Friday, 2 November 2012

Beijing Day 8 - H5O & the Great Firewall of China

Trying to Peer through the Murky Mist of Great Fire Wall of China of the Chinese Internet and Media Censorship.


Great Fire Wall of China
Jinshanling Great Wall shrouded in mist
After a week of touring Beijing, I finally had a well earned rest. A break from holiday break.

Turned on the TV, and as I channel surfed, my eyes were caught by an episode of H5O (the old Jack Lord series of Hawaii-Five-O. The new series is written as H50, not H5O).

"Déjà vu!" I thought to myself.

I remembered vividly watching H5O (Season 2 or 3) in AXN in another hotel room in HK while I had a break just like today. And wrote a diary entry/post HK Day 4 - Hawaii-Five-O, The Fed & China after the viewing.

Here I'm, in another Fraser Suites hotel room in Beijing, resting, gracing by another episode of H5O Season 4. Once again, the H5O's arch-nemesis Mr. Wo Fat wearing his - supposedly the sinister Fu Manchu - moustache was at it again, up to his usual tricks of attempting to destroy the Free West, especially Uncle Sam. They don't make innocent (or silly depending on your viewpoint) enterainment like that any more.



Media Censorship in China
No, I'm not having another dig at the writer of H5O as I had done in the above linked post. What I'm thinking this time is TV - and media - censorship in PRC. Like many countries, Chinese authority censored films with moral values that they don't like. In addition, they also censored and ban films that paints a negative portrayal of PRC. A good example of this is  Zhang Yimou's To Live (1994) because it dares to be critical of the Chinese Communist party. Or indeed any negative portrayal of China as a nation would be banned.

It was viewed in this light that I slightly surprise - not shocked - that H5O are allowed to be aired in Mainland China. Perhaps I had to rethink about PRC's censorship. And from that day onward, I begun to watch all TV programs in my hotel with an eye towards censorship.

First off, I also subscribe AXN in Singapore, and as far as I could tell, the programs that aired in Singapore and China are identical. Never mind the R rated movies on Cinemax (like “When Stranger Calls” that was shown when I was there). And having watched different TV channels with various programs since, my only conclusion was, there’s no censorship of what could be shown in the hotel I stayed in.

For example, during that time, I watched a BBC report that was quite critical of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) for concentrating too much on economic reforms, and too little on political reforms in the last 3 decades in order to keep their power grip firmly on the country. BBC is known for their independent voice.

The topic of China was coming up a bit because of the upcoming change of leadership in the CCP (only a week after Barrack Obama's re-election). Well, BBC was actually quite politically correct. In contrast, a Taiwanese channel showed even more juicy stuff like speculating on the next Chinese leader and the rather unflattering expose on the hidden face of the powerful elites behind the Politburo; the kind of personal stuff that any politician in the West wouldn’t want their public to find out. Yes, I've seen it on a TV in Beijing, China. The Taiwanese program is naturally spoke in Mandarin.

If I watched this program in, say Taiwan, I wouldn't give it another thought. After all, they made this program. I wouldn't want to jump to conclusion about PRC's censorship one way or another too quickly, so I asked James - a Singaporean who has been working in China for 18 years - about censorship on TV in China. He applied, "very little". I asked if he could remember a specific instance where he suspected censorship, and what did it look like. He couldn't recall. I got the impression that there was none.

I had previous experience that made me surprise to James' reply.  I stayed in Etta's dad's place in Guangzhou earlier this year. His favourite channel was TVBJ that broadcast directly from HK into China. In one news report, in the middle of president Hu Jintao's sentence, it was abruptly cut to a TV commercial. And just as sudden, the TV commercial was cut before it finished, and returned to the previous news program, but at a slightly later time because President Hu had done talking.

I was confused what was going on, thinking it was some kind of technical glitches. In a dismal voice, Etta's dad explained that what I witnessed was censorship in action, Chinese style. The broadcast was censored live, I think, but with a delay. Let's say the program is delayed by an hour, so whenever the authority didn't like what was on the TV, they cut to a TV commercial and resumed after the censored section. Thus they have an hour - or whatever amount of time delay - to evaluate what was to be censored.

