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 google.cn were now simply re-routed to google.com.hk.

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.




7 comments:

Gebeleizis said...

Interesting and informative article. I am really looking forward to see wether China is going to change her internet policy in the near future :).

Ji Xiang said...

Thanks!

I hope China will start to unblock foreign websites soon, but I doubt it, since the trend is in the opposite direction.

In my opinion the people who run China will not change their attitude unless they are put under serious pressure to do so.

As long as the average Chinese is busy using Chinese websites like Baidu and Weibo, and unaware of the problem, I doubt things will change.

Wukailong said...

Great post! I worked in China between 2006 and 2011 so I witnessed the whole Google saga upfront, from when it was considered one of the coolest places to work until its "downfall", so to speak. On the one hand, I certainly don't think it's a great thing that the search engine is blocked, for the reasons you mentioned, on the other hand I think it's probably not going to backfire any time yet.

Are you unable to access Gmail at all without a VPN? It started behaving erratically back in 2010 and it was one of the strangest blocks I've seen. It would work every once in a while, then all of a sudden it would stop, then it would be back to service again. I think the purpose was to pretend it was a technical issue.

One of my brothers has visited China several times, and in 2008, he just said that "China's internet is handicapped." :-)

I don't think the internet policies are going to change anytime soon. I do believe an opening will come in 10-20 years based on demographics, the education level going up and a more affluent population.

Have you considered writing a post about the greatest misunderstandings about China in the West? My favorite is the one about "why isn't China's middle class more opposed to the government?" My usual retort is that, despite 30 years of development, China simply doesn't have much of a middle class yet. In the year 2020 the urbanization rate is projected to be at 60%. How can a country have a sizable middle class when over 40% live in agricultural settings? I'm sure the middle class will grow and possibly be in a majority in 2020, so that's when the question should be asked. But then things will probably be much different.

Sorry about the rant, but there aren't many good blogs about China out there. I'll definitely come back here.

Ji Xiang said...

Thanks Wukailong. Please do return regurarly!

To answer your question, it has now become impossible to access Gmail at all, as with Google.

On China's middle class, I suppose you are right that they are a much smaller proportion of the whole population than in a Western country. Having said that, they are the ones who could push for change. The peasants are already not fond of the government, but they are powerless to do anything. Consider also that statistics on who how many people live in the countryside are dubious, because they may include a lot of people with a rural hukou who actually spend most of the year slaving away in a big city.

I think the issue is that most of China's middle class basically believes some of the CCP's propaganda lines, for example that China has too many people to be a successful democracy, that if you try and subvert the government you are doing the bidding of the foreign powers who want to undermine China's rise etc.....

I will definitely write a post on this issue sometime soon.

FOARP said...

I was in China from the start of 2003 to the end of 2007, so I got to see the start of the all pervading censorship on the internet.

As hard as it is to believe now, before 2006 blocking was performed manually and erratically. If you wanted to fly under the radar back in those days, you could do so for months or even years even if you were talking all Tibet/Taiwan/Tiananmen, all the time.

Since blocking was being done manually, not automatically, someone would have to actively bring your blog to the attention of the authorities for you to get blocked. If your blog was blocked, it was trivial to get around it by simply changing up the address.

This isn't to say that it couldn't be irksome - foreign news websites would sometimes be blocked for months with no explanation, though you could get around this with a simple proxy. Services like Yahoo would simply become unavailable for months, perhaps only in a certain region of China, with no explanation or understandable region.

Then in 2007, automatic, key-word-based censorship came in, and blogs and websites dropped like flies. People talk about how dead the Sin-Blogosphere has become, for me that's when the decline happened. Depressing.

I left China shortly after that, but I was on twitter for the #FuckGFW back-lash every time a new escalation of the war against freedom on the Chinese internet. Nowadays that seems to have delcined into a kind of apathy though.

China now is distinctly less free than it was pre-2006. The complete opposite of what almost everyone (including myself) thought would happen as recently as 2004-5.

FOARP said...

Man, so many typos in the above! Remind me not to post whilst hung-over again.

Ji Xiang said...

@FOARP:

Interesting addition. I visited China for the first time in 2004. I didn't use the internet nearly as much as I do now, but I don't remember any great problems connecting to sites.

When it comes to blogs, the real issue seems to be that providers like Blogspot and Wordpress have been blocked in their entirety. I am not really aware of blogs getting censored automatically because of certain key words, although I don't doubt it happens too. The decline in the Sino-blogosphere might be related to the general decline in blogging, although so many blogs being unavailable from the Mainland certainly contributes.

On the other hand, I don't think this is really a case of China being less free since you were here. It's more that censorship of the internet has just gotten more sophisticated. China's laws and its treatment of dissent is no more repressive now than it was ten years ago, as far as I can see.