04
Jul
2009

Observations & Insights Of A Blog Blocked By China’s Great Firewall

logo-chinayouren-ulnWeekly Review: With the brand-spanking new Daily Reviews I’m now doing every…er, two days, I’m going to do something new with this week’s Weekly Review by featuring a series of four posts over the past week all by Spanish/English language blogger ULN of the CHINAYOUREN China blog (yes, all CAPS, for extra emphasis). These four posts tell an epic tale of frustration, hope, disappointment, and ultimately acceptance (or resignation):

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CHINAYOUREN Blocked

So guess what now:  I am blocked.

I am banned, prohibited, harmonized, river-crabbed. Censored, in short, by the Great FireWall of China. If you are reading my blog now and have not noticed anything strange, it is because either:

1- You are reading the blog from outside China and therefore you are not going through the GFW (Chinayouren is hosted outside China, you are on the same side of the Wall). Or else,  2- You are reading this from mainland China and you are using some means to connect anonymously and pass through the wall. Most probably a web proxy or  VPN, which is what I am using now.

So, just to get this clear: my website works normally, there is no change at all in the blog itself, since the server is out of the reach of Chinese authorities. The only thing that is happening here is that the GFW is preventing users in China to access my domain. You can read more on how this works here.

I know this was bound to happen some day, and I though it would be funny, and it would make me proud in a way, because not every blog is important enough to be censored. But no, it is not funny at all. Although I can easily connect and write using my VPN, the 50% of my readers that are based in China can not do it so easily (actually they can, but they will not bother, I know this very well because I have been in that situation before and I also got lazy with blocked blogs).

There is of course an added point that makes the GFW censorship extremely annoying: it does not officially exist.This means that there is nowhere I can go to complain, and if I do find my way to the relevant government office, nobody will admit to having blocked my content. And what is worse, I have no idea of how serious their block is, or how long it will last, which makes it very difficult to find a solution. Why? Because if I pay the money and waste the time to move to a different host, I have no guarantee that I will not be blocked there the very same week.  Or  worse still, that the censors decide to unblock my original site just when I had paid the fee for the new host…

As you’ll notice, I’ve gone ahead and reprinted the entire text of these posts for the convenience of our readers who aren’t inclined to twiddle with VPNs and proxies to get to ULN’s GFW’ed blog.

Censorship is a popular China topic, and for good reason: it affects just about everyone, and perhaps most poignantly for foreigners who have a larger frame of reference than local Chinese who have never or experienced, er, better.

GFW 1st July: Waiting for my Anonymous saviours…

So OK, I am censored, but why NOW?

I mean, I haven’t been writing anything for ages, is the Propaganda Department punishing me for being lazy? Has some big Chinese BBS  linked to me recently, is Uln hot now? As I was looking around for an answer, I found out that the Peking Duck blog was blocked more or less at the same time as mine, and it was asking the same kind of questions.

That is when I got this idea of the LIST, which I wrote on their comments. Everyone knows that GFW is unpredictable, it starts and stops and nobody ever knows why, if you don’t believe me look at this funny chronology. But this random behaviour usually affects only some websites, and never touches others. So necessarily, the guys at the GFW Control Deck are working with a number of websites that have been shortlisted beforehand.

I am quite sure of the existence of this LIST, because I noticed very precisely the moment my blog was shortlisted. It happened earlier this year with that political post that was picked by the New York Times. Since then I had strange things happening, with miniblocks now and then, a perceived slower speed loading in China, and, of course that particular Charter08 post has been blocked ever since (even as the rest of the blog remained open). Also, look at that weird comment in Chinese in that post, where the guy says I am interfering in China’s internal affairs… could be a troll. Or could be not.

Anyway, my guess is that this blog and the PKD’s block have probably nothing to do with our recent activity, but rather with the tense atmosphere in the censors office these last weeks, after the Green Dam fiasco and the Google affair. At some point someone must have said: “hey, let’s block some more sites”, and we were unfortunately the next names on the LIST. And, unlike Google, I am afraid sites speaking specifically of politics are blocked permanently, such as this one, or this one. I hardly imagine the censors taking the trouble to monitor our blogs every day to see if we are behaving better. So my guess is, both for me and for PKD, that the block is here to stay and there is no solution.

… or perhaps there is?

You might have seen this manifesto of the Anonymous Netizens,  found on the RConversation blog. They promise some action on the 1st of July.  I like the document, it is well written and, unlike other efforts, it is very clever in that it sticks to its objective and doesn’t try to change the World from zero. It doesn’t ring very Chinese to me thoughLook at these 2 extracts (but if you got time read it all):

For the freedom of the Internet, for the advancement of Internetization, and for our rights, we are going to acquaint your censorship machine with systematic sabotage and show you just how weak the claws of your censorship really are …  You are trying in vain to halt the wheels of history. Even with your technocratic reinforcements, you will not understand the Internet in the foreseeable future

….

