The Great Firewall
We arrived in Shanghai late Monday night after a long four-airport three-flight day and all I wanted to do was crash. The Gotham Gal wanted to check her email so she logged onto the hotel WiFi and attempted to do that. As I was falling asleep I heard her call down to the front desk and complain that the Internet wasn’t working. I told her we could deal with it in the morning.
So when we got up, we grabbed our laptops and went downstairs to have breakfast and fix things.
I set up VPN software on both laptops and the Gotham Gal’s iPhone. For some reason that I don’t entirely understand, my Pixel with a TMobile SIM card seemed to be able to bypass the great firewall and access Google and Twitter without need for a VPN.
But even with firewall software on our devices, accessing western Internet services in Shanghai was flaky. Sometimes things worked, sometimes they didn’t and it wasn’t entirely clear why.
But more than the inconvenience, and it wasn’t a big one, the entire notion that China has chosen to block some of the world’s most essential services inside of China’s borders seems crazy to me.
I understand the value of protecting home grown services from competition from Google, Facebook, and Amazon. But the local versions of those services have grown so powerful over the past decade and cultural norms (like WeChatting) have taken hold so strongly that the protection seems unnecessary at this point.
Of course there are the censorship issues, which the New York Times recently shamefully heralded, but how hard is it to get a VPN if you want to check Twitter and search Google for uncensored news?
Xi Jinping heralded the dawn of a New Era for China in his talk at the 19th Party Congress this week. He asserted that China is strong and ascendent and those are both certainly true.
I would argue that China is strong enough now to fully join the Internet without any controls or constraints on it, like the dominant modern society that it wants to be and, frankly, already is.