China is a different world. I found out the hard way when I arrived in Guilin three weeks ago. I would study Mandarin and volunteer teaching English in a small town in the south of the country. I organised a visa, got vaccinated, and did heaps of research beforehand. I figured I was quite well-prepared.
From the hot and humid city of Guilin it was just a 1,5 hour bus ride to Yangshuo. The ticket counter was easy to find and in broken Chinese I managed to explain where I had to go. But showing three different types of payment cards, the otherwise helpful assistant just stared at me with glazed eyes. “Can’t use those,” he pointed at the ATM. But the money machine was out of order. Who uses cash these days?
With no cash, no WeChat (my account was blocked due to “suspicious activity”), no AliPay, and no working credit cards or ATM, I was stuck. Obviously Google Maps nor Google Translate worked. Calling the language school wasn’t an option either, as I didn’t have a Chinese SIM card.
I sat down and let it all sink in. This is the China I read articles and watched documentaries about. The China where no one speaks English, where the internet is blocked and where you pay with QR codes. And yet I found myself fully unprepared for all of this.
Luckily, as I would repeatedly discover during the rest of my stay, blue-haired Caucasian girls are rare in China. Chinese people shamelessly take photos. This was my blessing. After telling some people I had to go to Yangshuo to (clearly) study more Chinese, I managed to scrape together enough RMB for a ticket.
My first hour in China sums up a lot. On the one hand the country is ‘traditional’, with heaps of street food, hairdressers on the pavement, rats in the gutters and dumplings on every corner. Waiguoren (foreigners) are still an anomaly and yes, people do spit and burp.
On the other hand Chinese people live in the future: credit cards are a thing from the past and we can’t imagine the vehicles they drive. You don’t pay at a cash register in the supermarket – just scan a code with your phone and you’re good to go.
What turned out to be an issue was China’s Great Firewall. I didn’t bother getting a VPN. As the Chinese government blocks and censors many Western websites, tourists and foreigners use this tool to browse the internet freely. While fully aware of this, I reckoned it wouldn’t be that big of a deal. I had deactivated my social media anyways and figured I could do with a few weeks of Baidu, the Chinese version of Google.
It was more troublesome than expected. I couldn’t hand in essays for university. Both Google Scholar and the university’s blackboard were blocked. I couldn’t email them, as Gmail doesn’t work either. Getting lost without Google Maps and not being able to look something up on Wikipedia was annoying. But ironically, the biggest issue arrived when I was about to leave the country. The booking confirmation for my flight was in my Gmail account, which I could not access. I was stuck in China’s internet censorship.
It was not until I set foot in China that I realised how dependent we are on Western media conglomerates. In a world where our lives exist online as much as offline, digital environments shape a huge part of our reality. The power and influence of multinational media platforms is rapidly increasing.
Where in the Western world Facebook and Google dominate the online world, the Chinese media environment is shaped by platforms like Baidu and WeChat. With over two billion active users worldwide, the Chinese search engine is the second largest in the world. It is the Chinese equivalent of Google, including a Baidu App Store, Baidu Maps, Baidu Space, and more.
But Baidu is heavily censored. The national government dictates and filters all data and content. China’s Ministry of Public Security conducts surveillance on all internet content and blocks politically controversial websites, as well as data from foreign countries. Internet censorship in China is considered the most extensive and advanced in the world.
Read Orwell’s 1984 or watch a Black Mirror episode and it seems like the Chinese government used dystopian fiction as a political guide. Western opinions are loud and clear, and we’re eager to criticise everything beyond our own borders. China’s censorship keeps the people ignorant. The Firewall is oppression. Humans aren’t free to think. This is the violation of human rights and freedoms.
Yet we use just a few media platforms, owned by a handful of capitalist companies. Sure, Google doesn’t censor inconvenient political views. But Google knows what you’re doing. Right here, right now. You’re being watched, eavesdropped and tracked every second of your life.
Media giants as well as governments are watching us at any given time. The ad about something you were thinking about a minute ago isn’t a mere coincidence. Advanced algorithms analyse what you say, where you go, what you click on and what you like. They know what you think before you know what you think. And based on endless amounts of data, the internet shows you what you want to see.
Known as the filter bubble effect, search engines and social platforms reflect and intensify our own beliefs. Media businesses make money by keeping you online and selling your data. And that means that everything you see, every ad you get and every article you click on, is tailored towards your interests. Personalised searches and timelines result in isolation in cultural, intellectual, and ideological bubbles.
Of course we choose to use these platforms, while Chinese people don’t have the freedom to browse elsewhere. But while Orwell feared those who blocked certain sites, Huxley feared that no one would even want to use them. Good luck trying to find someone who hasn’t used Google for their last search query. And had you ever heard of Baidu before? Likewise, Chinese people don’t think of Facebook on a daily basis.
While there are significant differences between the Chinese government’s censorship and Western algorithms forming our realities, it all boils down to one thing. The way we perceive the world is shaped by algorithms and a few men in suits. We are products of economic, social, and political forces.
As David Foster Wallace wrote: this is water. Like fish are unaware of the water they swim in, we are unaware of the environment we’re immersed in. Swimming around in our fish tank, in clear but not crystal clear water, we’re ignorantly pointing at the fish in the water filtered by the Chinese government.
We all live in our own bubbles. And while it’s hard to escape the preset conditions we were born into, the best we can do is try to pop them. 所以我学习汉语。