Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are a part of life for many 18-year-olds the world over — but not for Yuanyang Wu.
- China hosted its fifth World Internet Conference in eastern city Wuzhen
- China’s Generation Z have mixed views on the Great Firewall
- Experts say China’s internet censorship could distort younger generation’s values
A first-year university student from China’s north-eastern Liaoning province, he has never even heard of the social media giants that dominate western society, because they are blocked by the Chinese Great Firewall.
In his eyes the Firewall — a digital border built by the Chinese Government to control the internet in the mid-1990s — is a good thing and he isn’t missing out, with a wide range of Chinese digital platforms such as WeChat and Baidu providing everything he could need online.
“It’s basically a protection against the foreign internet, which could be hackers,” Mr Wu told the ABC.
As one of China’s tens of millions of Generation Z, also known as the “Great Firewall generation”, Mr Wu believes in President Xi Jinping’s pledge to strengthen internet security, which he said would benefit the nation’s cyber sovereignty.
Earlier this week at the fifth World Internet Conference in Wuzhen, Mr Xi said in a welcome letter to attendees that every country needed to strengthen its own cyberspace governance.
In recent years China has pushed its digital silk road and tech giants such as Huawei, Alibaba and Tencent to the world, while simultaneously tightening internet censorship.
‘We just don’t think in that way’
Mr Wu is not alone, with a recent joint study from Peking and Stanford universities revealing that Chinese university students showed little interest in having access to uncensored, political content online.
In the 18-month study, participants were given free access to uncensored internet, with researchers tracking the types of content they engaged with.
The study found that most students didn’t proactively seek out sensitive content because they grew up being accustomed to having information censored.
Even some Chinese teens who can avoid the Firewall see the benefits of its power.
Zhiyu Jiang, also a first-year university student from southern China’s Hunan province, said she was paying $5 a month to a VPN app to browse uncensored content.
Despite being a fan of sites like Instagram and Quora, Ms Jiang believes the Great Firewall has benefited her generation.
“As the younger generation, we don’t know how to filter that incorrect information by ourselves,” Ms Jiang said.
“It protects us from extremism and terrorism.”
When asked why young people in the West were not protected by such censorship, she said: “We just don’t think in that way, we absolutely shouldn’t browse bad, harmful and incorrect content.”
A digital version of the Berlin Wall
The Communist Party has a long history of exercising its role to educate and control citizens by removing content from the media that it believes might cause “spiritual pollution”.
Authorities moved in April this year to strengthen government supervision of teenagers and prevent them from accessing “harmful contents” such as pornography, according to state media People’s Daily.
In China, it is compulsory for high school students to learn Marxism and socialism theories in classrooms.
Every student is given the same textbook, which states “only the Communist Party can save China”, and is reminded of the harrowing conditions that people suffered throughout the nation’s history, such as the Cultural Revolution.
Former politics lecturer from Tsinghua University Dr Qiang Wu said increased censorship of the internet occurred at the same time Generation Z started high school, a period which he described as “a crucial time in an individual’s development”.
“Their mindset and the formation of their values would be solidified during that period, because the internet played an important role in their current socialisation, apart from schools, parents and traditional media,” Dr Wu said.
He also likened the Great Firewall to the Berlin Wall, which was built in 1961.
“The biggest difference is that the Great Firewall is not physically standing there like the Berlin Wall,” he said.
Dr Florian Schneider, Director of the Leiden Asia Centre in Netherlands and author of China’s Digital Nationalism, told the ABC that guiding public opinion was a key purpose of China’s censorship plan.
“If people in Tunisia or Egypt were able to organise large-scale protests against their governments using social media, then what was to stop Chinese citizens from doing something similar?” Dr Schneider said, referring to events in the 2010 Arab Spring.
Dr Schneider added that the World Internet Conference was meant to showcase China’s approach to internet governance as an alternative, especially for developing nations and anyone who shared the authoritarian outlook of China’s leadership.
“It strongly promotes classic People’s Republic of China axioms like national sovereignty and non-intervention, and it treats digital networks as extensions of national territories,” he said, adding the conference and its message had failed to gain traction outside other authoritarian countries.
‘Just like zombies, they get manipulated so easily’
During interviews with 11 people from different parts of China, the ABC heard that Instagram has become one the most popular apps among these young Chinese VPN users.
Yanmin Luo, a university student majoring in English, started using a free VPN service to browse the uncensored internet four years ago and said she was “amazed” by the diversity of content on Instagram and Reddit.
“[The content showed a] diversity of lifestyles and mindsets that are quite different from what we have in China,” the 21-year-old told the ABC.
Ms Luo said what she saw also helped her realise the lack of diversity in China’s society.
“I think in China, many people are living in the same way, with the same standard for everyone,” she said.
“People have completely the same mindsets and are just like zombies, they get manipulated so easily.”
Maya Wang, a senior researcher from Human Rights Watch China, said patriotic young people who were supportive of the Government were part of a strong force that automatically self-censored themselves in a way just “as natural as breathing”.
“Most young people in China live behind the Great Firewall and their lives in that world are very much shaped by what is allowed within the Great Firewall,” Ms Wang said.
“Some of them are supported by families to go abroad and study, and they continued to be very nationalistic.
“But there is also a proportion of young people who are thinkers and who are scared of the direction of where China is going.”
‘Only 15 minutes a day to connect to the world’
For those young Chinese people, the Great Firewall can be suffocating.
Chang Cao, a first-year university student living in Beijing, said she could only access uncensored internet for 15 minutes every day, via a free VPN service.
“It feels like I can use those 15 minutes to travel around the world, where I can get away from China,” said Ms Cao, who mostly uses her brief time to browse Instagram.
Ms Cao said when she finished her daily browse she would feel a sense of disappointment.
“Why is the internet restricted in different countries, and why should we only browse the internet content produced in our country?
“But on the other hand … it protects residents in China and national security … and I am currently under this protection.”
After years of social media restrictions rolled out by the Xi administration, Chinese netizens have actively tried different keywords to bypass the mass censorship on popular Chinese social media platforms such as Weibo and WeChat, especially during China’s constitutional amendment period earlier this year.
But while these attempts to bypass censors are expected to increase, Dr Wu believes that the political education forced upon China’s younger generation seems to be working to firm up support for the Communist regime.
“They are like a new generation of Red Guards in some sense, but their political energy has not yet broken out,” Dr Wu said, referring to the mass student movement supporting Chairman Mao Zedong during the Cultural Revolution.
For Dr Wu, this “new generation of the vanguard” could become a crucial part of President Xi’s vision for China as he battles against the rise of liberalism.