For the tenth year in a row China has been elected the nr. 1 of countries with the least freedom of expression. Some dubious honour. There is little audible protest against this extreme censorship: I get the impression most people are quite content with their lives and of course the consequences of dissent are grave.
China’s great firewall
Under Xi’s strong and stable but also paranoid and neverending leadership the last gaps in the flow of online information in and out of the country are being stopped and sophisticated online censorship and monitoring tools are constantly evolving. This means effectively that everything that happens online in China, within the so-called Great Firewall, can and will be monitored. This is necessary for the social rating system that is being tested in some major cities as we speak. It will be rolled out nationwide by 2020 and will have severe consequences for people who like to speak their mind and not toe the line: they will be limited in their movements, shunned by people who don’t want to risk their rating and thus isolated.
In China there is no whatsapp, no facebook, no gmail, no other google apps, no dropbox, no twitter, no telegram, no instagram, no wordpress… (the list goes on) without the use of a VPN, which circumvents the Chinese censorship and snooping. VPN’s are tolerated for now but it is likely they will be shut down at some point.
I am from the last generation to have lived without internet but it is funny to experience how almost physically sensitive we are to disturbances in online communication: I know exactly when the government is tinkering with the firewall. It’s hard to put my finger on exactly how I know this but I’m not alone in this, all expats start sending each other messages when they feel a tightening of the net. It does feel like suffocating a little bit. Hotmail and Skype and Apple apps however will be accessible without VPN. Meaning: Microsoft and Apple have sold their soul to the Chinese government and everything sent through these companies is monitored by China.
To all my European friends: enjoy your freedom, and protect it as much as you can. Check out Bits of Freedom if you want to learn more about internet freedom. And of course my old job at Institute of Network Cultures, which issues publications on this and other relevant topics of life online.
Consequenses for my new life
I have been living in Kunming now for about 9 months. The first months were hard, and the only thing that kept me going at one point was the thought of going home in December. But, life got easier, I made some friends, I learned to speak some Chinese, and by the time I was in Amsterdam I found myself missing the Chinese food, weather, culture.. everything. And I had the persistent thought that I was only just scratching the surface. I could spend ten lifetimes in China and not discover everything. I was still undecided on the plane back to Kunming, but on my first day back in China I felt very strongly that I was at home here. Plus I had some wonderful chance encounters, giving me a glimpse of a more than interesting future here. I have been offered some challenging projects, a job and friendship, and I have decided to stay. My home is here, in Yunnan.
Right now I am working at organizing all the practical details of staying here for the long term. Visa, house in Amsterdam, tax, work, more boring things and now this digital merde. I have moved away from google, I quit my facebook once again (not a bad idea in the light of recent revelations on data breaches), no more whatsapp and back to keeping an offline diary. It is a hassle, and I sorely miss the ease of communicating with friends and family, but I’m sure my new life is worth it. Yes, it is life in a totalitarian state, but it is also a life with endless opportunity to learn, to follow my curiosity, to indulge in a lifelong fascination with Asia, to be constantly just a little bit out of my comfort zone, to be dazzled by the future (because I believe the future is Chinese), to enjoy some nice food in the sunshine, to build new friendships. I’m happy here.
An update on some of the things that are in the pipeline and that have been happening lately:
- a big exhibition about cycling culture opened last weekend in IWE, a private museum in the Western Hills. Apart from bringing the Cyclic! concept to Kunming I have curated one space of the Human Driven exhibition. I presented several ‘chapters’ of bicycle travel in the form of a documentary photo installation. I only had one month to do this and considering the time pressure, I’m happy enough with the result. Things in China move bloody fast.
- I have been offered a job that I am very excited about. More about this later when contract and work permit and other red tape have been sorted.
- Around June/July/August I will be in the Netherlands and in the UK and cycling around Europe a bit. I’m very excited about a reunion with the friends we cycled with in Tajikistan: 12 Pamir Pedallers are going to gather in the UK in July.
- After the summer I will move from my posh (=boring) suburbs to the old city centre of Kunming. I will dive into my new job, continue my study of Chinese language and culture, and enjoy more of a social life, yoga schools, and all the other creature comforts of a big city.
- I’m proud to let you know I have mastered the official 2 beginner levels of Chinese so I will start to study at intermediate level around the summer. It’s a frustrating language to learn but I’m excited about studying again.
- For the longer term: I have been exploring the artist community of Yunnan and I’m dreaming of a future of living in the Xishuangbanna countryside, writing and organising my own lecture programme.
More blog posts soon, about tea culture and cycling.