NOBODY wants to topple your regime. We take no interest whatsoever in your archaic view of state power and your stale ideological teachings. You do not understand how your grand narrative dissipated in the face of Internetization. You do not understand why appealing to statism and nationalism no longer works. You cannot break free from your own ignorance of the Internet. Your regime is not our enemy. We are not affiliated in any way with any country or organization, and we are not waging this war on any country or organization, not even on you. YOU are waging this war on yourself. YOU are digging your own grave through corruption and antagonization.

Perhaps it is just this anarchist instinct of mine, but I find the discourse inspiring, and I hope it makes some noise in China and local netizens here get the message. Because it works well to defeat the old nationalistic shield of the Chinese government against outside critics.

Not that I think the Attack announced on the 1st July is going to change much. These guys are not really Chinese, they are the people at the 4chan bbs, you can read a bit more about them here. They have done some interesting actions before, in particular against the Scientologists, and I am curious to see what is coming on the 1st July.

But however smart the guys are in the West, I am afraid they don’t have a chance in China. It is a completely different playing ground, they have no popular support here and as far as I know their BBS in the West have no links to the Chinese ones here.  I might be wrong, but I have the feeling that this is exclusively a Western initiative, perhaps with the participation of some overseas Chinese.

The thing with Western internet activists is that they seldom realize the massive size of the Chinese internet, and its limited connections with the outside World. We will speak about this some other day, but let me just say that the Chinese internet is an enormous island within the internet, an island that we all know is there and we all now it’s big, but we have no idea of what’s inside or how to get there. Something like Greenland, perhaps.

But I am digressing. I just meant to write: keep an eye on the Anonymous Netizens on the 1st July. They will not overturn the regime, they will not break the GFW or send the Nanny to the retirement home where she belongs. But they might -they just *might* – manage to ridicule the Chinese censors and expose them enough for all the Chinese to see what a bunch of incompetents they have in that Department. And how efficiently they are destroying the image of China in the World, and causing the country to loose face by the hectare.

And then perhaps someone in that office will decide that, after all, Chinayouren is not noxious for a harmonious society. Until then, I remain, blocked.

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We mentioned the Declaration of the Anonymous Netizens thing earlier this week as well and it really was quite inspiring. The English translation (or version) was also far too inspiring to have been written by the average disgruntled Chinese netizen either, so ULN’s suspicions and muted enthusiasm that it was the work of outsiders rather than insiders is fairly appropriate. I’m not so sure about there being a “LIST” of sites waiting to be blocked, but who really knows why this or that site gets blocked?

ULN elaborates on his “China internet is an island within the internet” idea with his next post:

The War of the Internets

So there you are. July 1st passed without any major incident and the famous Anonymous Netizens didn’t show up. I am as blocked as ever and the Nutty Nannies of China are still running loose on the web, unimpressed by the headless suit .

I cannot say it is a surprise, frankly the chances of anything significant happening were one in a wan*. As I said in a previous post, these anonymous Netizens are not Chinese, but Western, from the mostly American chan boards, in particular chan888 (no link here, I have enough trouble as it is with the GFW to get me the hackers as well). These guys surely had some Chinese to advise them, but the initialive looks entirely Western, and the style was very similar to their -quite succesful- attacks on Scientology.

There are at least 2 reasons why their attack on the Chinese censors was destined to be a failure: In the first place, China is not a website that you can hack, it is country, and pretty massive at that. You could manage to confuse the GFW for a while with some coordinated attacks, but that would not change the – mostly offline – internal censorship of Chinese websites, which is what really matters here.

Secondly, the kind of attacks that the Anonymous do are not applicable in China, because they are based on giving negative publicity to the victim. But this country is already such an accomplished expert in creating PR trouble for itself, and in the most prominent media in the World, that one occasional attack by hackers, no matter how succesful, would hardly make any difference.

The China Internet Isle

But there is one fundamental reason why these Western initiated internet attacks have no hope to succeed here. The internet is a very powerful tool of social mobilisation, but only through the voluntary participation of the netizens in one community. The power lies not on the web itself, nor on its pirates, but on the millions of users that get connected for a common cause.

Let me remind you here of that misunderstanding that got my blog blocked in the first place: A famous New York newspaper took me for a Chinese hero fighting for Liberty, and then the censors of China agreed with it. Following that glorious moment of Chinayouren, I got some fellow fighters offering all sorts of contributions to the cause, such as banners to hang on websites. You can see some in the comments here .

It became clear to me then the little awareness in the West of the meaning of the Chinese internet. The Chinese internet is not only the single largest national community of netizens, it is also a largely isolated island, with very few connections with the outside World compared to its size.

Partly for language reasons, partly because of the GFW, but I guess mostly because of cultural differences, the Chinese live on a parallel dimension of the web. They don’t use the facebooks, or Youtubes, or Yahoo news, or IRC chats. They have their own means to communicate on the internet, and this largely excludes interaction with people outside China.

And that is where the problem comes. It is the same situation for a company seeking to advertise itself on the Chinese internet as for a social movement who tries to push its way here: you need to be inside the island to have any impact. You need to understand the Chinese and they need to be part of your idea, and only when the wans of Chinese feel that this movement belongs to them, only then the internet can become the most terrible of weapons.

