Almost all of the U.S. President Donald Trump’s Twitter posts have been generating extensive online discussions, ranging from articles published by major news companies to quick replies from Twitter users around the world.
His tweets posted during his recent visit to China from Nov. 7 to Nov. 9 were no exception, besides one crucial fact: Twitter, among a lot of other major websites including Google, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram, has been banned in mainland China for almost a decade.
On behalf of @FLOTUS Melania and I, THANK YOU for an unforgettable afternoon and evening at the Forbidden City in Beijing, President Xi and Madame Peng Liyuan. We are looking forward to rejoining you tomorrow morning! https://t.co/ma0F7SHbVU
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 8, 2017
The president’s mostly positive and grateful tweets about his meetings with Chinese President, Xi Jinping, stimulated considerable speculations and arguments about what the Twitter-fan’s actions mean in a country where the majority of people do not even haveaccess to the website.
“If President Trump is able to tweet from China, it’s because he enjoys privileges President Xi systematically denies to people across that country,” said Sophie Richardson, China Director for Human Rights Watch, to Bloomberg.
The strict internet censorship in China, nicknamed The Great Firewall, has become a reality of everyday life for its residents.
It is not unknown that many people use virtual private networks (VPNs) to circumvent the Firewall to access forbidden websites, a practice especially common among expats living in China.
For young people growing up in China today, the situation poses even more complex challenges – perhaps for the Chinese government as well.
As the number of Chinese students choosing to study abroad only increases, with 329,000 now studying in the U.S., more young women and men from China will experience and even engage in the world outside the Firewall.
Most teenagers in mainland China curious in the banned websites would have to find a functioning VPN, which has become harder since Xi’s major crackdown on VPNs preceding the Communist Party’s 19 th Congress this past October.
Nonetheless, there remain some exceptions, including April Qian, a sophomore at Middlebury College and a former student at Shanghai American School, the largest International School in China.
According to Qian, students at her high school were able to access most forbidden websites through Hong Kong internet servers provided by the school. When she visited Shanghai during breaks in college, she occasionally used VPNs to access websites like New York Times and YouTube.
“When I was living in China earlier, I didn’t feel that [the internet censorship] was really affecting my life,” Qian said. “But leaving the Firewall and then going back again, I was very surprised that there were so many things I wasn’t able to see earlier, and that I didn’t see it
as a problem.”
In 2016, independent watchdog organization Freedom House again ranked China as “the world’s worst abuser of internet freedom” of the year.
This accusation is likely to last for another year given developments in recent months, such as a new policy on audiovisual content online, which bans homosexuality among other “abnormal sexual relationships and behaviors.”
“It has been all thought about for us, and what is shown on the TV tells us that directly, like homosexuality is bad,” Qian said. “Homosexuality, as something unacceptable, is put on the same level with committing murder or theft as something unacceptable, while they are
obviously very different things.”