China has banned Scratch, the world’s most popular coding platform for children. Scratch was developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US. The program has nearly 60 million users worldwide. Close to 6% of them are based in China. At present, the Scratch website and platforms are no longer available to users based in China. Children who already have an account can still use it offline.
Number One Free Coding Software for Children
Anyone with school-aged children will agree: Scratch is a fantastic platform for children to learn how to code. The program was launched in 2006 by Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the MIT Media Lab in the US. Scratch is available for free in more than 50 different languages, thanks to the financial support of a string of organizations, such as the National Science Foundation, Lego Education, Google, and Beijing-based education and technology company Tal.
The visual computer programming language is easy for beginners to use, hence its popularity in schools and other educational settings. Basically, children can arrange blocks into scripts to create their own interactive games, animations and stories. It’s an ideal platform to learn about the logic of programming and to begin the process of learning how to code. Following this exposure, passing to a programming language such as Java, C++ or Python should be a more natural process.
Since its inception, the Scratch user base has grown rapidly, from a few million in mainly the US and the UK, to nearly 60 million worldwide. Modern day “scratchers” are mostly between 8 and 16 years old. 45% of them are girls. Younger children can use a simplified version of Scratch, called Scratch Junior. At last count, 5.65% of Scratch’s registered users live in China. Scratch has been included in primary school’s information technology text books in China and there are also many coding competitions using Scratch.
“Content that insults China”
The first rumors of a ban started in mid-August, when some noticed that their children could no longer access the Scratch website. Greatfire.org, a non-profit organization that monitors the status of websites censored by the Great Firewall of China and helps Chinese users circumvent blockages, has reported that the website was 100% blocked as early as 20 August.
The reason for blocking Scratch is, apparently, the “large amount of demeaning, fake and defamatory content about China”. K618.cn, a Chinese news portal dedicated to teens and children, provides more details. “Firstly, any user can publish work and comments on the open source platform, but this gives them no right to fabricate rumors that discredit China! Secondly, Scratch is a universal platform with its own rules, but this does not mean it should condone content that challenges China’s values and political system. Thirdly, when users register, the Scratch platform lists China, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan as countries. How can this be explained?”
It is suspected that China has a problem with this last point in particular, namely the country that users can choose after installing the software. Hong Kong and Macau are special administrative regions of China. Furthermore, the People’s Republic regards Taiwan as a province that is part of the “indivisible China”. In reality, however, Taiwan was governed by China only for a very brief period of time from 1887 to 1895. After her landslide re-election win in January this year, the current president of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-Wen, emphasized that “the Republic of China (Taiwan’s official name) is an independent state and does not want to be part of the People’s Republic of China”.
It is not clear yet if the ban is meant to be permanent. At the moment, Chinese users who already have an account, can use it offline. But this means they no longer have access to the many projects and code samples in the online version. Also, access to the forums is blocked.
An option for people who want to register and/or use Scratch online, is to circumvent the blockage by using a VPN to hide their IP address and stay anonymous when online. You can read more about this in our article “Bypass the Chinese firewall”. However, the Chinese government officially banned “unauthorized” VPNs in 2017 and continues to block them. This means many VPNs no longer work in China. Over the years, there have also been numerous reports of Chinese VPN distributors being arrested.
If the ban is indeed permanent, Chinese children and their parents do not have many other options. At the moment, mainly foreign platforms are being used. Fortunately for some, Scratch is open source. This means the source code (version 2.0) is available on, for example, GitHub. This will likely drum up efforts to create and further develop local alternatives. Codemao, for example, a Shenzhen start-up that quickly gained a footprint in 21 countries, has already created a set of coding tools, including Kitten, a coding language inspired by Scratch. Another China-based emerging player that develops Scratch-based software is Makeblock. Scratch 3.0 was launched in January 2019.