China Power

The Walls Between China and the World

The Great Firewall isn’t the only obstacle to mutual understanding between China and the world.

The Walls Between China and the World
Credit: Great Wall image via Shutterstock

Once, while talking with a Chinese scholar, I brought up several foreign news reports and commentaries that were related to his research. He said he wasn’t familiar with these pieces and asked me where I saw them. I said, “On foreign websites.” The scholar replied that his computer couldn’t access them. I said that he should “climb the wall” [circumvent the “Great Firewall] and take a look. He said, “I’ve never  installed software to get around the Great Firewall. It’s a hassle, and it’s not very useful anyway.”

I was shocked. I asked him how he was able to read the many good articles on the other side of the Great Firewall. He responded, “Why would I need to read articles from outside the wall? For my research, reading Chinese articles is enough.”

I was even more shocked. I understand that average netizens aren’t willing to install “wall climbing” software on their computers, because they don’t know how to use it, or think it’s too much of a hassle, or even are simply afraid. But what about someone who does social research? How can he not climb the wall to get to know the world, look at China from a different perspective, and reflect on himself?

According to my own experience, there are more than a few scholars and professors like this. I find it hard to imagine that many experts and scholars (the very people who should have a broader viewpoint) have cut themselves off from the outside world because of a man-made firewall. Such people, no matter how naturally gifted, will find it very difficult to gain complete learning.

My knowledge of “walls” comes from my youthful experiences outside China. Before I left China, I too could have been considered one of that group of “gifted” Chinese students. I studied international politics and international relations, and I thought that I had gotten to the bottom of world affairs. How could I have known that, after “climbing the wall” and leaving the country a few times, I would discover that my knowledge was lacking. Even my English, which I thought was awesome, turned out to be not so great — I was the only person who could completely understand myself.

Later, I grew fond of climbing all types of “walls.” I was unwilling to let any wall, whether natural or man-made, block me from accessing as-yet unknown worlds. Of course, at the beginning I only enjoyed climbing those visible “walls.” But actually, compared to visible walls (like national boundaries and every type of protective barrier, including the Great Firewall), there are some “invisible walls” that are even harder to traverse. These “invisible walls” are all around us, and many of them exist in our own minds.

Every time I cross Lo Wu Bridge, I’m climbing a visible “wall” to get into Hong Kong. Once there, every night by 11 pm I always tell my friends, “I’m going back to the hotel to surf the Internet.” My friends say, “Aren’t you always on the Internet in China? Why don’t you chat a bit more while you’re in Hong Kong?” I respond, “It’s different here — you don’t have a Great Firewall. Here, I can take a ‘self-guided tour’ of the Internet.” I told them that on the mainland, thanks to the Great Firewall, surfing the internet wasn’t that easy; downloads especially are often blocked. So I’ll always take advantage of a trip to Hong Kong and explore the internet without restraints.

Although overseas friends know that the Great Firewall exists, there are few who can really feel the wall’s presence. This is an interesting phenomenon. Of course, the average netizen doesn’t have to be aware of China’s Great Firewall. But those people who research China and care about China’s current situation cannot forget for a moment that the wall is there.

When friends want to speak with me about China’s internet or China’s future, I often ask them: Can you sense the wall’s presence?

They’re always very confused by this question. They say, “Of course I know there’s a wall. The news is always talking about it.” I tell them, “I didn’t ask if you knew about the wall, I asked if you could feel it.” They don’t know what I’m talking about, so I try and ask more clearly: “You’re interested in China issues; you study China. So have you learned how to ‘climb the wall’ to see China?”

Some of these friends still don’t understand what I mean. To them, the wall doesn’t exist. The Great Firewall is only meant to prevent mainland readers from visiting foreign websites, not to prevent foreign netizens from accessing Chinese webpages.

