An Inside Look at the Chinese Internet

At a recent Paulson Institute event, China tech expert Kaiser Kuo pulled back the curtain on the Chinese internet, detailing the history and role of social media, netizens, and online censorship in framing today’s China. Kuo, the longtime host of the Sinica Podcast, recently left the Chinese internet giant Baidu, where he was director of international communications. “If you don’t follow what’s going on online, you’re not keeping up with the story in China,” he stated. Below, watch five short clips:

1. How the Internet Became China’s Public Sphere

The rise of social media on the Chinese internet has brought about the first de facto “public sphere” in Chinese life, argues Kuo, adding that the internet has become the “crucible” of contemporary Chinese culture, where much of China’s language, literature, and trends emerge.

2. The Role of Censorship in Shaping the Chinese Internet

Observing government censorship online can reveal much about the priorities and concerns of the Chinese Communist party-state, says Kuo. Government control of the internet, he adds, also allows it to fan or temper the always-glowing embers of nationalism—“a very powerful ideological force.”

3. Misunderstanding the Great Firewall of China

One of the most pervasive metaphors associated with the Chinese internet—“the Great Firewall”—is commonly misconstrued by the West, argues Kuo. What’s much more concerning than China’s blocking domestic users from accessing foreign websites, according to Kuo, is the censorship that is done by China’s own internet companies at the behest of the Cyberspace Administration of China.

4. Why China Fears the Internet’s Revolutionary Power

Since 2009, China has believed that the United States has used internet freedom as a tool of “liberal interventionism” to affect regime change in authoritarian countries, argues Kuo. Seeking to avoid becoming the next victim of digitally-fueled political rebellion, the Chinese Communist Party remains adamant about maintaining its “draconian” system of internet sovereignty.

5. Why Silicon Valley Tech Giants Were Blocked by China

Despite their dominant market share in the United States, tech giants including Google, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter originally struggled to gain traction in the China market, even before they were eventually blocked. Therefore, Kuo concludes, China’s censorship of American social media sites was not originally intended as a form of economic protectionism to shield Chinese companies from their foreign competitors, but as a way to maintain social stability.