The internet is seen as a global network and its neutrality is often touted as a feature. In fact, how users perceive and use the internet varies across the world. China is one of the more extreme examples of this.
YouTube in China
Is YouTube banned in China? In a word: yes. YouTube, along with lots of social media services and sites that the rest of the world take for granted, is generally blocked in China. However, it is not as simplistic as the nickname, The Great Firewall of China, might suggest.
The history of the Great Firewall
China has a record of restricting the availability of information to its citizens even before the internet, When the rest of the world watched the events of Tiananmen Square in 1989 most of the Chinese population were, and are, totally unaware of what was happening. It was predictable a few years later that the arrival of the internet would be followed by restrictions.
The Chinese state’s restrictions have become known as the Great Firewall of China. Collectively they seek to prevent access to a range of information sources including most social media. YouTube was first blocked in 2007 and has been fully blocked since 2009.
The technical firewall
The name ‘The Great Firewall of China’ suggests a technical block but it is not that simple. China’s purpose is not just to restrict information from the outside world but also to ensure the promotion of cultural values compatible with the Chinese state. There are, therefore, a number of alternative video sites (ironically often with their own official YouTube channels) to cater for any domestic demand for video.
The purpose of these alternate domestic sites is not just to satisfy demand for video but also to give the Chinese state control over the content. Fo example, they can avoid hosting videos that might promote democracy and edit or remove comments.
There is a constant game of cat-and-mouse between the Chinese state and determined users but The Great Firewall, like any other technical block, can be circumvented. With some technical knowledge and an acceptance of the risk, it is possible to find ways around the restrictions. There are also areas in China, mainly Special Administrative Regions like Hong Kong, where there are fewer restrictions.
The Great Firewall and User Behavior
Research into the habits of Chinese internet users when they are free of restrictions found there was still a preference for Chinese sites. This is where the cultural aspect of The Great Firewall has an impact. When most other people only access state-sanctioned sites what is the point of using anything else? No-one wants to use a site, like YouTube, if none of their friends or people like them can get on there. Additionally, the sanitized information that does exist promotes Chinese culture and the state friendly internet sites.
There are some who will seek to bypass the Great Firewall. Research found that those that do are motivated to expand their range of information sources. They also tend to have political motivation. While YouTube is a valuable information source, the study suggests Chinese users will only be interested in videos if the content matches their specific requirements.
So, is YouTube banned in China? The answer might be slightly more nuanced than a simple ‘yes’. There are parts of China with looser restrictions and determined users can find ways to tunnel under The Great Firewall. However, the cultural effect of Chinese restrictions is just as powerful as the technical effect. Limited YouTube videos might be viewable inside China, but unless it’s targeted at a very specific audience it’s unlikely to get many views.
Martin, A. 2019, “Speaking freely on the internet: China’s “great firewall” points toward a profound new mechanism of social control”, Science (American Association for the Advancement of Science), vol. 363, no. 6431, pp. 1045. (https://science-sciencemag-org.mmu.idm.oclc.org/content/363/6431/1045) ↑
Zhang, C. 2020, “Who bypasses the Great Firewall in China”, First Monday, vol. 25, no. 4. (https://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/10256/9409) ↑
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