Accessing the Internet in China

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So much has been made of the Great Chinese Firewall and the reports of the government blocking portions of the Internet, I wasn't sure what to expect in terms of browsing from China. Turns out my normal surfing habits must be reasonably close to government expectations. This must either mean I'm really boring or those activist types in the U.S. are in a huff about the Chinese internet because they are too lazy to look for serious problems closer to their own backyards. I know there are taboo topics in China, but I was frequently surprised by things I would consider offensive that are readily available in stores. For instance, all the graphic photos are still in The Rape of Nanking (the book title referencing both abuses to the city and its people), which might be because it makes Japan look bad but still seemed out of character considering the lynch mob mentality surrounding improper treatment of Chinese women by foreigners - I digress.

In the normal course of my daily usage, I found exactly three sites I couldn't get to. Blogspot.com seemed to have intermittent outages - no loss there, I'm still of the opinion Google's free blogging service is one of the biggest spam portals on the Internet. Technorati was inaccessible during my entire stay in China, which likely means it's blocked outright - will the Chinese people really miss all those search results clogged with Blogspot spam blogs? And Wikipedia wasn't available when I wanted to find out some additional information about one of the sections of the Great Wall - it's a rare day when I find info on Wikipedia that isn't also available in a hundred other places, so I'm not convinced that's really preventing the dissemination of information.

Another surprise about accessing stuff online was my ability to login over RDC to my computer at home. Had I really needed to access blocked sites, I could have used my home connection as a proxy (and I did once or twice to ego search on Technorati). I had made contingency plans to bring anything digital I might need with me, just in case I couldn't get in. Turns out all the digital comforts of home were still right where I need them - at home. My favorite coffee shop in Seattle blocks RDC usage so in my book that's a win for the Chinese government.

I'm sure people living in China can site hundreds of examples to trump my three, but I can only base my information on my own habits, not someone else's. I can't say with 100% certainty that these sites were blocked, but consistent lack of access suggests they must be. Firefox and Internet Explorer both displayed their standard 'This page cannot be displayed' message so there's really no verification. Comcast brings me that same message on an almost daily basis, without the predictability of knowing what information produces failure, so in which case am I really worse off? At least if I know which actions result in failure I can learn how to adapt or route around to achieve a desirable result. There is of course a much more complicated political issue surrounding free speech, but here I'm referring only to the (in)convenience of trying to locate useful information online.

Firefox error in China

Television is a completely different matter - when the government doesn't want something on screen it just goes black. I didn't turn on the television very often in China, but I did watch CNN after hearing from Lee LeFever that some portions of coverage of the 30th anniversary of Mao's death were being censored. There was a particular woman who got censored every time she came on so I can only make wild guesses at what was being said. The tone of the coverage in general didn't seem particularly biased either against or in favor of Mao.

Which brings me to something else that surprised me a little. I couldn't find any local events that would suggest the country was acknowledging the anniversary of Mao's passing. I walked by the Mausoleum in Tiananmen where Mao is on display and it looked just like it did on any other day. There was a bigger deal made on the 30th anniversary of the JFK shooting here in the U.S. Before I get tons of hate mail, I'm not comparing JFK and Mao, but both men do have a distinctive cult of personality and JFK is the only other world leader I can think of with a fairly recent death milestone. The only noteworthy event that took place while walking across the square was haggling with a peddler who wanted to sell me a Chinese/English version of Mao's infamous little red book of quotations. There seems to be at least an 80 RMB window of price flexibility as long as you know just a little of the language. I couldn't help feeling a sense of irony in negotiating to a market price for that particular work.

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I am just back from traveling to China, myself. The BBC web site, both entertainment and news, is the most annoying thing that you will find blocked. The filter also blocks on keywords, so some sites that might seem innocuous will show "page not found". A bit more subtle, but if you do some searches you will notice filtered results on Google and Yahoo!. I won't mention the terms, but I am sure that you know what they are.

Just remember during your trip to "ton cha", enjoy the tea. ;-)