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Showing posts with label Censorship. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Censorship. Show all posts

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Path Ahead

a pier disappearing into the fog

Like last year in Xining and two years ago in Chengdu, most of what I saw as I walked around Qingdao on this June 4th was the same as what I might see on any other day. For some people in China the day was different. They may have further questioned what they should tell their children. Or they may have discovered that censorship in China now included blocking searches for "big yellow duck" and even words such as "today". Or if they were in Hong Kong, they may have gathered with tens of thousands of people holding candles in the rain.

What China's people will find on the path ahead remains unclear. But although censors can block the word "tomorrow", they can't prevent it from happening.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Product Placement, Dyslexia, and Censorship

Now seems to be a good time to share a variety of links to stories that touch on subjects found in previous posts here. In no particular order...

1. Earlier this year I shared the story of a young man who traveled from his home in mainland China to Macau so he could purchase New Zealand baby formula. Due to past formula scandals in China, he and his family did not trust locally produced formula. If he could have purchased imports in mainland China from trustworthy sources at a reasonable price he would not have needed to make the journey to Macau. In addition to high tariffs, as Wang Shanshan reported on Caixin there is another reason for the inflated prices of imported formula (H/T C. Maoxian):
One reason is supermarkets force dealers to pay large commissions to put their products on shelves, Yao Wenhua, senior executive of a Beijing-based trade company, said. This has forced dealers to raise retail prices to make a profit.
Read the article here for more about the commissions and how they are driving grey market online sales of imported formula through sources such as Taobao.

2. I recently posted about China blocking The New York Times in reaction to a story about the wealth of Prime Minister of China Wen Jiabao's family. Similar to my comments last year about an example involving YouTube, Evan Osnos in The New Yorker mentions that the blocking is not only an issue of censorship:
China has now blocked two major American news organizations (Bloomberg has been blacked out for four months, after a similar story on the incoming President, Xi Jinping), without official explanation. They are large American businesses, with substantial financial investments associated with their operations in China. At a certain point, the United States Embassy will have to weigh in, which will only ratchet up the pressure.
See here for more from Osnos about the "fallout from Wen Jiaobao's family fortune".

3. In a non-China-related post I considered whether tennis player Andy Murray's dislike for reading could be connected to a cognitive deficit. I pointed out that having such a deficit would not necessarily prevent a person from being successful. Kate Rix on Open Culture shared an interview revealing how a long unidentified reading deficit not only did not prevent director Steven Spielberg from achieving success, it may have helped lead him to his passion:
What no one, including the DreamWorks co-founder himself, knew until recently is that all those 8 mm shorts were more than just a pastime. In a recent interview Spielberg revealed that he is dyslexic and that he was only diagnosed five years ago. “It explained a lot of things,” Spielberg told Quinn Bradlee. “It was like the last puzzle part in a tremendous mystery that I’ve kept to myself all these years."

Always two years behind the class in reading, Spielberg was teased by other kids in school. He dreaded having to read in front of the class. He never lacked for friends, though looking back on it several of his friends were probably also dyslexic.

“Even my own friends who were just like me, we didn’t have the skills to talk about it,” he recalled in the interview for Friends of Quinn, a site for people with learning differences. “I got bullied. I dealt with it by making movies. That was my cover up.”
See the post here to watch a video of the interview and read Rix's summary of it.

Friday, October 26, 2012

The New York Times and Google Searches for "New York Times" Blocked in China

4 Updates at end

In a new development (or one could say a repeat of an older one), The New York Times is now blocked in China. As Keith Bradsher reports in The New York Times today:
The Chinese government swiftly blocked access Friday morning to the English-language and Chinese-language Web sites of The New York Times from computers in mainland China in response to the news organization’s decision to post an article in both languages describing wealth accumulated by the family of the country’s prime minister.

The authorities were also blocking attempts to mention The Times or the prime minister, Wen Jiabao, in postings on Sina Weibo, an extremely popular mini-blogging service in China that resembles Twitter...

By 7 a.m. Friday in China, access to both the English- and Chinese-language Web sites of The Times was blocked from all 31 cities in mainland China tested. The Times had posted the article in English at 4:34 p.m. on Thursday in New York (4:34 a.m. Friday in Beijing), and finished posting the article in Chinese three hours later after the translation of final edits to the English-language version.

Publication of the article about Mr. Wen and his family comes at a delicate time in Chinese politics, during a year in which factional rivalries and the personal lives of Chinese leaders have come into public view to a rare extent and drawn unprecedented international interest.
I am not sure which 31 cities The Times tested, but their site appears to be blocked where I am now at in Changsha, Hunan province.

