Kind of Online in the PRC: The New Normal?

Internet access is worse than ever

Jeremiah Jenne February 3, 2015 4:13pm

This year, I bought a MacBook Air. I love it, which is good because I’m pretty sure I paid more for my new computer than I did for my first car. The problem is that buying a fancy new computin’ device and then hooking it up to the Chinese Internet is like buying a Ferrari if you live in a town with only cobblestone streets.

Over the last few months, as has been widely reported, the Chinese government has tightened its control over the Internet. This process has included completely cutting off access to Google services, disrupting  popular VPN providers, and generally being dickish about the whole idea of a global Internet.

Frankly, I’m not sure how newsworthy this is. It certainly is worse than it was before, but it’s all a matter of degree…using the Internet in China has been a horrible experience for years.

I cannot count the number of times I’ve been in a place like Bali or a remote Thai island and marveled — positively did dances of joy and celebration — at the speed and reliability of the Internet there.

Think about that. If I were an Internet entrepreneur or investor in China, I’m not sure I’d want to hear about how Thailand and Indonesia — not exactly known as tech hotspots — offered superior connectivity to the global web.

For anybody — both local and laowai — who still thinks this is a great business environment, or that China has a bright future as a research hub or intellectual incubator, I would strongly suggest spending 30 minutes trying to do a few routine business tasks that involve accessing Internet sites not based in China.

I choose to live here, and there are many positive reasons why that is. China is an amazing place. It’s an incredibly safe country, and is, after a fashion, not a bad place to live and work. But it’s frustrating when what should be a five-minute task takes me twenty minutes and reconfiguring my VPN three times just to check it off my to-do list.

As the government moves from cracking down on social media to cutting off access to staples of global business communication and productivity, will people in China finally start to notice?

The old trope is that the government could always shut down Facebook or YouTube or Twitter or Google’s search engine because there were popular local alternatives. The fact that foreign websites loaded slowly didn’t matter to most Chinese Internet users. Why? Because they didn’t need to rely on overseas sites for those things which Internet users care about most: Entertainment, music, social media, shopping, and gaming.

Business though…that’s a bit different, and people everywhere tend to get cranky when you start messing with their livelihood.  Or their kid’s chance at getting into a university overseas.

A few years ago, I compared the CCP to a jealous stalker boyfriend. His girlfriend really loves him, because he has a lot of good qualities, but despite this he can’t (or won’t) believe that she’s really into him. In his twisted and delusional mind, he cooks up paranoid fantasies of his lovely and innocent girl spending her free time in joyful coitus with some or all of the Seattle Seahawks.

So jealous stalker boyfriend begins eavesdropping when she’s on the phone, asking questions about who she’s talking to and where she’s been, telling her she can’t hang out with certain friends, and insisting she call him every ten minutes so he can “be sure she’s okay.”

But after a while that’s not enough, because that’s how crazy works. Soon he’s hacking her emails, and checking her phone when she’s in the shower, and following her when she’s with her friends and…

You get the idea. No matter how much this girl loved him to begin with, she’s going to get creeped out.

The Chinese government, especially of late, has done a better than average job of convincing people in China that their interests are in pretty close alignment with those of the Party. But as control of information and technology becomes more obvious and intrusive, I wonder if Internet users in China will find this new-found interest in their online habits “lovingly protective” or “stalker creepy.” Because the sad truth is that there are not a lot of people who are willing to commit to a long-term relationship with creepy.

Jeremiah Jenne

A Qing historian reads the newspaper...