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The Great Firewall of China

By Wei Peng | December 7, 2011

china, firewall, news

China provides U.S. media organizations an opportunity that is both intriguing and intimidating. On one hand, China offers the biggest potential market for video content providers because more and more Chinese netizens prefer to watch videos on the web and on apps than read online articles. On the other hand, China has the most stringent and powerful Internet censorship tool – the ‘Great Firewall.’


China’s Great Firewall is a huge obstacle for Western journalists. It censors information and inhibits freedom of speech with a level of stringency that is unfamiliar to Western media outlets. The firewall isn’t going away in the near future so it’s better for companies to conform to requirements than try to subvert the system the way Google has unsuccessfully tried to in the past. In China, the lesson is: be a Microsoft, not a Google.  

Sino-centric business strategies require clear positioning. Brands should ask themselves whether they want to market to overseas Chinese or mainland Chinese. The answer to this question will have a significant impact on the form their efforts take. Chinese people outside of China have different concerns and interests than mainland Chinese.

If international organizations target mainland China, they won’t reach Chinese immigrants and expats who live in other parts of the world. However, if they don’t target mainland China, they miss roughly 1/5th of the world’s population. 

Great Firewall of China is an interesting website where you can test any website and see if it is blocked in China or not. For example, when you type in Youtube.com, you find that it is blocked in China’s major cities like Beijing and Shenzhen. However, when you type in Newsy.com, it is not blocked in China. In other words Chinese netizens can watch videos on Newsy.com smoothly while they cannot watch Newsy videos or other American news content on Youtube.com. 

American news brands need to be practical about how they approach the Chinese market. They should include an interface that allows users to switch from English to Chinese easily and create content that Chinese users are able to access (given the firewall). This is a rough spot for journalists, who will have to accept a measure of censorship that is anathema to western sensibilities about journalistic integrity.

A diverse and expansive country, China is home to a range of dialects and languages. This linguistic diversity offers its own challenge. Traditional Chinese is mainly used in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Macaw (in these areas, Internet access is open and uncensored), but not in mainland China. Simplified Chinese is more common in mainland China. 

Additionally, the success of news organizations is tied to users’ perceptions about relevance. It is important that users perceive information as credible and as ‘Chinese.’ News consumers prefer that their news comes from a domestic perspective rather than from a Western or foreign perspective.

Microblogs, like the popular Sina Weibo, are a great distribution channel in China.  Microblogs, known in China as Weibos, provide citizens with a freer media format that allows opinions to be published - they are influential tools that are impacting and changing China.  

An article from Firstpost Technology mentions how companies such as International Monetary Fund, Unilver, and Louis Vutton use Weibos to promote, lobby, and win over large audiences. 

Netizens use microblogs to deliver breaking news, to ask for help, to spread entertainment and social news, etc. Information, official and unofficial, spreads rapidly through microblogs, leaving no time for cyber cops to cover their tracks.

To gain a foothold, American news organizations should develop a brand presence on China’s emerging social networks. From my perspective, it is the strength of content, rather than how it’s distributed, that is still the most important factor when it comes to bypassing ‘Great Wall’ censorship. While many distribution channels are categorically blocked, great content on smaller sites can still eek it’s way through to eager eyeballs on the other site of one of the world’s last great divides.