Under the "1 country, 2 systems" policy, HK is given the enviable position (in Mainlanders' eyes) to retain the political freedom that they enjoyed as British colony. This includes freedom of the press, which is more open than many Asian countries, including Japan, for example. Chinese authority isn't going to let this freedom of expression in TVBJ news reports to enter Mainland unfiltered.

One tentative conclusion I could make out of all these observations was that there're double standards being applied to hotels and local residential TV program subscribers. After all, the hotel guests are foreigners, and they have been watching all these stuff all along. What's the point in censoring them? The censorship were aiming at Chinese, not foreigners. Mind you, any local, in this case Beijinger, could also check into any international hotel and watch these TV programs to their heart’s content. They could go overseas and watch these programs. Well, they could go overseas and never come back. And many do. I have more to say about this last few points later.

One has to be very careful in jumping to conclusion too quickly about anything in China. I had done so a number of times. Shame! Shame! Shame! When there's no transparency, the whole censorship - indeed many government policies - is like a black box. We couldn't do anything but to speculate what's inside the black box. Quite often, we got it wrong.

Another conclusion about the censorship is that the central government leaves it to the provincial government to do what they please with the censorship. There maybe other reasons that escape me too...

H5O was coming to the end while I busily brainstorming (that happened a lot), I quickly grabbed the laptop and launched my investigation on the censorship in the internet. One good idea leads to another...


Internet Censorship in China
While they may apply double standards on foreign TV channels in hotels and Chinese citizens, only 1 standard is applying to the internet. And not all the censorship is purely politically motivated. In fact, many censorship are economically based, and other are moral ones.

For example, I can't access some of the globally most visited commercial websites like Face Book, IMDB, Twitter or Blogger within China. Not that the government fear these products as they're dangerous politically if they're in the hands of the people. No. These are paranoid people (usually have never set foot in China) who think PRC is a totalitarian state. They're not as democratic as some countries, I agree. Totalitarian...nah...

Let's look at this list with US internet companies versus the Chinese counterparts.

US Companies Chinese Companies
www.facebook.com www.renren.com
www.imdb.com www.douban.com
www.ebay.com www.alibaba.com
www.amazon.com www.taobao.com
www.twitter.com www.weibo.com
www.youtube.com www.youku.com
www.google.com www.baidu.com
www.blogger.com www.sina.com.cn

These very popular US' websites are being blocked in China so that the local private internet companies wouldn't be crushed by US' internet giants. And they're thriving under the state protection. Indeed, 4 out of the 15 top websites globally are Chinese. Russia has 1, and Japan has 1. This wouldn't have been possible if they didn't create barriers to protect them from the onslaught of foreign corporate titans.

There's little question that the products are copied along US' products' lines. Youku even sounds like youtube. I guess this is done on brand association basis.

All the smaller US websites like Tripadviser, however, would be able to get through the Chinese firewall unscathed.

While I expect my blog would be blocked in China, I was surprise that by using following URL, it came up!

http://ramberwithoutboders.blogspot.sg

(I haven't checked out Wordpress, but I suspect they don't get preferential treatment. I could be wrong. If they aren't blocked in China, this suggests they don't pose a threat, as far as PRC goes).

