Are Chinese Youth Desperate for Uncensored Internet Access?

A woman browses the Web in an Internet cafe, a growing way to access social media, in Beijing.

Source Sim Chi Yin/The New York Times/Redux

Why you should care

If you tear down the Great Firewall, will they search?

Today, June 4, Chinese censors are especially wary, as they are every year on this date. All internet mention of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre is blocked, along with that iconic tank man. And don’t try any nonsense with May 35 either — they won’t fall for the alternative date as a coded reference to “the Event.”

On this date, Chinese youth move through a city like Beijing, connecting with friends through a Facebook-like alternative, paying for a meal with a swipe of their phones and, before locking the screen, ordering a cheap taxi home, where they may dash off a restaurant review on a Twitter-like microblog. But how many are bothering to use a virtual private network to maneuver around government controls and check the press? Not many.

The Great Firewall restricts access to anything the Chinese Communist Party deems unfit. But if those controls were removed, would it be a full sprint to a free press, with eyes glued to screens featuring hard-hitting investigative reporting and gossip about political leaders? Nope, not even close, according to economists from Peking University in China and Stanford who recently gave 1,800 undergraduates in Beijing free tools to bypass internet censorship for 18 months. (While there is no law against using such ladders to climb over the Great Firewall, they can be relatively pricey.) Of that group:

Half of Chinese youth wouldn’t use uncensored internet, even if you gave it to them for free.

And nearly none of the participants — generally richer and more liberal than the average Chinese student — searched blocked news sites. The results suggest that what keeps Chinese away from sensitive media isn’t just about restriction; it’s about demand.

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Internet cafés in Beijing are increasingly popular places to access social media in the capital.

Source Sim Chi Yin/The New York Times/Redux

The Chinese media landscape has brought comparisons to a totalitarian state like the one described in George Orwell’s 1984, with a populace too fearful to search out sensitive material. But this research suggests a more apt comparison would be the well-provided-for and uninterested consumers of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a historian at the University of California, Irvine, says it’s not that the Chinese aren’t aware of censorship, but rather they might not care because most of the things they do on the internet — like people the whole world over — aren’t about finding edgy news stories.


The flip side is that Chinese consumers are often bombarded with things they want to see. There’s so much entertainment available that Wasserstrom compares it to a media “flooding.” Wasserstrom notes “most people aren’t going through their daily lives feeling horribly deprived” of media.

The results of this study are not terribly surprising to Angela Xiao Wu at New York University. According to her research, relatively few internet users in China access foreign websites. And it’s the same result elsewhere in the world — people seem to prefer browsing content that’s relatively close to them geographically, despite censorship. “The Great Firewall, on the macro level, has likely little coercive impact,” Wu says.

Those who got hooked [on uncensored foreign news] became more … skeptical of China’s government.

But the surveyed students may have some nonconformity in them after all. In the study’s other important finding, interest in dissent increased dramatically if it came in the form of “newsletters” highlighting politically sensitive material and in quizzes based on content found only on the front page of the blocked Chinese edition of The New York Times, with students getting paid for correct answers. Those nudges increased browsing of foreign news by 28 percent.

Not only that, it sparked curiosity. Those incentivized students spent on average 435 percent more time browsing foreign news even after the encouragement ended, and 23 percent went on to pay for access out of their own pockets. Those who got hooked became more pessimistic about the Chinese economy and more skeptical of China’s government. And, to a small degree, they spread those beliefs to friends, according to the study.

People who essentially self-censor their news intake — remind you of anywhere else? “The broad takeaway that the readers’ demand plays a key role is certainly not a story that applies only to nondemocratic regimes,” says David Yang, an author of the study. Demand can shape a media landscape, which can lead to trust of outlets based on their political leanings. And that, in turn, can determine what people read, watch or listen to. For example, one might just as soon ask why an American doesn’t search out news contrary to his or her political leanings. No censorship necessary.

Meanwhile, the authors say the Chinese government may not need to spend so much on the Great Firewall. A full “sealing” off of the internet likely isn’t necessary. Most of the citizens wouldn’t notice the holes.

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