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Tea Leaves

South Asians unfazed by China's Great Firewall

In Yunnan's eternal spring, visitors navigate their way around internet controls

Inside Tianjin Railway Station: China may have many internet restrictions, but the population is highly connected.   © LightRocket/Getty Images

Strolling along the sunny, tree-lined sidewalks of Dianchi Lake Resort, in China's Yunnan Province, I am determined to enjoy as much as possible of this part of Kunming, the provincial capital appropriately known as the City of Eternal Spring. Pursuing a slow pace of life seems a good idea in a province that (with the exception of Kunming's unsightly urban sprawl) is so picture-postcard perfect it seems a tad unreal.

I am traveling with a party of South Asian reporters, one of whom, a Nepalese, reminds me that we need to hurry: Work awaits, and his articles have to be filed as deadlines loom. The next day, however, he appears less rushed. Work can wait, he says, adding that his Gmail account is not functioning because of the so-called Great Firewall of China, which blocks much international internet traffic.

My Nepalese friend is not alone. Other travelling journalists, having encountered China's formidable blocks on some popular websites and social media platforms, also decide that they might as well enjoy the Chinese food and scenery, and file their articles when they get home.

A friend from Sri Lanka and I exchange telling glances. When in China, we do things the Chinese way, arriving prepared with local QQmail, which can be set up free of charge, and accounts with WeChat, a social media service. WeChat is popular in Sri Lanka, so we can easily use it to send messages to colleagues at home.

Many of the travelling Indian journalists are also equipped with WeChat, which they use to communicate with each other. Others transmit their work by mobile phone. There are excellent mobile roaming services in China, and no great firewall to impede them.

The Indians joke about decaying trains and stations at home, comparing them with the airport-lounge sleekness of the stations on Yunnan's high-speed train route, which are equipped with superfast internet connections. They also talk about Chinese efforts to control their cyber destinies, but they do not really seem to mind.

Perhaps that is because they feel used to being monitored. Mohandas Pai, a former director of Infosys, an Indian technology company, has said that using Google mail is a way of inviting the service's Western minders to eavesdrop.

Pai ridicules the notion that Indians control their internet use, claiming that they are in the hands of algorithms used by Google and YouTube, and that India is a digital colony of the West. Given the choice, he says, he would prefer his internet behavior to be controlled by the Indian government, rather than a foreign government or company.

Our Indian colleagues seem to adopt a similar approach in Yunnan, happily accepting the restrictions of the great firewall and attending seminars and conferences sponsored by the Chinese authorities in conspicuously large groups.

One Indian journalist tells me that every country controls internet services within its borders, not just China. Indeed, the Australian defense department recently banned staff from downloading WeChat's software on work phones, citing security concerns.

In India, content restrictions and other controls are being imposed by state governments, curtailing the country's internet freedoms. When China bans Facebook, says my Indian colleague, it is a simple instance of the rule that what is sauce for the Australian or Indian goose is sauce for the Chinese gander.

By the end of our trip the Indian and Chinese participants have each formed WhatsApp groups to sustain the friendships made in Yunnan.

Meanwhile, my Sri Lankan friends' articles have already been published online, and they show off the web links to the Chinese. The Nepalese friend who strolled through Dianchi Lake Resort's idyllic streets with us admits a realization that the Chinese communications network he thought of as a gravel road is really an information superhighway in disguise, despite the suppression of Gmail.

The Indians agree, saying that China has made vast development strides despite widespread government controls on citizens' behavior. If the Chinese are so controlled by the government, why has China become a cashless society, an Indian journalist asks, pointing to the widespread use of electronic payment systems in the country, which he sees as a public vote of confidence in China's digital development.  

At least that is one way in which China and India are similar, he says, perhaps still smarting from the sudden withdrawal of high value currency notes by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government in November 2016, not to mention the relative poverty of India compared to China. In the end, he says with a wry grin, "the Chinese and Indian societies are both cashless."

Rajpal Abeynayake is a Sri Lankan journalist and writer.

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