Can you imagine a world without Google, Gmail, Google Maps, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube? To find one, you don’t have to hop into a time machine. Just catch a flight to Beijing or Shanghai. They call it the “Great Firewall”: an effective censoring system that prevents 1.4 billion Chinese people from accessing these social networks, Google and all related products and services.
Ironically named after the massive wall built to protect China from Mongol invasions, the Great Firewall manages to keep one-fourth of the world’s population completely isolated from the digital ecosystem that makes life easier (or harder) for the rest of us. And not just Chinese citizens—foreign visitors as well.
On a recent trip to China, I was able to enjoy a ten-day digital blackout. An involuntary blackout, of course, but pleasurable nonetheless. After all, we always say that’s our idea of a dream vacation: no Tweets, no Facebook notifications and an empty inbox.
Neither my personal Gmail nor my business emails accounts worked. Having been forewarned, before leaving Madrid I activated other “old-school” alternatives in case of emergency, like my Hotmail account, which I hadn’t used since the 1990s, and became a fan of the Hong Kong version of Yahoo (in Cantonese). The bad news, in terms of digital silence, is that WhatsApp works perfectly.
Free WiFi? Yes, but there’s a hitch
The internet connection in China is very high-speed, both in office buildings and on the street. There’s free WiFi in hotels, and people are constantly watching movies on their cell phones, on the subway, in restaurants, even waiting in line at the grocery store. The band is broad, but pickings are slim. They warn you as soon as you enter the hotel: forget about Google, Gmail, Facebook, and YouTube.
I tried with Hootsuite and TweetDeck, but there are no shortcuts for logging in to Twitter or Facebook. Every attempt ended in failure. The same thing happened when I tried all sorts of roundabout ways to access Google: finding this search engine is, paradoxically, a pipe dream in China. At least that’s what my iPad (made in China, of course) told me every time I tried to open Twitter.
Accessing YouTube, Instagram and Google+ is equally impossible, whether from the web version or the app. When a news website (El Mundo, for instance) has an embedded YouTube video, you can’t even see the first frame on the screen, just a blank space. Does that mean Chinese people don’t watch videos or use social media? No, they have their own, like the search engine Baidu and the networks QQ, WeChat, Qzone, and Weibo.
At a glance, a car on Shanghai’s fantastic subway looks just like any other on the London underground or the New York subway: all the passengers are glued to their phones, texting and sharing videos. They’ve got iPhones, Samsungs, and Huaweis, all terminals with one common denominator: they’re made in China.
1.4 billion cell phones
Approximately 1.4 billion cell phones are sold each year around the world. Oddly enough, that’s about the same number of people living in China. The market leaders are Samsung (320 million), Apple (225 million), and Huawei (104 million), followed by OPPO and Xiaomi. The “big five” all have something in common: their phones are made in China.
China is also the world’s largest cell phone market, with 314 million units sold in 2015 alone. Last August, the new Galaxy Note 7 was officially launched on Wanfujing, the busiest commercial street in Beijing. Advertisements for the new Samsung device surrounded one of Apple’s 42 stores in China, visually confirming the “takeover” that had just been published in headlines across the globe.
It’s almost cliché to say that China is a land of contrasts, but you see the truth of it every minute. An ox-drawn cart trotting alongside a train that can cover 400 kilometers in one hour. Or a futuristic city like Shanghai where hotel rooms are stocked with L’Oreal amenities and Provençal creams, but they also provide a complete writing kit with pencil, paper, and sharpener.
Reading El País: Mission Impossible
In Beijing and Shanghai it’s impossible to buy a printed copy of a Western newspaper at a newsstand. And if you try to read their online editions, you’re in for a surprise. The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and Le Monde are all blocked. As for the Spanish press, visiting the websites of El País and El Confidencial is out of the question. Yet there’s no problem reading the digital editions of ABC, Libertad Digital, RTVE or La Razón. El Mundo appears to be uncensored, but there were several times during my trip when I couldn’t access the page.
According to GreatFire.org, 139 of Alexa’s 1,000 most popular websites in the world are blocked in China. These range from the online newspapers and social networks mentioned above to widely used sites in the Western world like Blogger, Blogspot, Dailymotion, Vimeo, Slideshare, and Shutterstock, and porn portals like YouPorn and XVideos.
After ten days of internet silence I headed for Pudong International Airport in Shanghai, hurtling along at 450 kilometers an hour on the Maglev, the world’s fastest train. At the boarding gate for Iberia, which now offers daily flights from Madrid to Shanghai, one last surprise awaited me.
This installation, conveniently cordoned off, reminded me that I was about to enter the time tunnel again. I was returning to my normal life, a life ruled by Google.