I have also found that searching for "New York Times" on Google leads to an interruption in service and no page is returned--again apparently the result of blocking in China. There is no such problem searching for "New York".  This problem only results when using the "regular" non-secure version of Google. If secure SSL search is in use (the URL will contain "https"), then no problems arise. This makes sense since it is not possible for China's Great Firewall to "see" the search terms under these conditions. Implicit in this is that I had did not find Google's SSL search to be blocked.

However, at the moment searching for "New York Times" on Baidu, China's leading search site, or Bing's Chinese site (http://cn.bing.com) leads to no problems and results include links to the The New York Times website. Of course, the link is not particularly useful since the website is still blocked.

Also, previously the Google News site for users in mainland China (http://news.google.com.hk/nwshp?hl=zh-CN&tab=wn) appears to be blocked, but the sites for Hong Kong (http://news.google.com.hk/) and the U.S. (http://news.google.com) were not blocked. However, now the Hong Kong news site appears to be blocked too (although it may depend on the series of steps used to access it). There seems to be more to be sorted out here, so I will just leave it at this.

On the side... My own website remains partially blocked in China. This mix of results is likely due to it being hosted on Blogger (which is blocked) but it using its own domain name (which is not blocked). It is one of the reasons I don't use Blogger's default method for posting images, otherwise they would not be viewable in China. Anyways, I will keep tabs on its accessibility. For my most recent in-depth review of access to websites such as Amazon, Facebook, Google+, Windows Live, and Yahoo! in China see here.

More updates later if there are any new developments.

Update 1: James Griffths in the Shanghaiist writes that they are finding mixed results for their own tests of whether The New York Times is accessible in China. He hypothesizes:
Any failures by netizens within China to access nytimes.com may also be related to the sheer mass of traffic that always swamps sites once they claim to be blocked, as everyone checks to see if reports are true (as well as the extra attention the site was getting for it's pretty spectacular report on Wen Jiaobo).
This seems highly unlikely to me since I had absolutely no problem accessing the site when I used my VPN (which can allow one to "break through" China's Great Firewall) during the testing. As I soon as I turned off the VPN I could not access the site. Assuming traffic is being directed to the same place in both cases, I don't see how heavy traffic could account for this. Given the other reports that The Times has been blocked, I do not believe I had an unusual experience.

Update 2: Graham Webster also pushes back against the story in the Shanghaiist. To his points I will add that my own tests suggest the blocking is not occurring through DNS servers since I tested using non-local DNS.

Update 3: In response to my points James Griffiths updated his report to retract his "previous assertion that the NYT site could be suffering from traffic problems".

Update 4: Earlier, in his post Griffiths placed little faith in much of the reported evidence of The Times being blocked in large part due the reports of greatfirewallofchina.org. I have concerns about the results presented on such sites and was far more convinced by reports from numerous reputable sources and my own experiences. In his latest update (at the end of the post), Griffiths shares his change of heart:
It has been pointed out to me that greatfirewallofchina.org doesn't detect reset connections which seems to be the problem most people are experiencing when they try to access the site. In the face of overwhelming anecdotal evidence I am retracting my initial scepticism about the NYT being blocked.
China's Great Firewall is a complex beast and it can present some "fuzzy" situations. Nevertheless, I, like Griffiths now, think there is sufficient evidence to say The New York Times is currently blocked in China.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Mitt Romney and Counterfeit Apple Stores in China

The most recent U.S. presidential debate touched on some China-related issues, and I would like to comment on at least one of them.

No, this post will not be about the single question from a Shanghainese female I know:
Binders of women. What does 'binders' mean here?
Nor will it be about the many creative answers she received from friends.

Instead, I want to focus on this statement by Mitt Romney (copied from a debate transcript here):
We can compete with anyone in the world as long as the playing field is level. China's been cheating over the years. One by holding down the value of their currency. Number two, by stealing our intellectual property; our designs, our patents, our technology. There's even an Apple store in China that's a counterfeit Apple store, selling counterfeit goods. They hack into our computers. We will have to have people play on a fair basis, that's number one.
When listening to the debate live, Romney's reference of the "counterfeit Apple store, selling counterfeit goods" struck me as peculiar. I had assumed he was talking about the widely-reported "fake Apple Store" in Kunming. But that situation has long since been resolved, and I am not aware of any evidence that the Apple products it sold were counterfeits. However, it would be easy for me to believe there exists at least one store somewhere in China that could be reasonably called a "counterfeit" Apple store and that sells counterfeit goods of some sort (even if they aren't Apple products but instead are accessories designed by other companies). Since it is not clear which exact store Romney is referencing and he does not specify which type of goods are being counterfeited, I would not consider Romney's Apple store claim to be necessarily untrue. But whether he was referencing the store in Kunming or another store in China that has somehow caught his attention, I am not convinced the example was relevant in regards to arguing that the playing field is not level in China.