I felt like I repeated David Copperfield's performance when he did his great publicity stunt by walking through the Great Wall of China. The reason why I would even type this Singapore country domain site address is because in Singapore, google automatically redirected me to this country selective address, whether I like it or not. Both of my .com and .sg blog sites contain identical content. I'm thinking, it's as if Chinese internet watchdog is saying, "If it passes the Singapore Censorship, it's good enuff for us!" I was thinking that, but I didn't really buy the idea. Censorship in Singapore and Elsewhere Sillypore - a nickname locals give Singapore - is well know for heavy censorship. The Sin City - another nickname for Singapore - is a straitlaced society with spotless streets and clean information superhighway. They tend to be more like Australian government where they’re hard on the moral issues like hardcore porn sites, but soft on political ones. At least in Singapore, if a website is censored, this MDA message would come up when you try to visit there. While in China, you get a blank 404 error page. You don't know if you have reached a blocked site, or the site is down, or some other technical isues. This is what I meant by being not transparent, or a black box. And another thing, these 2 web pages about censorship in Singapore and Internet Censorship in Singapore aren't blocked in Singapore (don't laugh. And don't take things for granted). This shows that Singapore is more sensitive to moral issues than political ones. You can freely express your displeasure about government's blocking of certain porn sites in Singapore. I know for a fact that some Gulf States - Bahrain ad Dubai - would block many political websites like that. These are 2 of the most 'liberal' GCC states. I had been to both countries, and lived in Bahrain for nearly 3 months. I had nothing to do but surfed on the net, and ran into internet walls frequently. You could read my travel diaries for these 2 countries here. I'm not defending Singapore's censorship, but saying censorship, like governments, in many countries couldn't either classified as total autocracy or modelled democracy. They filled the whole spectrum in between the 2 extremes. Actually. the appearance of http://ramberwithoutboders.blogspot.sg page shouldn't come as a total surprise. My blog's GA stats shown page views from China averaged once or twice a week before I went to Beijing. The joy of accessing my blog was short-lived. In the next day, the google ads was gone, and the day after, my blog had gone completely (the cat is out of the bag, and got killed). My blog site was out of reach by Chinese netizen. My snooping alerted the Chinese authority, and the loophole is now plugged. Or using a Chinese expression, "beating the grass and startle the snake" (打草惊蛇). I should smoke it, instead of beating it. Oh well, I was never a hit in Chinese blogosphere anyway, going by the page hits I got. Not in the same league as Han Han (the most popular Chinese blogger in the world. His blog has over 30 million hits). The dream of conquering the Chinese market like millions before me was dashed. Jokes aside. Regardless of the technical issues, very low percentage of the Chinese population could understand English. One can argue that I could install a translator on my blog to solve the language barrier, but Chinese netizen still have to do a English search to get to my site. I suspect the few visits to my site I got from China previously came from foreigners in China. So sorry laowai. Ok, they might get here by googling '打草惊蛇'. Chances are, they would type that into Baidu. I don't know if Baidu sent their spiders to crawl my blog. I wonder. I wonder whether my website was viewed by a human operator before it was decided to block it. Elsewhere, they may use some computer algorithm. Human capital is cheap in China. There're other reasons too why I think my blog was reviewed by somebody. After all, my blog's GA stats showed that it averaged only a few page views per week before. So why didn't it get blocked until now? It was so happened that when I accessed my blog from China, the post on the home page was my Gender Inequality & Imbalance in China article. Bugger! I guess they don't like this article, understandably. They decided to put me on the blocked list. Another thing. When I got back from China, I checked my blog's GA stats and it showed 55 hits in the week when I accessed my blog in Beijing. I could only account for a maximum of 10 of those hits. Somebody must have been busy reading my blog, and decided nobody in China should read it any further. I could be wrong. Since that 55-hit spike on the Richter scale in my stats chart, I get zero hit from China for the 3 weeks since. An absolute silence. Zilch! Or should I scream, ouch!    While what I wrote in this article isn't to China authority's liking, but much more critical things about Chinese government are being said by Chinese netizen everyday. Especially on weibo (Chinese twitter). The name weibo these days are synonymous with exposing corrupt Chinese government officials. A number of officials were arrested as a result of weibo's expose. In fact, the weibo now almost functions like a unofficial supervisory body for monitoring government officials. Just google "weibo exposes corruption", and you won't get a shortage of search result. It isn't just the Chinese citizen who are crying foul. President Hu Jintao in his farewell speech - a swan song if you will - stated that if the CCP doesn't clean up the official corruption, it willl be the end of the party. And the netizen scoffed at his speech that you could read in this article China web users greet Hu speech with derision. So what could I say about China that could be worse than Chinese web users? The weibo and blog sites are places that fill with criticism of the government for years, and their voice weren't silenced. It's wise that they don't suppress this voice of discontent, the voice of the people. They listened pretty closely. Is there political freedom