I was first introduced to Google when I was fifteen years old. Using a friend’s VPN account, the six bright-colored letters representing the forbidden side of the internet slowly unfolded in front of my eyes. By “slowly” I meant it— the VPN connection significantly slowed down the internet speed, and it took almost a minute for the search result to load.
The first contact with the “free world” was the opposite of transformative. I was greeted by a whole page of English texts incomprehensible to my fifteen-year-old self, accompanied by images still-loading because of the slow internet speed. The font was much smaller and uglier than that of Baidu’s—Google’s Chinese counterpart. Confused and irritated, I closed the tab.
The experience of growing up under heavy internet censorship is one I often have to explain to people about since coming to Canada. No, there was no access to Facebook or Instagram. No Youtube or New York Times or Spotify or Netflix. The only way of accessing “the other side of the internet” was through Virtual Private Networks (VPN), most of which were either expensive or illegal in China.
This is typically the moment where the other person asks: “How does it feel to live under such censorship?” The answer is that one feels absolutely no difference at all. When you grow up not having something, you don’t look for it. Why register for that Facebook account when all of your friends are using WeChat? Why put up with the 3KB/second VPN speed, when Baidu has the answer of almost everything you need to know? Most of my classmates back in China knew that Google and the New York Times existed. They just found them irrelevant.
At this point, the other person would normally start nodding, with a look of half-unbelievability and half-confusion on their face. After two years of studying history in Pearson, and after many conversations with friends, I realized that people who had never lived under propaganda and censorship often had trouble understanding them. Namely, how could someone believe in something so stupid and blatantly untrue? Doesn’t the common sense prevail in the end? Underneath all these was a still bigger question: Would I have done better if I were put in the situation?
Unfortunately, two and a half centuries after Thomas Paine wrote Common Sense, common sense remains dead. And we have killed him.