Plenty of people were still using text messages. I downloaded the app to facilitate communication with new friends. In those early days, my China Mobile SIM card didn’t even have 3G. I was often connecting with the Edge network.
Internet connection was equally spotty, but I chalked it all up as simply “This is China”. Access to my usual platforms: Google, Facebook, Twitter, WordPress, were all possible, albeit slow. I was able to keep up with my social media presence and documented my early impression of life in Shanghai.
Then, things began to shift. WeChat was growing and spreading like wildfire. Every month or two, a new feature was introduced. First, the platform allows users to interact as we would on Facebook and Instagram, by sharing photos, links and other information on “Moments”. Then there was the subscription and official accounts where users can publish posts like a blog. Group chats became the only convenient way to organise events, buy/sell stuff, and exchange information.
When WeChat introduced the payment transfer option like Venmo, the app became even more useful. This was years before Venmo or ApplePay. In fact, WeChat grew so quickly that each year when Apple introduced new features to its iOS system, we all remarked how it’s simply incorporating features already long existed on the WeChat platform.
By the time I left China, WeChat dominated daily life. The introduction of mini-programs meant any company can develop mini-apps to run within the WeChat platform. On a typical day, I not only message and keep tabs on what my friends are up to on WeChat, I also can use the app to order food (via Elema), ride a bike (via MoBike), get a ride (via Didi), order flower (via Flower+), buy groceries, settle payments with friends, and more.
When I no longer rely on this app for my daily needs, I don’t check WeChat often, which means keeping up with friends became more difficult. Try as I might, I slowly morphed into another individual who left China, left WeChat, and slowly fell out of touch with China friends.
Killing It Slowly
Outside of WeChat, Internet as a whole also changed rapidly in China. Internet speed has gotten very fast, which meant the throttled speed when connecting via VPN became very noticeable.
The Great Firewall doesn’t eliminates access completely, it creates just enough friction to literally kill access slowly. It takes great patience to put up with the throttled speed, and requires perseverance and commitment to access censored sites. Majority of foreigners living in China will tell you that they stopped using Facebook and other blocked services, because it’s too “ma-fan” (troublesome).
My Twitter presence nearly vanished because firing up VPN to write a tweet was just annoying enough that I didn’t do it. Default search on my phone was switched to Bing, because that works better when I need to look up something on the go. I did keep up with family and friends via Facebook and Instagram; the chagrin of waiting for VPN connection was frustrating but manageable. Yet each time that we left China, we are reminded of the freedom to access whatever site we want, whenever we want. That sense of freedom is subtle, but very real.
Before I learned about all the idiosyncratic aspects of Chinese Internet from my coding camp, I was so frustrated with the slow speed of my self-hosted WordPress that I moved the entire thing to Squarespace. I’ve since moved it back to WordPress. All the moving back and forth meant plenty of re-formatting and broken links. While I never completely gave up on my blog, the overall blogging experience inside the Great Firewall was brutal.
Naturally, VPN service is a frequently discussed topic among foreigners living in China. Every six months to a year, a major VPN service would be temporarily blocked. New services rise to claim faster connection. I switched to Astrill after my first year in China, but I have heard ExpressVPN is the now latest best choice.
The Invisible Divide
For the vast majority of Chinese, Internet in China works fantastically. For the average Chinese netizen who doesn’t need access to foreign sites, the Internet has transformed their lives in the best way. China has evolved into one of the most digitised societies that I’ve encountered. Even the most remote villages now has 4G access, and everyone down to the street food vendors and even beggars have QR code to accept mobile payment. It took me a while to get accustom to carrying cash and my wallet again, because that was no longer the norm in China. Life was so easy inside the ecosystem.
The division creeps up only when one tries to bridge the connection between China and the rest of the world. It’s subtle, but unless I spend hours on WeChat, I don’t know what goes on in China anymore. Whereas Western news are still reported within the WeChat platform, what goes on locally isn’t easy to access from the outside.
The parallel universe may be the norm for the conceivable future. While there are various angles to write about Chinese Internet censorship, I lament the difficulty to spread positive news from within China to the world. An ease to create dialogue across this invisible wall can break down many misconception and bridge some of the divide between East and West.
Further Reading from the Web
- What are WeChat Mini-Programs? | Walk the Chat
- How to Get Around the Great Firewall of China | Too Many Adapters
- How It Works: Great Firewall of China | Medium
- The great firewall of China: Xi Jinping’s internet shutdown | The Guardian