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.