Internet Censorship in China through the lens of a Third- Culture Kid

Story by Helen Wang, wang.hele@husky.neu.edu

“Where are you from?”

So went the dreaded question of my childhood, asked by a room full of wide-eyed children who had known each other as long as they could remember, as I switched schools every year up until sixth grade.

I’m what you might call a third-culture kid; I was born in China to parents who grew up during the Cultural Revolution, but my parents immigrated (or escaped, considering my mother was one of the protesters in Tiananmen square) to Canada when I was a year old. As part of the mass exodus of the 90s/early 2000s due to lenient immigration policy, we bounced around Toronto, Ottawa, and some of their suburbs, before moving to Seattle in 2006, when my mother finally received an offer for her dream job at Microsoft. Even though I’ve lived most of my life in the Seattle area, I am still an alien to the United States – a yellow face on a green card, granted all the equivalent privileges of citizenship except for the right to vote. So when I came to Northeastern in the fall of 2014, I certainly couldn’t say I was American, but neither did I feel Chinese or Canadian.

Although I had no memory of the hemisphere we’d left behind, my parents were adamant about teaching my younger sister and me about Chinese language and culture, and to preserve traditions they’d grown up practicing. We celebrated the Lunar New Year, May Day, and the Mid-Autumn Festival alongside Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Independence Day. When I was hungry, my mood determined whether I would turn to either jiaozi (gyoza) or macaroni and cheese (often with a look of revulsion from my grandmother). Despite my parents’ best efforts, I never acquired a taste for red bean paste or matcha-flavored anything, and to my Chinese relatives’ dismay, I would smother anything I could get my hands on in chocolate or cheese. In terms of table manners, my parents were determined that I master the art of wielding chopsticks over the less sophisticated “mini-trident”. I could go on, but differences in customs were trivial compared to differences in ideology.

For much of my adolescence, I wrestled with inner demons, trying to empathize with a culture that emphasized filial piety, modesty, and conformity while living among one that promoted self-achievement, free thinking, and individualism. But how could I embrace a heritage rooted in dynastic power and totalitariansm when I grew up learning that the suppression of democracy was inherently wrong? As I grew older, I came to realize that growing up in different countries and different eras had somewhat brainwashed my parents and I into believing ethnocentric propaganda from opposite sides of the spectrum.

I shouldn’t have been that surprised in the first place. Propaganda and censorship have always been crucial for the Communist Party of China, using methods and messages influenced by the Soviet and Nazi totalitarian regimes to maintain power by influencing public perception of government and politics. With the arrival of the internet in China in 1994, the Communist Party moved quickly to squash the China Democracy Party should they attempt to leverage the internet to overthrow party elites. This led to a wave of imprisonment and the launch of the “Golden Shield Project”; so began the “Great Firewall of China”. In today’s information age, the Chinese propaganda machine employs an internet police force of over two million to analyze metadata, block website content, and monitor individual browsing patterns. Internet censorship in China has led to stark differences among the opinions of young first- and second-generation immigrants growing up in Western civilizations and those who never left.

Ask any international Chinese freshman here at Northeastern to look something up on the internet, and they might pull up Baidu instead of Google. That’s because the most popular search engine in China is Baidu, and Google is currently one of over 18,000 websites that are blocked in China (Google had set up a version of its services to conform to Chinese regulations for four years before shutting down operations in 2010). Also on the list are Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, The New York Times, Wikileaks, Reporters without Borders, Bloomberg, Amnesty International, Flickr, TIME, and the Economist, to name a few. Other targeted content includes websites promoting democracy, freedom of speech, the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, the Tibetan independence movement, police brutality, and many foreign current events. A good portion of American visitors are familiar with VPNs (virtual private networks), which can sometimes be used to circumvent internet regulations, but the average Chinese citizen engages almost exclusively with online content within the bubble created by the government.

As expected, journalistic integrity doesn’t truly exist in China. Any news deviating from government-approved material can result in blacklisting the news media organization responsible for the crime, hefty fines, arrest, or even imprisonment. According to Amnesty International, China has imprisoned the largest number of journalists and cyber-dissidents in the world, which leads to an incredibly insulated media landscape. Take the 2008 Beijing Olympics, for example. Portrayed to represent China’s status as a rising star in the global economy, the Olympics were essential to maintaining domestic support for the Chinese government. In the months and years before, the Communist Party specifically instructed local media to avoid reporting on controversial topics such as Tibetan independence, East Turkestan movements, pollution and air quality, and food safety issues. Many journalists speculate that the timing of the September 2008 Chinese milk scandal was a result of waiting until after the “perfect” Olympics to recall the infant formula, leading many to wonder if the government’s policies went too far.

When I visited China during the summer of 2010, our first family trip back since emigration, I personally experienced the Great Chinese Firewall for the first time. During the day, I enjoyed touring classic sites like the Forbidden City, the Great Wall of China, Shanghai’s financial district, and the silk markets of Guangzhou, in addition to seeing the villages my parents grew up in. It was an incredible opportunity to connect with my family’s heritage and learn more about what my life would have been like had we not immigrated. During the evenings, I tried in vain to connect with my friends at home through social media and listened to the adults speak in hushed tones about the latest allegations of corruption to surface despite the internet police. I also met many distant relatives, many of whom had much narrower worldview than I did, not only because of growing up in different cultures, but also because of a lack of access to more objective information. On more recent visits, in 2012 and 2014, my VPN connections were often interrupted or unreliable, a result of increased vigilance on part of the internet police.

The modern Chinese propaganda machine is constantly evolving and adapting, tightening its chokehold as information becomes increasingly accessible. Growing up as a third-culture kid in North America, I have truly been blessed with perspective on freedom of information. Despite my frustration as a child, I understand now that my parents were influenced not only by the traditional Chinese values they grew up with, but also by propaganda and censorship, the effects of which drove many an argument back in the day. I sympathize with the Chinese, especially the young. While my parents left before internet censorship became an issue, it certainly has affected an entire generation of able-bodied, intelligent individuals. To live in a country in which the government is so paranoid about losing its power that it actively curbs the ability of its citizens to access objective and reliable information to learn about the rest of the world is an enormous disadvantage in today’s globalized economy. One can only estimate China’s true power once if the government ever decides that the benefits of allowing information to flow more freely outweighs the potential death of the Communist Party in the case of complete democratic revolution. I’d imagine President Trump would have a difficult time finding leverage to negotiate.