Forget the Great Firewall

The Airport Expressway, Beijing
Heading to my appointment at NBC
0931 hrs.

Sitting here prepping for an interview at the NBC bureau, I’ve realized that our metaphors are not keeping up with the time.

Bear with me.

The expression “Great Firewall of China” originated in the mid-1990s, when China’s government was attempting to create an alternate Internet that was walled off from the rest of the world with the exception of a few select access points. Back then, it was fairly descriptive.

Today, however, the Internet in China is largely integrated into that of the rest of the world, with specific, increasingly pinpointed sites and services (Wikipedia, the BBC, some porn, and lately some RSS feeds) walled off from access.

It’s not an ideal situation, but it is one far different than the one that a cute metaphor like “Great Firewall” conjures up.

It would be far more accurate to talk about “Checkpoint China,” an image that conjures up a flow of traffic going in and out of the country, with restrictions being far more targeted than the kind of URL and keyword profiling that we used to have to deal with in the past.

I know, it may sound like a lot of semantics, but words are important. So many of us here in China complain when people outside of the country have outdated or inaccurate views on China. If we use inaccurate, inapt catchprases just because they sound good on the tongue, not only are we propagating the wrong impression, we are setting the rest of the world up to take actions vis-a-vis China that would be inappropriate and wrong.

I don’t know about anyone else, but from my home, my office and public access points around Beijing, I can get onto 98% of the sites I want to reach at any given time, and its a lot better now than it was five years ago.

So please – give up on the “GFW.” China’s Internet restrictions are much more about neo-Confucian paternalists (“Net Nanny”) and increasingly selective filtering (“Checkpoint China”) than a general effort to keep the Internet away.


About David Wolf

An adviser to corporations and organizations on strategy, communications, and public affairs, David Wolf has been working and living in Beijing since 1995, and now divides his time between China and California. He also serves as a policy and industry analyst focused on innovative and creative industries, a futurist, and an amateur historian.
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