Knowledge gaining and political participation as a result of bypassing the Great Firewall? Digital inequality between the Chinese netizens on either side of the wall

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To make Facebook could possibly across the Chinese Great Firewall, Mark Zuckerberg has been working so hard (like showing his fluently speaking Mandarin online, meeting Chinese politicians, and trying to sell a Chinese version Facebook which could allow the governmental censorship possible) to please the Chinese government and the folks. But still, it is very likely that he will fail at the end of the day, since he simply did not get the point that the ‘Big Brother’ want an absolute control on the Chinese cyberspace.


The Chinese Great Firewall or the GFW, a metaphorical term describing the Chinese internet censorship by blocking foreign websites and filtering information on domestic websites (Barmé and Ye, 1997), is worldwide well known. According to some Chinese policymakers (Zhang, 2006), the wall was mainly built for the reason of national security, since the free-flowing uncensored information from foreign countries might be a threat to governmentally ideological control during this information age. But the wall might not be equally effective for all Chinese people, since there are some talented netizens who have successfully bypassed the wall (by using VPNS or other tools) and got access to a wider range of information and knowledge from foreign websites (eg. Yang and Liu, 2014). While many previous studies have heavily focused on the technical issue of the GFW and the bypassing, limited studies have realized the social implication of bypassing the GFW. Namely, the gap between the netizens on either side of the wall may constitute a new form of digital divide.


We have a 20-year history of studying the digital divide and the focus has been widening from merely the internet access (eg. NTIA, 1995) to the differences in the digital skills (eg. Hargittai and Walejko, 2008; Van Deursen and Van Dijk, 2010), online activities (eg. Zillien and Hargittai, 2009; Blank and Groselj, 2015) and even outcomes gaining (eg. Van Deursen and Helsper, 2015). Inspired by the ‘knowledge-gap theory’ (Tichenor, Donohue and Olien, 1970), DiMaggio and Hargittai (2002) claims that some types of internet use are more ‘capital-enhancing’ and research show that those ‘capital-enhancing’ uses are more likely to relate to the advantaged population (eg. Zillien and Hargittai). Therefore, it is likely to have a consequence of the widening of inequality (DiMaggio and Hargittai, 2002). While the wall-bypassing netizens might have the possibility of getting access to a more diverse sources of information and knowledge, it might be reasonable to hypothesize that there will be a new knowledge gap between the bypassing netizens and those who do not bypass the wall (especially when the bypassing netizens happens to be the advantaged group within the society and/or they tend to use the internet in a more ‘capital-enhancing’ way).


We, therefore, have launched a project which aims to investigate the disparity between the Chinese netizens on either side of the wall. We will study whether the wall-bypassing netizens are the relatively advantaged group in the society? Whether their online activities are more ‘capital-enhancing’? Whether they have the potential on acquiring richer knowledge and information? Also, within an ideological-controlling context in China, we also will be interested in exploring the relation between bypassing the wall and the expression of political opinions. A preliminary research will be conducted through quantitative data analysis by the use of data from the dataset Chinese Family Panel Studies (CFPS).



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Blank, G., and Groselj, D. (2015). Examining Internet Use Through a Weberian Lens. International Journal of Communication9, 2763-2783.


DiMaggio, P., and Hargittai, E. (2002, August). The new digital inequality: Social stratification among Internet users. In American Sociological Association annual meetings, Chicago.


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Yang, Q., and Liu, Y. (2014). What’s on the other side of the great firewall? Chinese Web users’ motivations for bypassing the Internet censorship. Computers in human behavior37, 249-257.


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Chong Zhang
Chong Zhang

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