- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 20, 2019

BEIJING — Is China’s “Great Firewall,” which effectively blocks thousands of sensitive websites here, a political or an economic weapon?

Both, to judge from time spent online inside China.

Various Google services, including search, maps and Gmail, are blocked in China. So are Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and messaging services such as WhatsApp and Line.

From one angle, it’s a basic matter of protectionism: For each of those blocked Western websites, a Chinese clone has emerged. Baidu is China’s Google, a search engine and mapping app with more than three-quarters of the Chinese market. RenRen is China’s Facebook; Weibo, its Twitter.

Each of these sites is huge in both user numbers and revenue, simply by virtue of China’s population. Weibo, for instance, has more than 340 million users, 20 million more than Twitter claims worldwide. And neither has had to face competition from the American companies that they blatantly mimic.

But there’s politics at work in the Great Firewall, too, meant to protect the standing and authority of the ruling Communist Party. The Chinese internet remains heavily censored, with many searches and even discussion topics off limits. Just try searching “Tiananmen Square massacre” on Baidu. You’re not likely to turn up much.

For the same reason, scores of news websites, including The Wall Street Journal, the BBC and The New York Times, are blocked in China. Even the Times’ Chinese-language site is inaccessible here.

It used to be fairly easy to evade the Great Firewall, by using a so-called “Virtual Private Network.” Yet under President Xi Jinping’s government, the screws have tightened and the censors have gotten more sophisticated.

The Chinese Industry and Information Technology Ministry has ordered the country’s three largest telecom companies to block access to VPNs. The results have been significant.

“Every time I buy a VPN, it gets shut down within a month or so,” laments one tech-savvy Beijing millennial.

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