So yes, I do think the internet has still its last word to say in China. But I am pretty sure that when this happens, it will be a Chinese initiative.

*I coined this the other day. Wan is 10,000 in Chinese. And yes, I find it hilarious.

Yes, July 1st came and went and nothing happened. The gold of this post, however, is ULN’s incisive observations about China’s internet, its internet microcosm, and attempts to effect change on it from the outside. There are a lot of people who understand this, largely through their own observations and experiences in China. Rebecca MacKinnon is perhaps the most popular and credentialed of this group, in trying to dispel some of the popular misconceptions of how internet censorship is actually done in China. Unfortunately but understandably, far more people do not actually understand and ULN’s post does a good job of raising some of these nuanced points that are usually oversimplified or overlooked.

However, I’m personally not so sure the main reason the Chinese “live on a parallel dimension of the web” is cultural differences, and I don’t see ULN trying to explain what those “cultural differences” are or how they contribute to this “parallel dimension” any more than cultural differences separate the netizens of other countries from each other. Instead, I still think language is the largest factor influence the interaction (or lack of interaction) between one nation’s netizens and another’s.

Crossing the GFW (excerpted)

This week I had some interesting conversations on other blogs, mostly regarding my state of internet blockdom and the possible actions that a webmaster can take to solve this problem. I will share here some conclusions that might be of interest.

Just to make sure we don’t forget anything, I will go first over the most obvious points:

1- If you are any kind of commercial undertaking, or if you depend on your site for a living, please pay attention to what you publish. Sites in English have quite some leeway to publish political content, but the bigger you get the tighter the line will be, and any kind of political activism can get you down.

2- The worst position is when you are big enough to attract the censors attention, but small enough to be insignificant in the general scheme of the internet. Say the BBC gets blocked: this makes a lot of noise, and eventually the Chinese government feels the pressure to reopen it. Inversely, if you stay small enough, you will never be blocked regardless of what you write. When you are in the middle, like these sites, the risk is biggest.

3- Finally, if you are already blocked, you can try your luck at 9 Dongdajie, Qianmen, Beijing, as a commentator suggested (this is the address of the Beijing Public Security Bureau) or any official body of your choice. I have no experience with this, and I am very skeptical about the results, but it is not impossible that the legal system works once in a while. We have seen stranger things in China.

Getting through the block

Once you have gone through the points above and decided that none applies to you, here are the typical solutions for users to get through the Wall. There are many of them, so I will just list the most well known, such as: lists of free web proxies, ad-supported or fee-based VPNs, networks like Tor or activist software like Freegate.

I will not go over each of these because you can find lots of information on the internet already, but I have tried a few of them and they all more or less do the trick: you can open in China sites that have been blocked by the GFW. These solutions are well known to the Chinese netizens users, as you can see in this Chinese blog which has even more options, such as giving a SSH number and code to your users.

So, you might think, what’s the big deal with the Great FWall? It is full of wholes big enough for a whole horde of Mongols, like it’s always been.

You are right, and yet, the GFW is a powerful system. For anyone who had a website blocked, it is very easy to see the impact on the stats of incoming hits from China. Depending on your size and content, it can be down to a 25%, and if you remain blocked for some time, chances are most readers will not find their way back to you. My guess: a mixture of laziness, hi-tech aversion, and the excess of info flowing on the net means that a missing site is quickly forgotten, and nobody goes through the trouble of opening a proxy for you.

Another possible solution for the block is the use of RSS feeds, which are not stopped by the GFW. The problem of course, is that for people to subscribe to your feed, normally they need to find your site first, and direct searches or even linking sites that hit a reset connection will not bring them over to you, in most cases.

ULN’s fourth post touches upon some more practical aspects of how GFW blocks affect the website operators/bloggers, their audience, and shapes the mentality of internet users living under it. The GFW indeed isn’t meant to perfectly censor information as much as it is meant to discourage people from seeking that information by simply making access to that information more costly in technical knowledge, effort, or time. The GFW isn’t meant to stamp out dissent or activists or “minorities with ulterior motives”, the GFW is meant to interfere with their ability to disseminate information and assemble mass support. It plays on the fact that while the masses can be easily excited with the right leader, ideology, or cause, their attention spans are also quite short and mere curiosity is easily derailed.

ULN’s point that small websites usually go unnoticed and large websites are too big to fail be blocked for long is also pretty spot on. Unfortunately, there really isn’t an English-language China blog that is big enough or, more importantly, critical enough to Chinese internet users to qualify as being too disruptive to block for long. The Huffington Post, arguably one of the largest blogs in the world remains blocked to this day. It even seems that Danwei, the old stalwart and one of the largest English-language China blogs, was recently blocked, having been inaccessible since Friday afternoon.

So what can you do? What can you do when you don’t even know why you or anything was blocked?

Welcome to China’s internet, buy a hoody:

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Hear more from ULN by subscribing to his RSS feeds: “http://www.chinayouren.com/feed” (Spanish) or “http://www.chinayouren.com/eng/feed” (English). You’ll need to copy these URLs and manually enter then into your RSS reader (i.e. Google Reader).

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