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Asia

Sieren's China: Great firewall little more than a transparent fig leaf

China's Internet censorship might mean it takes users longer to access the websites they're after, but there are ways and means of circumventing the filters, says DW columnist Frank Sieren.

It's no secret that Internet censorship is rampant in China. Reports abound of blacklisted keywords, as well as blocked websites and search engines. According to a recent report from the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China (EUCCC), in mid-February, 86 percent of its members said that Internet censorship has had a bad effect on business (compared to 71 percent in mid-2014).

The EUCCC says that a number of companies are therefore reducing investment in technology and research in China. It described the development as massively detrimental to the country, one that sends a negative message and stops companies from bringing qualified staff to China.

Circumventing the Great Firewall

But this is only one side of the story. Today, only small businesses continue to insist that Internet censorship hampers their research and development. Larger companies have long since been operating dedicated lines which allow them to circumvent the Great Firewall. Even the German school in Beijing has one.

Frank Sieren Kolumnist Handelsblatt Bestseller Autor China

DW columnist Frank Sieren

Normal users also know how to access whatever information they're after by using VPNs (virtual private networks) that can be activated via smartphones or on a PC. It takes about 30 seconds to get connected - easy enough but time-consuming, with slow download speeds. But it nonetheless allows users to open banned websites and find out, for example, what Taiwanese academics and Uighur freedom fighters are saying, or even to access blocked content on the BBC, the New York Times or DW.

However, VPN-blocking is also a common problem. Astrill, one of the most popular VPN providers in China, found a number of its channels blocked by the authorities in early January. These days, iPhone and iPad owners can no longer automatically use Astrill's VPN options but have to access the service through a complicated process.

Even so, 90 million of China's 650 million Internet users continue to use VPN services - in other words, anyone who is interested in information from abroad. They continue to access international websites, even if doing so takes them longer than it needs to.

Infrastructure makes a difference

And, on average, it doesn't take them as long as it takes Internet users in India. According to the "State of the Internet" quarterly report by content delivery network Akamai, India has the slowest Internet speed in Asia, ranking 118th in the world - behind the Philippines and Vietnam - with 2.0 megabytes per second (mbps), while China ranks 79th with 3.8 mbps.

Meanwhile, smartphone Internet connection speed in China is three times faster than in India. There might be places in India where Internet speed is better than the fastest VPN in China, but the rule of thumb is that even with the Great Firewall, it's easier to access international websites in China than in India, a country where there's no Internet censorship. Although in India, unlike in China, domestic content isn't censored either.

Digital divides

In terms of international connectivity and free, fast access, the biggest digital divides in Asia are therefore not so much between democratic India and dictatorial China but between China, India, Indonesia and the Philippines on the one side and on the other, South Korea, Japan and Hong Kong, which boast Internet speeds between 25 and 15 mbps - the world's fastest. Europe's fastest is in Switzerland (14.5 mbps); in Germany, it's below 10.

But China is the emerging economy that's catching up the quickest, aiming to reach Internet speeds of over 4 mbps this year, and as fast as 20 mbps in the cities. Ultimately, China's web filters amount to little more than a skimpy fig leaf - seeing beyond it just calls for some patience.

One of Germany's leading experts on China, Frank Sieren has lived in Beijing for 20 years.

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