The internet and social media forever changed the way that students and teachers could interact. Today, groups can keep in touch via Facebook and Whatsapp, conferences can be live-tweeted to an entire campus and a host of university tools make access to niche information a breeze. If you’ve spent the last couple of years hooked to a smartphone to help with your studies, then prepare for a big shock.
Say goodbye to Google, news, video and social media as you know it.
Internet users in China have a long and bitter history with the Great Firewall project, which blocks access to “potentially harmful” information and social media websites. The periodical upgrades operated by the government, often in response to social unrest, can play havoc with work, study and leisure online for the country’s expats. This situation came to a head in summer 2009, with the end of access to widely known sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Youtube. This marked the beginning of a new era: one of ‘social networks with Chinese characteristics’. How can you survive a relocation to China if you’re cut off from Facebook friends? Are there ways around the great firewall? Take a look at some of the possible options below in order to stay connected:
Life saving VPNs?
Until December 2014, a Virtual Private Network (VPN) was a best friend for those who wanted to access services like Google and social media. These tools work by connecting to private network tunnels, which bypass the firewall and route your internet connection through another country, thus avoiding censorship and granting full access to blacklisted websites. These services normally charge a monthly or yearly subscription fee, but interruptions to the service thanks to Great Firewall upgrades can render a longer subscription a giant waste of money. Unfortunately, in early 2015, new updates to the Great Firewall reportedly blocked the VPNs, attempting to end freedom in cyberspace. ExpressVPN is reportedly still working, although charges one of the higher monthly costs for subscriptions (still less than £10 per month).
On the wrong side of the firewall — local alternatives
If you’re in the country and want to join a university peer group, then you’ll find that there are several Chinese networks that can be of assistance.
Professors and students alike will network through Sina’s Weibo microblogging service. Weibo arose as China’s answer to Twitter, but Sina has taken things one step further with its service, which now resembles a hybrid between Twitter and Facebook. The service is entirely in Chinese on desktops and laptops, but the iPhone version does offer an intermittent and error-ridden English language alternative. You can join university groups and follow tags through Weibo, although do be aware that, unless you’ve got a specific academic group posting in English, almost all of the posts will be in Chinese.
Google had a bit of a falling out with the Chinese government a few years ago too, which means that all traffic is now routed through Hong Kong. If you want to attempt the local alternative Baidu, you don’t “Google it”, but instead you “Baidu yixia!”, which roughly translates as: “Let’s look it up on Baidu”. This is quite a fast and efficient tool, but again, it mainly shows results in Chinese.
Tencent’s Wechat (or using the name it goes by in China, Weixin, literally “micro messages”, ) is a new arrival to China’s social media family. At first glance, it resembles a copy of Whatsapp but also shows some Facebook-like features. Users have their own profile page, on which they can share status and pictures and can also respond to and like the activities of other contacts. Perhaps most relevant to academics is the chat section, the most similar feature to Whatsapp. It allows users to type or record a message and to create groups. It is a useful tool to stay in touch and share information with friends and coworkers, which is probably why it ended up replacing Ren Ren, the very first Chinese response to Facebook.
Need to know
For anyone studying or teaching in China, it should be a given that if your topic relates to politics, journalism or international relations, you will need to think carefully about any work-related information that you post. Most social media websites in China are now asking for real name registration, with some, such as Weibo, requiring an identity card or passport number to sign up. While you are unlikely to get into any trouble, to discuss political issues with your virtual friends or followers might not be a smart move. After all, it’s better safe than sorry!