The internet on the other side of The Great Firewall of China is nearly unrecognizable. There is no Facebook, no YouTube, no Twitter or Instagram. Even Gmail and Wikipedia do not exist. In fact, as Christina Larson reports for Technology Review, eight of the world’s 25 most trafficked websites are blocked on the Chinese internet.
For a country with some of the strictest internet laws in the developed world, though, China’s web has its share of surprises. Behind an ever-expanding protectionist wall – The Chinese state calls it the Golden Shield – nearly 700 million people regularly use the internet to send chats, buy merchandise, order car services and more, sometimes on platforms more innovative than anything here in the U.S..
China’s tight control over its own internet, a practice sometimes referred to as “internet sovereignty,” has counterintuitively spurred an exciting world of mobile everything in China: banking, shopping, microblogging, and even fruit vending.
In-app tools on popular messaging services mean that Chinese internet-users have been doing things like exchanging money with an instant message for months – something Western apps like Facebook Messenger have struggled to promote.
And even in spaces where Chinese sites and apps have not surpassed their western counterparts, the firewall still gives Chinese-born companies open terrain to grow. Chinese microblogging site Weibo has often been called the “Twitter of China,” and search engine Baidu is essentially a Chinese Google. These sites can occupy the same market space as bigger American websites, while government censorship conveniently protects them from competition. It comes as no surprise, then, that six of China’s top ten wealthiest men gained their wealth from websites or smartphones.
Internet isolationism has some notable drawbacks – most notably one of the worst internet speed rates in the world thanks to government servers that filter every incoming webpage – but for China’s purposes the policy is effective, if inelegant. As more and more Chinese citizens start to access the internet, China has ensured that the economic benefits do not leave its shores.
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