China’s notorious online controls, most commonly known as the “Great Firewall” which has long been criticized as censorship by human rights groups and pro-democracy activists, now has earned a new label from the US government: trade barrier[i].
For the first time, in an annual report on trade conditions, the U.S. trade representative said Chinese filters blocking access to websites “posed a significant burden to foreign suppliers, hurting both Internet sites themselves and users, who often depend on them for business.” The report also said, “Over the past years, the outright blocking of Web sites appears to have worsened.” [ii]
Around 3,000 website are blocked in China under the country’s policy of internet censorship[iii]. China blocks some of the biggest Internet names including services offered by search engines like Google and Yahoo, video sharing companies like Youtube and Vimeo, social media companies like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Flicker, news and business sites like Bloomberg, WSJ and Reuters, and other internet service providers like Dropbox etc[iv].In the 3,000 companies that China has blocked, cooperate names are chosen without a published details of restrictions. The report said much of the blocking appears arbitrary, for example a major home improvement site is swept up by the “Great Firewall”[v].
This censor hinders the accessibility of over millions of foreign companies to Chinese markets and vice versa. More and more companies relying on the Internet for business could be hampered whether through blocked internet sites or workplaces that cannot reach Gmail. Almost 80% of foreign companies that responded to a survey released in January by the American Chamber of Commerce in China said that they were “negatively impacted”, more than half said that they were blocked from using online tools or accessing information, and only 5% said they were not hindered in any way.
The “Great Firewall” have given Chinese Internet companies such as search engine Baidu to gain business by blocking its strong foreign competitors of Google that dominates global markets. The QQ and WeChat are widely used as social media replacements of Facebook, Messenger and Whatapp[vi].
Some of the largest US Internet companies and foreign trade groups have taken actions from different approaches. They have lobbied the US to treat censorship as a trade matter. For example, Google’s deputy general counsel testified before a US Senate subcommittee that the US government should make the matter a central issue in trade talks. China has blocked Gmail, Google Map, Google Drive, Google Cloud, Google Plus and Google photos. In the negotiation with Google, China has conditionally allowed users in China to use some of Google’s functions but this proposal was rejected by Google.
Some internet companies take more positive and flexible moves to comprise the censorship in order to gain access to the vast Chinese market. Facebook has attempted hard to establish rapports with Chinese government. “How can you connect the whole world if you leave out a billion people?” said Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg who visited China in March 2016 during which he jogged through Beijing, participated in a two-man panel discussion with Alibaba founder Jack Ma and then held a meeting with the country’s propaganda chief[vii]
Both American companies and the government understand how important this market to their business, and the new report highlights the growing concerns. The move from the US government side, which is not likely to have immediate repercussions but the US government can file complaint based on WTO rules that requires member governments to publish details of restrictions that might affect business and take other action in retaliation by blocking Chinese internet companies’ access to US market.
China has more web users than any other country in the world – nearly 730 million, and the Chinese Internet market is expected to grow considerably as this country continues to industrialize[viii]. Chinese companies heavily rely on the internet to contact world-wide customers and conduct businesses. Closing up the internet and getting into a retaliation war will hurt both sides. This censor represents a big problem to Chines government as it is trying to maintain its political stability and control over information as essential to protecting the Communist Party’s monopoly on power while attempting to adapt to the free market economy system. China has been struggling with this ever since Deng Xiaoping took power and started open the doors to the world. It will be even harder to achieve the balance, with the new economy that is more depend on Internet.
[i]Annual National Trade Estimate Report, released on March 31. The insertion was reported on April 1 by Inside US Trade, a trade publication.
[iii] “GreatFire.org – Bringing Transparency To The Great Firewall Of China”. Retrieved 9 January 2012.