July 21, 2009
I'VE been suffering from terrible withdrawal symptoms lately. I had just arrived home, turned on my computer, typed an "F" in my address bar and waited in anticipation ready to tell all my friends what was on my mind. But it was taking longer than usual and as I waited the "Great Firewall" spoke to me: "The server is not responding."
With heart racing, muscles tense and teeth gritted, I realised this was the final shot in the battle between China's internet censorship and me. Whereas before I could freely update my status, peruse my friends' photos and "facestalk" others, I now have to go through a proxy server for my daily Facebook fix.
Since the riots this month in Urumqi between the Uighurs — a Muslim minority group — and the Han Chinese who make up the majority of China's 56 ethnicities, Facebook has been blocked in China.
The social networking site has been accused of inciting Xinjiang independence groups with postings such as "East Turkestan (Uighur) Genocide by China!" and "China Stop the Persecution of the Ethnic Muslim Uighur Community".
According to huanqiu.com, a website that also runs The Global Times, a Government-run English-language newspaper, these groups overstep "the boundaries of normal cyber activities and become a foothold for Xinjiang independence organisations' collusion and alliance overseas".
The block, seemingly, has the people's support with a poll carried out by Huanqiu claiming "80 per cent of netizens agree China should punish Facebook".
This is the latest example of internet censorship as a reaction to controversy.
YouTube has been blocked since March, apparently as a result of footage of Chinese police beating Tibetans; Twitter went down in June during the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre; and Google sites were temporarily blocked in response to the easy access it gave to porn sites in its automatic search function.
But the impact of increasing media control is more than just freedom of speech; it also has an economic effect.
By blocking social media the Government is effectively cutting out a powerful, practical and revolutionary aspect of business advancement and creativity.
Social media is increasingly becoming an essential part in any business marketing strategy. It enables businesses to gauge exactly what their potential customers are thinking; it is also useful for its viral and free marketing techniques.
In China, businesses are well aware of the thriving net culture. China, with about 300 million users, has surpassed the US as having the world's biggest online population.
This has attracted the attention of Western businesses who realise the long-standing potential and are looking at setting up and maintaining offices in China.
When MySpace recently announced that they were cutting 300 of their staff and closing at least four offices outside the US, the company said that the China office wouldn't be affected.
Even the Chinese Government acknowledges the economic benefit of a large online population. Cai Mingzhao, deputy director of the Chinese State Council Information, said: "The internet is a strong driver of the reform and opening-up process of China and a new engine of the development of China's economy and society."
If the Government truly wants to capitalise on the internet's ability for economic and social growth, it needs to realise that social media is integral to this.
A 2007 report by the China Internet Network Information Centre found that instant messaging tools are a user's first priority, followed by news reading and playing games. As a user is likely to be an only child, this gives a sense of community.
You can see then why businesses value this: it tells them what the people want today, and in the future.
It's important to note, though, that while the Government blocks foreign sites such as Twitter and Facebook, their own sites are relatively safe.
QQ and 51.com lead the pack and xiaonei.com, the "Facebook clone", is on the rise. But these sites are only for Chinese people and so have limited use internationally.
With an estimated 3 million unemployed graduates this year, sites such as Facebook can help develop international connections and allow them to engage in personal and professional discussion.
The Chinese Government argues that control over the internet is vital for national security and stability, but any internet censorship move the Government makes usually results in bad foreign press and some very angry Chinese netizens.
Social media is what will help drive the country's economic development, simply because that's where consumer preferences become apparent.
While manufacturing and outsourcing will always be
the main source of China's economy, social media will help it advance, particularly by providing ideas for the next generation.
In the meantime Facebook probably won't be back on Chinese computers anytime soon, so I guess I'm just going to have to get used to my withdrawal symptoms.
Shuk-Wah Chung is a freelance radio and print journalist living in Beijing.