The Great Firewall’s Silver Lining

DANIEL NATHAN discusses how the Communist Party of China’s online censorship policy has shaped the country’s flourishing tech industry.

alibaba_binjiang_park
Chinese tech giant Alibaba’s Binjiang Park campus in the city of Hangzhou.

“Nice to meet you man, hit me up on WeChat or QQ.”  “I bought my new shoes off Taobao!”  “I’m not sure what the answer is… Go plug it into Baidu.”  Do those sentences sound foreign?  To many Americans, in a manner of speaking, they are.

Most people in the west are by now conscious of the fact that the Chinese government controls most of the information available within the country.  However, those who have never journeyed to China remain largely unaware of one of the most interesting byproducts of government censorship: homegrown Chinese technological entrepreneurship.

Tencent, the Chinese company that owns both WeChat and QQ, is currently the fourth largest Internet company in the world by revenue.  Alibaba, which controls Taobao, stands at number five.  And Baidu ranks in at number six.  Each year, these three companies together drive three billion USD more in revenue than Facebook, eBay, Netflix, and Twitter… combined.  So why do they remain largely unheard-of in the west?

The short answer is that in a lot of ways, these companies’ products are rip-offs of western tech innovations, their rise enabled by a government-mandated clear playing field. WeChat and QQ are communication apps used instead of Facebook; Taobao is the Chinese eBay; and Baidu is a search engine.  That isn’t to suggest that these Chinese tech behemoths have brought nothing new to the table.  The full scope of a company such as Alibaba is truly remarkable: it has managed to exert control over all facets of the online shopping experience by integrating a marketplace service (Taobao) with a payment service (Alipay). Think eBay or Amazon combined with PayPal or Venmo.  That said, few would deny that these companies’ paths to marketplace domination were eased by a conspicuous lack of international competition.  So how did this happen?

The Internet first arrived in China in 1987.  By 1997, the government officially began its policy of censoring the web, enacting new laws to control information access. These laws prohibited individuals from using the Internet to, among other things, “harm national security,” “transmit information that incites resistance to the PRC Constitution,” and “spread rumors.”  In June of that same year, Wired Magazine ran an article under the title “The Great Firewall of China,” with the subheading “Information industries of China unite!”

Ever since, Beijing has controlled access to the Internet from within the country.  The government prevents Internet users in China from accessing a host of websites, including sites linked to sensitive topics like Taiwan or the Dalai Lama, sites deemed obscene or pornographic, and sites seen as subversive or anti-government. Most upsetting to many westerners in China is the ban on popular western sites such as Gmail, Google Maps, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, YouTube, Instagram—the list goes on.

In lieu of these popular western sites, Chinese replacements have sprung up to fill the void.  Even western apps, such as Pokemon Go, have their Chinese equivalents.  It is unlikely that the CPC originally intended to use the Great Firewall as a method of promoting economic growth, but in recent years, it seems as though the government has become increasingly aware of this pleasant side effect.

It will be interesting to see what the future holds for the Chinese tech industry.  Companies such as Alibaba have already taken steps toward globalizing their brands, but have so far not found the level of success they enjoy in China in a far more saturated western market. Conversely, western companies such as Google, have recently made inroads with the CPC in an effort to regain access to the Chinese consumer base. As Google seeks to regain its place in the Chinese market, a single question will grow more pertinent: will the government permit a foreigner to compete with its homegrown tech superstars? 

 

Daniel Nathan is a junior at the University of Pennsylvania. Contact him at danathan@sas.upenn.edu.

 

The opinion in this article is the author’s own. It does not necessarily reflect the view of China Hands.

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