Moments before the New Year Eve countdown, I took a snapshot of the Shanghai Bund and uploaded it onto Facebook.
It was the last virtual contact I had with those outside the Great Firewall of China for the evening, as shortly afterward, network disruptions forced me back within the firewall, blocking off my access to Facebook and other internet content.
The next morning, I received many WhatsApp messages from family and friends informing me of the deadly stampede that had taken place at the countdown party in Shanghai and wondering if I was safe.
I promptly posted another message onto Facebook to let everyone know that I was.
Though this kind of shuffling to either side of the firewall was nothing new to me, this time I felt its true impact.
Everyone knows that people in the mainland live within the firewall – an internet filtering system that censors websites like Facebook, Google, YouTube and Twitter.
Thousands of Chinese Gmail users were disheartened when they lost access to their accounts at the end of last year.
One such unhappy netizen shared his frustration: “Why would global tech giants turn their backs on China – the second-largest economy in the world? How do they justify this to their shareholders?”
Rules in China
One of the biggest risks of doing business in China is that government policies concerning taxation and embargoes may be imposed or changed without forewarning, reasonable explanation or channels for reversal.
Obviously these types of policy changes have significant impacts on businesses, but these are the rules businesspeople must follow if they want a share of the China pie.
Perhaps this analogy can shed some light on that netizen’s query: Larry, a supplier of globally renowned bicycles, wants to sell his products in China. But the Chinese government tells him he must remove one wheel from each bicycle before he can do so.
Larry may understandably react by saying: “Sorry, we make and sell bicycles. We won’t be forced to sell unicycles – and so I suppose we just won’t bring our business to China.”
Choices within the wall
The disappointed Chinese consumer may choose to protest: “Larry, your bicycles are great, and we want to buy them! Shouldn’t you change your China strategy so that you can capitalize on this enormous market?”
This consumer may not realize that he has another choice: to let the Chinese government know that he needs an original, two-wheeled bicycle.
Many people traveling to or working in China use special methods to circumvent the firewall and continue accessing Gmail, Facebook, Twitter and other restricted internet content.
These methods can be a hassle, but those who choose to live within the firewall have accepted this as a way of life.
Options outside the wall
As someone who is accustomed to being outside the firewall, I would love to invite the upset Chinese netizen to take a trip to Hong Kong, where he can go online without any restrictions.
At least for now, Hongkongers can freely enjoy internet services like Gmail and Facebook to their hearts’ content.
Those outside the firewall may also choose to trade the stocks of tech giants.
If investors believe a firm is losing out on potentially huge profits by leaving China, they can simply sell its stock and invest in something more profitable. Where money is the only consideration, investors have many choices.
But if I were the Chinese consumer in Larry’s example, I would question why I couldn’t buy the bicycle that I wanted but must have a unicycle forced upon me.
The writer is secretary general of the Internet Society Hong Kong. The opinions expressed are solely her own.
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