The China Firewall Test: Which Websites are Blocked, and Does it Matter?

Posted by Reading Time: 4 minutes
  • Investors need to consider the profit limitations and China media coverage relevance of websites that have become estranged from China.

Op/Ed by Chris Devonshire-Ellis 

Reporting and writing about China comes in many guises, from the outwardly China negative, to professional reports containing sensitive information, to websites that provide useful and valuable opinion and intelligence about the country. Curiously, very few span all these sectors, websites tend to follow their own internally decided set of content rules.

China’s Firewall exists to protect its citizens from plain nasty content, such as pornography and other socially unacceptable products, while also reining in the subversive and rude. A good rule of thumb to employ is ‘Remember you are a guest in China’ – meaning an overly critical attitude towards your hosts will be considered rude, and in many ways, is.

It is uncommon that overseas websites commenting on China get caught up in this, but it does occasionally happen. Typically, this comes after a ‘China-negative’ trend appears, with a series of articles criticizing the country or its leaders. Such websites have an obvious anti-China agenda and do not provide a balanced perspective, which is all that Beijing is really asking for. Criticism is fine but make it constructive rather than rude.  Even rarer still, being blocked from China access occurs after a very specific article or program – usually on TV rather than online – has offended Beijing. That, however, tends to be a broadcast rather than website issue as the satellite footprint is far larger and reaches rather more content consumers than websites can manage.

Typically, global readers are normally looking for political or other China related news, which can be accessed from sources within their own country. However, there are websites who have infuriated the Chinese leadership and been blocked but whose content relies to some extent on news and views from China. It creates a journalistic conundrum when the reporting about China on the medium is blocked in the country. How damaging that is, is dictated by the nature of the readership; if the target audience is not China, then the negative impact of being blocked is rather less. An example is the Wall Street Journal, whose investigative reporting upset Beijing yet was primarily intended for US consumption anyway.

In the case of global financial news, with the Wall Street Journal being barred, China readers can get their global financial information from the Financial Times, which remains open. However, it also means that for outlets like the WSJ, attracting advertising revenues from businesses looking to target Chinese consumers becomes problematic. It is also indicative that certain editors are able to strike a balance between excellent journalism and facing a ban. There is, it appears, a goldilocks zone when it comes to global coverage of China stories.

Other websites face a different problem: reporting on China, not having the required domestic journalistic credentials, and taking a negative position. This has affected New York’s SupChina, whose generally ‘China-bad’ tone has also led to a ban. That’s something of a badge of honor for their main China observer, Jeremy Goldkorn, who has managed to be banned twice – his Danwei media outlet is also blocked. Was it something he said? Almost certainly, and his SupChina, team just as Danwei does, serves up a diet of generally pessimistic China stories painting not just the Party but also the social character of the country in less than complimentary terms.

The problem with this is how, when denied access to China, such people can retain their credibility and usefulness. Goldkorn now comments from Nashville, which is not exactly Shanghai. There cannot be, for example, any meaningful access to Chinese officials. That ‘badge of honor’ becomes a hinderance and ultimately leads to less relevant China commentary.

A question thus arises, how damaging is it being blocked from China access? A useful website provides data on this, which is pertinent for assessing the impact certain websites have – or do not have – on the China market. That site is China Firewall Test. 

This status of being able to access China news, opinion, and readers in China matters a great deal – both from the position of being able to offer originally sourced opinion and also from the revenue perspective. China’s GDP growth is expected to be maintained at the 6.5 to seven percent per annum rate for the foreseeable future. Attracting revenues into website business models that have managed to become estranged from China is therefore a problem. No one in China can read the content, and that becomes a huge issue for the revenue stream. Investors cannot reach the very market the website proclaims to be about. Websites that are banned are excluded from obtaining first-hand knowledge and excluded from participating in a China consumer market that provides some of the world’s highest returns. In return, they become parodies, existing in a twilight zone, yet passing themselves off as experts. It is a law of diminishing returns.

In China business strategic terms, the business model of both commenting about China, or looking to access the Chinese consumer market on behalf of advertisers, requires China access. Remaining relevant to this market thus requires maintaining a suitably equitable balance and a sensitive understanding of China. That remains the real challenge.

Those that manage to keep that balance have real development and investment value, while those that are estranged do not. That is an issue that investors in overseas websites with China content should be very much aware of.

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China Briefing is written and produced by Dezan Shira & Associates. The practice assists foreign investors into China and has done so since 1992 through offices in Beijing, Tianjin, Dalian, Qingdao, Shanghai, Hangzhou, Ningbo, Suzhou, Guangzhou, Dongguan, Zhongshan, Shenzhen, and Hong Kong. Please contact the firm for assistance in China at china@dezshira.com

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