I went to China at the end of November and found something unexpected: complete Internet freedom.
Before arriving, one frequent visitor to the country warned me to be ready for a strange experience. He said that as soon as I landed, I would be in a world where I could no longer check Twitter and Instagram on my phone all the time. He said both services are blocked by the government.
But while I was there, I had unrestrained access to Instagram and Facebook. In fact, I was able to use all the services that are supposedly blocked in the country. I tweeted a bunch. I read the New York Times. I even used Google to find articles about the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square — an infamously censored topic in China.
How I did this was very simple and required zero cleverness on my part.
A couple days before I left, I called up AT&T and signed up for data, cell, and text packages that would work when I landed in Beijing. The moment I landed in Beijing, everything worked.
Later, when I used the wifi at my hotel, The Kerry, none of those services worked. Clearly the trick was to be using a data plan for foreigners.
When I shared my experience with a Hong Kong ex-pat who visits China for work, he said to me something like, “it’s not your Internet they care about.” “They” being the Chinese government. The Internet “they” care about is the one used by locals.
More evidence of this dichotomy: In September, Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post reported that the Chinese Communist Party decided to cease censoring the Internet inside of Shanghai.
“In order to welcome foreign companies to invest and to let foreigners live and work happily in the free trade zone, we must think about how we can make them feel like at home,” an unidentified government source told the paper.
In creating a separate Internet for locals and foreigners, China is only catching up to a neighbour you might suspect would be more censorious: North Korea, which stopped censoring 3G access by foreigners back in February.
But maybe that’s because North Korea has fewer locals on 3G to worry about.