Thursday, July 31, 2014

A Censorship Diary: how China cut itself off from the World Wide Web

It is relatively well known throughout the world that the Chinese government censors the internet to its pleasure, and that a number of important foreign websites are blocked in China. What is perhaps not so widely realized is that the censorship of foreign websites has got considerably worse over the last five to six years, the time during which I have lived in China. 

When I first got to China, in September 2008, the Beijing Olympics had just ended. To make a good impression with all the foreign journalists and visitors who descended on the Chinese capital for the games, important foreign websites had all been made accessible. It seems amazing now, but Facebook, You Tube and Twitter were all freely navigable from anywhere in China. At the time I wondered what all the fuss over China's "Great Firewall" was about.

Then in March 2009, the Chinese authorities decided to block You Tube. It was reported at the time that the site was blocked because someone had uploaded a "fake" video of a Chinese policeman killing Tibetan protesters. It's not like they just blocked that particular video. The whole of You Tube was made inaccessible from anywhere in Mainland China. I quickly learned how to download and use a VPN proxy server to get around the censorship, something which I had never done before. 

Shortly afterwards, Blogspot was also blocked in China, meaning that I had to switch on my VPN every time I wanted to update this blog. That summer I went back home on holiday, and when I returned to China in August, I found that Facebook had been blocked as well. Apparently this decision was taken following the unrest in Xinjiang that July. Quite unsurprisingly, groups in support of Xinjiang's independence had sprung up on Facebook, just as you would expect for any conflict anywhere in the world. 

Even less surprisingly, the folks at China's Ministry of the Interior, or wherever else these decisions are taken, reacted with all the subtlety and sophistication they are known for, and simply blocked access to the whole of the world's most popular social networking site. They also blocked access to the whole of the internet for almost a year over the entire territory of Xinjiang, a province as big as Western Europe.

Twitter was also blocked in China around this time, but not being a Twitter user I never really noticed. The situation stayed more or less the same for a few years, with Facebook, You Tube and Blogspot the only major sites I visit regularly to be blocked. Google's exit from the Chinese market in 2010 didn't really make much difference, as searches for were now simply re-routed to

Then in January this year they decided to block the Guardian, my newspaper of choice. This was in response to them publishing a piece accusing relatives of Xi Jinping, Wen Jiabao and other top leaders of transferring money to offshore havens. As always, the Chinese government makes a big deal of its anti-corruption campaigns and openly admits that corruption is a huge problem (since denials would simply be considered laughable by its own people), but it draws a line at any accusations against its top leaders. 

At a briefing on this topic, a Foreign Ministry spokesman had this to say: "I am not aware of the specific circumstances. From the point of view of readers, the logic of some of the related articles is unconvincing, and it leads people to suspect the intentions behind it."(1) So now the Guardian has become part of the eternal conspiracy by the "foreign powers", who want to sow instability and prevent China's "peaceful rise".

In the meantime, access to Google was also becoming increasingly erratic. And then a couple of months ago, even Google and all of its related services (including gmail) were blocked for good. It is now almost impossible for me to do anything meaningful on the internet without using a VPN. My favourite newspaper, Google, my gmail adress, my blog, Facebook and You Tube are all inaccessible without one, hidden behind the great firewall. 

It may be noticed that the advent of the new Xi Jinping - Li Keqiang leadership in November 2012 has not been followed up by a relaxation of the censorship, but in fact quite the opposite. China has now become a country where the casual foreign visitor who doesn't have a VPN feels pretty much cut off from the World Wide Web, or at least the part of it which matters. For a country which wants to present itself as increasingly open and international, this is a huge paradox, and extremely self-defeating.

If nothing else, I hope that blocking Google will backfire. Facebook and You Tube were never really that widely used by Chinese people, who prefer their own social networking and video-sharing sites (which are of course controlled and censored). Most Chinese users also prefer Baidu to Google, but Google is still pretty much essential to search for anything foreign (Baidu's servers just aren't up to standard when it comes to foreign websites).  For many young people and companies, not being able to access Google will be a problem. The use of VPNs may shoot up as a result, at least among the young and educated, making the whole exercise self-defeating.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Chinese sympathy for Israel

So another round of the eternal Arab-Israeli conflict is upon us, and all over the Western world people with nothing better to do are arguing about it over the internet. But how do people feel about it in China?

Here in the Middle Kingdom, most people do not seem to care very much about what is going on in Israel and Gaza. Media reports have been subdued and neutral in tone. The plane crash in the Ukraine attracted far more interest among the Chinese public, perhaps because it was the same airline which had already lost a plane in the Indian Ocean with hundreds of Chinese passengers on board. On my Wechat feed, I have seen various Chinese acquaintances post comments on the plane crash, some of them blaming Malaysia or wondering if Russia is responsible, but I have not seen a single Wechat contact post anything on the events in the Middle East. 

If you search the word "Israel" on Weibo, China's equivalent of Facebook (it often gets referred to as China's Twitter, but I think it has more in common with Facebook), some posts on the issue by random Chinese netizens do appear. What is striking is that a majority of them have a pro-Israeli tone.