of speech in China? Depending what yardstick you use. Maybe the blocking of my blog is simply based on commercial consideration. Chinese authority moves in mysterious ways. If you try to make any blanket statement about China, you're likely to be wrong. Especially today. I should know. I had accomplished of making a fool of myself many times before. Google in China Yes, internet users in China does have access to google search engine. It isn't blocked. Well, not www.google.com.cn, which doesn't exist. It simply takes you to the HK google URL, www.google.com.hk. With the HK google search engine, you could search using English, or in either simplified and traditional Chinese in Mainland China. It's good for users who want to search websites outside Mainland China. Simply put, as far as internet users in Mainland China go, google search engine exists. What google failed to accomplished in China was to establish www.google.com.cn. For internet users, it doesn't make the slightest difference between .com.hk, and com.cn (if it exists). What google.com.cn does is giving higher rankings to Mainland Chinese websites. But one could do that with local Baidu search engine. David Copperfield's Great Wall's Magic Act I didn't want to give up so easily. Besides, I wanted to confirm if I could use anonymizer to tunnel through the Great Fire Wall of China. I tried HideMyAss, it didn't work. If at first, you don't suceed, try, try again. I applied this motto a few times. Eventually, I tried a less well known one like online-anonymizer.com, and it worked! I had duplicated the David Copperfield famous act. And I was able to reach all the sites in the list above. Seems to me that HideMyAss is too successful for its own good, and it get blocked by the Chinese authority. While online-anonymizer is too small for the Chinese radar. When a forbidden plane fly into China's air space, it will be shot down. Something as small a a bird would go unnoticed. One word of warning. I have to stress this. Anomymiser, like antibiotics, is powerful and should be used sparingly. When you abuse antibiotics, it actually makes it less effective for the rest of the population until it loses all its effectiveness. Similarly when you use anonymiser too often, it suffers the same fate as HideMyAss, it got blocked, and loses its function. So only use it as a last resort. Let's not spoil it for the rest of us. I only did it to understand the Great Fire Wall of China. A great cause.    Lifting the Mist? I hope all this would clear up some of the mystery of the Great Fire Wall of China. There're still plenty of mystifying mist hang around. Clearing everything up is impossible. It remains a mystery wraps in an riddle inside an enigma. Does Censorship Work? Taboo increases the people's desire for something even more because we're blessed with curiosity. The best publicity for a book, a movie, a photo, or anything is to ban people from getting it. Isn't that the Biblical fable in the story of the Garden of Eden tells us? Don't eat the Forbidden Fruit. Guess what happens? It got eaten. This is human nature. The best real life example is Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code, which got a great publicity boost when a segment of the Church told people not to watch it.  Ironic, isn't it? People had to watch to see what the fuss is all about. They, at least, I was disappointed. I wouldn't watch it if the Church didn't tell me not to.  Similarly, the most popular Chinese art house films are those banned in China. Of course, many Chinese would be able to watch those banned movies. Taboo just increases the desire for it. Unless the authority have absolute control over it. That's not possible if you open your national borders. Such control is possible in DPRK today or China in Mao era. Censorship worked well before the globalisation facilitated by jet travel, and the invention of the world wide web. In those days, people spent most of their lives in their own countries - indeed their own cities. Travelling weren't so affordable (or comfortable, or speedy), and there was no internet. And so we obtained all our info from media like TV, magazines and newspapers. Censor that, and you control what people are allowed to know. When you open your borders, and let people travel in and out of your countries, information and ideas flow with it. And the internet further breaking down all these barriers. They move at a speed of light, far faster than the supersonic jets we once thought was fast. Now countries try to control the internet. Unfortunately for them, the internet crosses national boundaries, extremely complex, constantly evolving, and web users are increasingly savvy. In fact, Singapore is the most computer savvy in Asia according to this study, which ranks Singapore as 11th place for 2012 (way ahead of Japan, and even South Korea! Perhaps, proficiency in English helps). Living here for 3+ years, I could relate to this figure. Singaporean embraces IT technology keenly as evident by their 4 annual IT shows. Those shows are always packed. The web users enjoy generous bandwidth because of the size of the island country. E.g. I've a 2MB bandwidth (jealous?), which is quite common in Singapore even with their basic plans. I was in fact somewhat surprise that Australia actually ranks higher than Singapore in the web index. The Singapore Information Minister pointed out in this news article Ban on 100 Websites  in Singapore is just a symbolic move. I guess symbol is important in politics. The have to do something. You can't be seen as just giving up. That's quitter attitude. I thought internet censorship is as outdated as prostitution prohibition. And prostitution is legal in the Lion City (yet another nickname for Singapore). So we go on playing the game of let's the governments do what they please, we the people will do what we like. UPDATE (11/2/2013) As I explained in this article that my blogspot site wasn't blocked until I visited the site while in Beijing, and alerted them this loophole.

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