Blogs » Ni Howdy - Chinese for Texans » The Server Is Not Responding - Internet Censorship


Looks like Victoria is in for a rainy Sunday today. Knowing a little bit about local rainfall over the last year, I guess that is not bad news. I am sitting in my office on a cool and sunny morning, planning the last few details of my upcoming two week holiday. I am leaving Linyi this afternoon for Shanghai, where I will meet up with my Spanish sister-in-law for some shopping. Later we'll fly down to southern China, meet up with my husband (I call him DH for dear hubby on blogs) and enjoy a relaxing weekend on the Li river. Then we will spend the next 5 days in Hong Kong/Macau. Hong Kong might very well be my favorite city in the world so I am excited.

I am notoriously terrible at blogging while traveling. I can't seem to slow myself down long enough to write coherently, but I will try to post here and there. (Both on Vicad and my main blog.)

Today I planned on blogging about driving and car ownership in Linyi, but with my recent Internet access difficulties and the discovery this morning that some of my favorite blogs have been blocked, I thought a little discussion on censorship might be timely. A disclaimer - I have completed a Master's of Library Science and in my ideal world there would be open and transparent access to all types of information, whether in a library, online or from the government. I oppose censorship of ALL viewpoints, (i.e. whether I agree or not, all viewpoints must be represented.)

Some background on the technology behind Internet censorship would be valuable here, and my friend James Fallows has an excellent, laymen friendly article in the Atlantic Monthly on the subject. I won't reinvent the wheel, but I will summarize like this: a sophisticated computer router listens in on all traffic coming and going from China, looking for keywords or specific URLs and IP addresses to block. We call this system the "Great Firewall of China" or GFW. The Chinese government calls it the "Golden Shield."

How rampant is Internet censorship in China? You might be surprised to know that for English speakers the censorship is really not that terrible. Annoying, oh yes, is it ever annoying, but to be honest, all the current censorship technologies do is slow me down. I can usually access the information I want, although I will have to employ potentially illegal software and/or Internet proxy web pages to do so. (Visit Alkonym for a peek at what proxy web pages are like.)

The annoying thing about Chinese Internet censorship is the fact that you just never know what's going to happen when you attempt to load a page. Countries like the United Arab Emirates admit freely that they censor web pages. They'll even tell you when you reach a censored page and why it has been blocked, (usually because the content is not compatible with their societal values.) In China, you'll never know. The page will just keep attempting to load or you'll receive a message saying the server didn't respond or that it timed out. One day you might be able to reach a page and the next day not. Some believe that this is in itself an effective censorship tool. If it is annoying enough, maybe you'll stop trying.

The real noticeable censorship happens on Chinese language websites, and usually those originating within the People's Republic. There are two kinds of censorship at play here: first, mandates from the government telling websites to remove or restrict certain information and second, self-censorship from within the private websites, probably out of fear of the government. Typically you'll see this on blogs and forums. Blog posts and forum postings can and will disappear without warning.

Baidu is something like China's Google, offering a search engine as well as access to online communities. Baidu is well known to be one of the leaders in self-censorship. The China Digital Times (an online newspaper that is always blocked) recently published a list of keywords and topics that were banned from Baidu, (and I might not be able to access this post after I hit publish because of this!! hahaha), consisting mostly of politically sensitive words, government sectors (propaganda department, etc.), controversial political leaders, government policies (especially in reference to Fa lun G*ng, a religious movement banned by the PRC after it turned political and Tibet/Taiwan independence), political concepts (especially democracy but also corruption and the communist party) and historical events (such as the infamous Tiananmen Square incident.) This is probably representative of the kinds of subjects broadly censored within China.

Over the years dealing with censorship, I have learned to anticipate highs and lows of it depending on the year. Censorship seems to step up whenever there is an important anniversary, such as this year's 60th anniversary of the "New China's formation" following Mao Zedong's revolutionary triumph over the Kuomintang forces. Things will slow down during the Communist Party's annual congress in Beijing. Any uprising or rioting in Tibet will lead to blockages of YouTube and Western media sites. YouTube has been blocked for months now. Blogspot and Wordpress blogs are blocked off and on, currently on.

Where there is a will, there is a way and the better educated Chinese Internet users will find detours around the censorship, as I have. I believe that the government's aim is to keep information from as many Internet users as possible and to not worry too much about the population who are accessing information but not doing anything with it. For those activists out there who do challenge the status quo, however, the punishment is swift and severe - prison terms, house arrests, confinement in reeducation camps, etc. The risk of punishment is still a pretty good deterrent here. Besides, as a Pew Internet Project study found, the majority of Chinese believe that the government is looking after the best interests of the people by restricting access, an argument I've heard a time or two in other more open societies.

I'll leave you with a promising and subversive anecdote. Some months ago, news of a mythical creature sighting surfaced on the Chinese Internet. The creature was known as a "grass mud horse" and he was sighted in the "Ma La desert" fighting against smaller creatures known as "river crabs." What's so interesting about this? Well, if you speak and/or read Mandarin Chinese, you would know that this is a play on words, laughing at Internet censorship. You see, the characters for "grass, mud and horse" can also be read as something quite obscene, while the characters for "Ma La desert" can be read as something else equally obscene. (Let's just say these are the kind of words that would make a movie "R" rated.) The "river crabs"? They can be read as the word for "harmonization," which is a euphemism often employed by the government to refer to censorship, as in: "The Internet should be harmonized to promote a healthy society." Chinese citizens uploaded children's songs about the grass mud horse and wrote tales of the battles between the horse and crabs. Basically it was like telling the government censors to (insert expletive) off. The government was quick to put down the grass mud horse uprising, however, and now all references to the mythical creature are banned.

The censors have seen fit to allow access to the Victoria Advocate website, but just as a precaution, keep your inflammatory articles on a Fr*e Tibet to an absolute minimum, okay!? ;)