My American friends are all very interested in China issues, and one of them is truly a China expert. When I was in America talking with them about China issues, they all had a lot to say. They talked on and on about democracy and human rights until I couldn’t keep up anymore. However, when I told them to pay attention to public sentiment and popular opinions in China, I discovered that it was like a chicken trying to talk with ducks. It turned out  that the materials they used in their China research all came from overseas — from outside the Great Firewall.

If they were all researching pure theory, then I would completely understand. In terms of political theory, the most insightful essays and opinions on freedom and democracy aren’t going to come from mainland China, and won’t appear within the Great Firewall. Research on democracy in America and the West has already reached the “end of history.” But if you stand outside the Great Firewall and try to make this theory fit China, you won’t succeed no matter how hard you try. By the end, you’ll be red-hot with anger and completely depressed at the same time.

It’s surprising that so many scholars who are interested in China are satisfied with standing outside the wall and using their politically correct theories to dig up every one of China’s faults. I know that outside the wall, the flowers are blossoming beautifully. So what if I make those scholars, who are used to breathing free air, climb inside the wall to observe the small shoots of freedom that are growing with the cage?  Naturally they would feel out of sorts and uncomfortable.

Some years ago, a Chinese-American professor sat down with me in front of a computer. He recommended some websites and essays, telling me, “Mr. Yang, these essays are better and more incisive than yours. Why can’t you write essays like these? Why are your essays always evasive? You’ve spent so much time in America, why can’t you write good essays like our American authors?”

Then, with a click, he brought up one of my essays. “Many people read your essays,” he said, “But I won’t. You aren’t up to high-level academic theory.” Then he quietly turned off his computer.

I knew then we wouldn’t make any progress in our discussions on China issues. He didn’t know that with a click of his mouse, he was actually climbing over a wall, and walking freely in two worlds. Nor did he know that this wall, which he found so easy to climb, was separating him from the 1.3 billion people in China. Those Chinese are living in a real world, one that could never live up to his “high-level academic theory,” but of course he wouldn’t even deign to cross an “invisible wall” by reading those essays we’ve written, those essays that are not up to his theoretical standards.

For Chinese scholars, although there are definite challenges in climbing the walls that exist on the internet (like installing the right software), they can overcome those difficulties and make the climb. But people who live in a free world don’t realize that the wall even exists — because for them, it doesn’t. And so they become trapped by an invisible wall. Faced with this barrier, no matter how superior their academic theory is, no matter how incisively they speak about democracy and freedom, it will be very difficult for them to understand the real China, the real world and their real selves.

In reality, there are still many of these invisible walls around us and within us. After years of traveling on the mainland, I’ve discovered that no country on earth is quite like China. There are so many invisible walls that separate every group of people, leaving our hearts scattered. The elite and the common people are separated and no more than a handful of the elites truly “climb the wall.” When the elites find that the common people do not adhere to their viewpoint, they don’t climb over the wall to understand the people; instead, they borrow a phrase from Beijing and complain about the people being “of low quality.”

The right wing and the left wing are even more like mortal enemies; neither is willing to climb over the wall to understand their opponents. But actually, if you don’t try to understand the other, how do you know that you even understand yourself? For years, we have been building up walls within our hearts: the walls of hatred, the walls of elitism, the walls of prejudice, and the walls of a lust for power.

Since I left China as a young man, crossing all those visible “walls” has opened my eyes. Because of this, I warned myself that I must never again let any sort of wall (visible or invisible) block my view.  As soon as I discover there’s a wall in front of me, I immediately think of a way to climb over it, not only so that I can understand the world on the other side of the wall, but even more importantly so I can truly see the world on my side of the wall, and better understand myself.

This piece originally appeared in Chinese on Yang Hengjun’s blog. The original post can be found here.

Yang Hengjun is a Chinese independent scholar, novelist, and blogger. He once worked in the Chinese Foreign Ministry and as a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC. Yang received his Ph.D. from the University of Technology, Sydney in Australia. His Chinese language blog is featured on major Chinese current affairs and international relations portals and his pieces receive millions of hits. Yang’s blog can be accessed at