China invented the compass, papermaking, alcohol and football – it’s fair to say that there’s a lot that we have to thank its innovative forefathers for.
But today there’s a sense that state web censorship is stifling a sense of creativity in the world’s richest country.
The creation of The Great Firewall of China
When Deng Xiaoping, the notable Chinese politician, ushered China from a ‘closed’ country into a ‘socialist market economy’ that has since become the world’s biggest, he knew that the economic loosening would also need societal controls to maintain cultural dominance in the People’s Republic.
He famously said: “If you open the window for fresh air, you have to expect some flies to blow in”.
To deal with the ‘flies’ that came with the country’s economic loosening in a post-internet world, Xiaoping and other Chinese statesmen created The Golden Shield Project. The web censorship program (nicknamed The Great Firewall of China) prevented ‘dangerous’ Western ideologies and fashions, as well as anti-state sentiment, from being seen and discussed on the internet.
The benefits of the Great Firewall for Chinese innovation
Today, the Great Firewall is more powerful than ever. And it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Censorship of big US tech companies have allowed Chinese equivalents to thrive.
Kaifu Lee, Google’s former head of operations in China who now runs an innovation firm, confirmed this in an interview about innovation and censorship for The Atlantic. He said:
“Censorship can provide a mechanism for protecting local technology firms. It can fend off competition from powerful international players and give local firms breathing room”.
But perhaps this is a symptom of the creative problem. There’s no doubting the success of China’s big creative tech companies, but they are very similar to Western brands. For Google, Facebook and Twitter in the West, China has Baidu, Renren and Weibo all respectively offering a similar, if not identical, service.
There have been very few tech developments started in the People’s Republic that haven’t also been enjoyed, or thought of first, in the West.
And for every multi-billion dollar tech giant built up by the Great Firewall, there are countless other smaller creative and tech companies that feel restricted and threatened by censorship in China. This state censorship affects businesses both practically and culturally.
The cultural effects of the Great Firewall of China for creatives
Across the world, history has shown that the free exchange of ideas is an essential part of fostering creativity. As a result, the concept of Chinese censorship undermines creativity in the People’s Republic.
With no easy access to the thoughts and innovations of the west, it’s likely that this cultural isolationism will ultimately affect entrepreneurs and creatives in a big way.
Yu Dan, a best-selling Chinese author and media expert, says that the creative industries in her country suffer from a lack of imagination when compared to the West and attributes it partly to China’s education system. Some of this can be explained by the country’s omnipresent censorship program. Having ‘alien’ philosophies banned or absent from general discourse no doubt feeds into a sense of ‘learned helplessness’ in Chinese culture, affecting Chinese creativity, or lack thereof.
In a world where dissident concepts are banned, it makes sense that thinking outside the box will be discouraged – even if only on a subconscious level.
The practical effects of the Great Firewall of China for creatives
Alongside the cultural effects, the Great Firewall of China affects innovation in the country on a day-to-day basis. Slow web speeds, limited reliability and poor data security all cause headaches for writers, designers and creatives – while they also can dissuade investors from dealing with innovators in the country.
Read more: 5 Problems With Sharing Data in China
It may sound minor but if, for instance, a video takes longer to access because of slow download speeds, that’s not good for efficiency. And if it’s not possible for creative briefs to be sent speedily
It’s true that VPNs are used heavily in the world’s most populous country – especially by ex-pats and western businesses in China – but they are often slow and unreliable. It can take brains (and guts) to stay a step ahead of state censorship using VPNs. A Spanish TV crew in Beijing told Forbes’ Education expert James Marshall Crotty that they have to constantly change the VPNs they use to circumvent Chinese Internet Police.
Read more: VPNs in China – What’s the Problem?
Ironically, the Great Firewall of China, a system that frustrates and subjugate creatives in the country, could be the country’s biggest export. Russia, Egypt or other totalitarian states are rumoured to be interested in the censorship technology. But that’s another story.