Here as some random ones which popped up (the word in red, 以色列,means Israel):

听风灌雨以色列建国时,并未驱逐巴勒斯坦阿拉伯人,留下的也不少。逃难的巴人有相当一部分是被参战的阿拉伯国家忽悠了。事后,这些国家又不允许难民融入本国。//@古筝-赵勃楠: 是太太奇怪了。沙特那一大堆,东南亚一大堆伊斯兰教国家,这么多兄弟都不肯接纳巴勒斯坦兄弟?

This one is in reply to a post about Palestinian refugees. It says "When Israel was created, it actually didn't drive out the Palestinian Arabs, many of them remained. Some of the Palestinian refugees were conned by the warring Arab countries. After the event, these countries didn't even allow the refugees to integrate into their countries." The post it is replying to says "It's so strange. Huge Saudi Arabia and all the South East Asian Muslim countries, are they all unwilling to take in their Palestinian brothers?"

我重新出发也@申点启: 巴平民死亡是哈马斯需要的,不是以色列需要的。以色列是误杀,哈马斯是谋杀。以色列克制,所以巴勒斯坦平民才会死得这么少。

This one says "the deaths among the Palestinians civilians are needed by Hamas, not by Israel. Israel kills by accident, Hamas murders. Israel exercises restraint, and that is why so few Palestinian civilians are dying."


"If the Palestinians had the advantage, there is no doubt what the conclusion would be: all the Jews would become feed for the fish in the Mediterranean. Israel has killed 710 people, but it could have killed 100.000 times more. Where is the good and where is the evil? Israel could receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Support Israel!"

To be very fair, not all the posts are pro-Israeli in their tone. There are also some berating Israel for killing innocent people, and the US for supporting it. Since I first looked a few days ago, the anti-Israeli posts seemed to have increased, I suppose as more and more news of Palestinian civilians being killed comes in.

Last year's meeting between the Israeli and Chinese delegations on the occasion of Netanyahu's visit to China.

All the same, the general sentiment among the few Chinese who even take an interest in such matters is certainly far more pro-Israeli than in Europe. The reasons are varied. The urban Chinese populace generally has a positive image of Jews. The one thing they will immediately tell you about Jews is that they are all "very intelligent". Jews have a reputation for being smart, hard-working, and yes, good at business too, but that is not seen as a bad thing. Everyone has heard that lots and lots of important Western scientists and cultural figures are Jewish.

Furthermore, the Chinese have a certain respect and admiration for anything seen to be 厉害. 厉害 (lìhai) can be translated as "terrific, powerful, formidable". The word implies no moral judgement whatsoever. It simply expresses admiration for someone or something that can get things done and achieve their goals. After the 11th of September incident, many Chinese were describing Bin Laden as 厉害. Currently you can hear many Chinese praising Putin for being a really 厉害 leader for Russia.

Well to the Chinese, Israel is clearly very 厉害. One day a bunch of Jewish refugees decided to get their act together, created a country from scratch, and decided that from that day on nobody was messing with them. In spite of being tiny and surrounded by enemies they have thrived and turned their country into a modern economy which has created many technological innovations and high-tech start-ups, as well as keeping all of their enemies at bay (the book "Start up Nation" ha been translated into Chinese, to a certain success I believe). To the Chinese, all this may be right or wrong, but it is clearly 厉害. And that commands respect, and suggests that the Chinese might be able to learn something from this country.

All this creates an environment where people are open to hearing the Israeli side of the story. There is also another factor which has only come about recently: it seems like some Chinese might be identifying more with Israel after the recent wave of terrorist attacks around China supposedly committed by Muslim terrorists from Xinjiang. These attacks have not improved the image of Islam in China, a religion few Chinese know much about. There are quite a few posts on Weibo making the connection between fighting Hamas and fighting Xinjiang terrorism. 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Capital in the North is back!

The Capital in the North is back! After not having been able to post anything in my blog for months due to a problem with my VPN software, I have finally found a free Chinese VPN which works a lot better. Chinese firewall, suck on this.

For those of you who live in China and haven't got a good VPN yet, you should really try 自由门. It's working for me.

On the topic of VPNs, I have just discovered quite a neat protest song by Hong Kong singer Alan Tam, which was inspired by the protest of 1989. It's called 你知我知 (you know and I know). The lyrics only reference the events of '89 and Chinese politics in an oblique fashion, as is the Chinese style. The song is censored in Baidu. A search for the song's name brings up the message 搜索结果可能涉及不符合相关法律法规和政策的内容,未予显示 (the search results might contain content which doesn't conform to the relevant laws and policies, so they are not displayed)...

Here is the video:

And here are the Chinese lyrics:

眼中的意思 腦海火熨構思
敲出野性拍子 你雖不發一言
我雖不發一言 你知我知
你心中句子 我心中句子
沖擊我倆四肢 這天終結之前
有幾多遍痴纏 你知我知



I'll translate them into English as soon as I have the time.