Last week, I went back to China for the first time in 8 years.
What I realized when I got there is that all Google products including Gmail and Google Maps, Facebook products including Instagram and Messenger, Twitter products, Tumblr, Flickr, Medium, Reddit, SoundCloud and more don’t load in China. You need a VPN to access these sites, which I didn’t use on this trip.
I connected physically and digitally through WeChat with my Chinese family, but I simultaneously disconnected with my Western friends.
I lost access to alternative perspectives. I wanted to get updates from friends who have family in France and Turkey, which have been in the news this week, but I couldn’t get that info passively.
I lost the ability to use local apps for search (Baidu), directions (Baidu Maps) and ride-sharing (Didi Kuaidi). I could make calls on the the Nexus 5X with a local sim card, but I couldn’t install new apps because Google’s play store won’t ever load. (It’s not an AOSP device.)
I lost access to lots of apps that are integrated with Google products. My cousin tried to play Pokemon Go (the latest craze), but it doesn’t work in China because it uses Google Maps.
More importantly, I lost the ability to communicate with a few core email and messaging apps. (Though I did use WhatsApp and WeChat for calls.)
If your whole life exists in China, then you don’t feel it. You have domestic services that fulfill all the things that those companies do with added censorship. But if you can see clearly from both inside and outside the firewall, you can’t ignore its effects.