Friday, April 15, 2011

China's Great Firewall: Possible Escalation and Google's Tribute


[note, this post is not particularly edited.  I want to make sure to get it out before any further potential problems with the Great Firewall.]

Today I had planned to write a post about mobile phones & Chinese youth.  However, when I went to connect to the Internet I discovered I was not able to use my VPN, WiTopia, to get around China's Great Firewall.  This was a big problem to me as my site is hosted on Blogger, which is blocked in China (I'd like to hear the Chinese Government's explanation as to why all of Blogger is now blocked but sites like are not).

So, I went to my Gmail account to contact WiTopia.  However, I was not able to connect to Gmail -- at all.  What ensued over the next few hours was a rather frustrating experience.

What was available to me in China seemed to fluctuate during that period of time.  For example, while I couldn't log on to Gmail by going to, I discovered that if I first went to and then to the US based site I could click a link and get into Gmail.  I have no idea why that worked or if there was anything special in those actions.  I am simply reporting my experience.  However, after a short period of time my Gmail account no longer functioned and the method I had previously used to log on no longer worked.

Then it appeared that only Google sites hosted in mainland China (such as Google's Chinese sites for maps and shopping) were available.  Everything else, including the China search functions which are redirected to Hong Kong, were unavailable.  However, a little later everything was back to normal (Great Firewall normal) except I could not log onto any of the Google's services I tried, including Gmail.  I'd always get stuck at a login gateway page with the format:

However, now after trying again I see I can now get to the login page and login to my account, but it takes a verrrrry long time for it to appear.  But, I am still not able to access Gmail (after waiting over 8 minutes).

There have been ample reports of recent problems accessing Google's services in China.  This was personally my first encounter with it.  I don't yet know how my experience today compares to others' or if the situation has significantly changed in comparison to recent weeks.  Regardless, the selectivity, yet broad impact, of the blocking was striking to me.

My situation forced me to seek other ways to get through the Great Firewall -- mostly by searching using Google.  What I first discovered was a mix of potentially useful sites that were blocked in China.  However, in the end I found one site in particular that proved very useful.  I used it to access my Gmail and was then able to resolve my problem with WiTopia's support.  I wasn't able to 100% trust the methods I had used to initially access Gmail so after reconnecting though a modified WiTopia connection I changed my Gmail account passwords (I didn't want something like this to happen).

This is the 2nd time in the past week I've needed additional support from WiTopia.  It suggests to me that the Great Firewall may still be attempting to expand its reach.  At this point, I can't say how directed any such expansion might be - both in terms of Internet sites it impacts and whether those impacts are being felt equally across China.  I will soon be in another location in China so I will later test to see if some of the methods which recently became blocked to me fare better in other locations in China.

Finally, while trying to "fix" things I noticed something particularly, umm, interesting on Google in China.

For reference, here is the homepage of the US Google site (as seen from a location in China) during the period I was having problems:

An apparent homage to Charlie Chaplin.  If I connected through a US gateway (while connected through WiTopia), though, the regular Google logo appeared.  I wouldn't be surprised if the above image (or something similar) will appear later in the US when time appropriate for US-based users (Charlie Chaplin's birthday is April 16).

What is most interesting, though, is Google's main page in China (hosted on servers in Hong Kong).  It too was a tribute to Charlie Chaplin (even though it is still April 15 here), but with a curiously different image:

If you click on the image while you are behind the Great Firewall you are taken to the search results page for Charlie Chaplin (written in Chinese):

At least this shows Google isn't fixing its results to its own benefits.  The number one result is on Google's main competitor in China -- Baidu.

However, if you click on the photo while not behind the Great Firewall then a video is played.  It appears to be a Google production in honor of Chaplin.  After watching it once I found it charming and did not notice any deep "messages" (though, I am tempted to look at it again).   The difference in experiences between inside and outside the Great Firewall is likely due to the video apparently being hosted on YouTube, which has the honor of being blocked in China.

So, why the different homepage images?  What was the intention?  Ask Google.  But I know what message I took from the image on the Chinese site.  Frankly, it provided a boost of energy to me as I used Google to discover a way to make sure my blog wasn't silenced by the Great Firewall today.

And the role Google played in me finding a way to express myself is part of the reason I am glad Google didn't listen to people saying it should completely leave China.

UPDATE: I now know that the video screen shot above for the "US Google site" is not what is actually appearing on to US users.  Instead, the video appears.  Some additional points:

  • (what I refer to above as the US Google site) still has the same image as shown above when seen from China.
  • If I go to now while using my VPN I see the video instead.
  • Earlier, it hadn't occurred to me to check the US site while using the VPN so I am not sure what it looked like when I made the above screen captures.
  • It is interesting that the experiences for viewing the US site differ for those who are in the US and those who are in China surfing behind the Great Firewall.
  • I'd be curious to hear anyone's thoughts on why for users in China behind the Great Firewall Google would display the video on the Hong Kong based Google site, but not the US based site.
  • My impression of the video screen shot was partly influenced by the appearance (based on what I was seeing at the time) that it was particularly designed for the China/Hong Kong market.  Well, good art often has many interpretations. :)
For those not in China, hopefully the above helps capture some of the frustrations one can have while trying to surf the Internet freely in China.  It also shows how challenging it can be to document and understand any changes in the online experience here.

2nd UPDATE:  In the update above I wrote, "Earlier, it hadn't occurred to me to check the US site while using the VPN so I am not sure what it looked like when I made the above screen captures."  That is not true.  If it hadn't been so late, I would have recalled (or better reread my own piece) that I had checked.  At that time the Google US site was showing the regular logo to US viewers.

So, at the moment I first wrote the post the choice of images (at least 3 different images on Google's main page depending on which country and how you viewed it) looked like one was being selectively used for Google's China site.  Later, that changed.

I'll just leave it at that...

1 comment:

  1. Witopia is NOT a true VPN and can easily be blocked by the GFW. It's a highly glamorized proxy. Proxies are easy to block.

    True VPN services can not be blocked by the Great FireWall of China.

    Free is good. I love free.

    But, if you want better, choose something you pay for. Pay services provide much better service.

    (Yes, I know Witopia has a pay service, but it still uses the same tech as OpenVPN which is just a proxy server calling itself a VPN when it's not. The paid Witopia only offers customer support and little else.)