By Apsara Senaratne
On January 23, 1996, the Central Government of China passed the Temporary Regulation for the Management of Computer Information Network International Connection. This was an ordinance passed in conjunction with the Ordinance for Security Protection of Computer Information Systems in China, which had been passed two years prior.
These regulations ensured that the Chinese government would maintain a tight hold over its citizens’ access to information as information quickly became widely accessible over the Internet.
In December 1997, with the Security Management Procedures in Internet Accessing ordinance securing China’s infamous “Great Firewall,” internet censorship in China became a new reality.
Despite the formidable censorship of content which the Chinese government decrees does not align with traditional nationalist and newer consumerist Chinese values, China’s online community is the largest in the world. As the Chinese government denied citizens access to thousands of foreign websites, emerging Chinese platforms like Baidu and Weibo replaced banned foreign platforms such as Google and Facebook, and a new web experience was born.
Since the administration of robust controls on access to information, Chinese youth have increasingly become either unaware of or apathetic towards access to censored material, according to the South China Morning Post.
Though takedown of controversial news can often ignite discussion and rapid-fire dissemination of information across social media platforms that even web censors cannot control, most Chinese citizens are generally comfortable with limited access to information and simply find ways to circumvent censors. In a Tencent survey of over 10,000 social media users born in 2000 or after, nearly eight in ten said they thought China was either in its best time in history or was becoming a better country each day, according to the Independent.
Though a large majority of young people in China espouse nationalistic and Communist values taught by schools and state media, a few boundary-defying young people in China have become disillusioned with Chinese traditions and have begun to express their frustration with the harsh confinement they feel as a result of the country’s heavy censorship. These include figures like Tianzhuo Chen, Shanghai-based theater director and founder of Asian Dope Boys, a cultural collective of musicians, artists, and incendiaries. Chen holds underground shows to subvert oppressive government censorship. There is an anger and depression resultant of such injustice that tends to drive many artists’ works, Chen said to Vice Magazine.
Underground clubs and venues like Shanghai’s ALL are the center of a thriving counterculture promoting free speech, political dissidence, and above all, creativity and resistance against China’s growing consumer culture.
However, given China’s strict authoritarian political system, hope for changes in political processes and for free access to information may be futile.
Han Han, a popular Chinese blogger who in the early 2000’s used his platform to openly and loudly question Chinese values and government, has now retired from political activism despite his personal beliefs due to a heightened fear of repercussion as controls on speech continue to tighten in the highly nationalist country. Han now writes and blogs about his hobbies and has largely withdrawn from his role of insurgent and provocateur.
Though cultural rebellion on the part of a minority may bring forth important voices such as Chen and Han as well as opinions for the purpose of sparking conversation, it may not prove successful in effecting change to government processes or in securing freedom of information, let alone freedom of speech.