As I have detailed before, what counts as a "fake" Apple store can be fuzzy. And since so many potential offenders can still be found, at least at the moment Apple may only be taking action against those that go to extremes in imitating a real Apple Store. Furthermore there exist many Apple-authorized retail stores in China that are not Apple Stores, and it is not illegal for unauthorized stores to resell genuine Apple merchandise in China (see previous two links for more about these topics and examples of both fake and authorized Apple stores in China). Although I have seen mobile phones for sale in China that appear to inappropriately use Apple's trademarks (see here and here for two of my favorite examples), I have never seen such phones for sale in what I think could reasonably be called a "counterfeit Apple store". Also, I am not aware of any evidence that many fake Apple stores are selling counterfeit products that look and function like genuine Apple products. Instead, most reports and my own experience suggest that the Apple products being sold at such stores are purchased from authorized Apple stores. The Apple Store in Hong Kong has been a particularly popular source due to differences in prices and availability of products, and it plays a role in China's extensive grey market (for other examples of grey market activities see here and here). See here for some examples of stores in Guangzhou who earlier this year openly stated that their iPhones come from Hong Kong (also includes many examples of stores in Hunan province and elsewhere in Guangzhou province). See here for a more recent example in a Reuters report from nearby Shenzhen.

So, although Apple certainly faces challenges in China, I don't think the "counterfeit stores" are effective for the point Romney was making. After all, those stores mostly appear to be selling genuine products purchased from Apple.

If Romney had his heart set on using a tech example to make his case, I think there would have been more suitable options. For example, an online service that is blocked by China's Great Firewall, such as Google's YouTube, could touch on the issue of fairness while also touching on another issue that can stir up American voters. Mentioning YouTube's situation could show Romney is concerned about the restrictions on free speech in China. It is also an example of where China's censorship leads to a playing field that is not level. After all, YouTube cannot expect to make much profit in China if it is blocked. China's Great Firewall is even helping Chinese companies get business from American companies (see here for one example related to YouTube). And if you think services such as YouTube are only blocked due to reasons of censorship, read here about a Chinese woman in Guizhou who thinks there are also economic reasons for Google's "problems" in China. Regardless of the reasons for the blocking, though, I think it is fair to assume that most American voters could be easily convinced (if they aren't already) that YouTube is not on a level playing field with its potential competitors in China.

However, some would largue that all is indeed fair in regards to YouTube and that Google just has to observe China's censorship laws. Well... if Romney is sensitive to such concerns, then he can mention another well known tech company. Microsoft could make a kadzillion* dollars if all the copies of its software in China were used under proper licenses and not pirated versions. The problem is so extreme that Microsoft has reportedly even had to make a formal request in China that several state-owned companies stop using pirated copies of Microsoft software (see here). And although there may be disagreements over the severity of the problem (at least in public statements), the Chinese government has openly stated it wishes to reduce software piracy. So even they appear to acknowledge (at least in their words) that there is a problem. Again, I think American voters would readily view Microsoft's situation as not fair. The only caveat that now comes to mind is any Chinese software company probably also faces issues with piracy in China. So I suppose one could say there is a level playing field in that regards. However, the problem has a much larger financial effect on American companies such as Microsoft, and no Chinese company faces a similar problem succeeding in the US.

So why did Romney mention Apple's situation instead of Google's or Microsoft's? I could speculate about reasons that relate to either Romney's interests (for example, he might think Apple is "sexier" to voters or he might have a very specific definition of "level playing field") or Google's and Microsoft's interests (for example, they may not consider it to be beneficial to resolving their China-related problems for them be publicly stated by a prominent U.S. politician) but... I think it is best to just say I really don't know.

Finally, I don't expect this critique to pose a significant setback for Romney. Although I was puzzled by his statement about a counterfeit Apple store and wanted to comment on it, American voters will likely be far more concerned about many other statements made during the debate.

Even those about binders.


*"Kadzillion" equals whatever amount Microsoft would make under such conditions.

UPDATE: Paul Mozur in the China Real Time Report writes that Jessica Angelson, the blogger who brought attention to the fake Apple Store in Kunming, "didn’t feel her find was being used properly" by Romney. Again, even though it was my first interpretation as well, at the moment I don't think it can be said that Romney's words definitely refer to the Kunming store. But even if they don't, the example would not seem to be highly relevant to his point. Maybe Romney will shed more light on this issue.


Disclosure: I previously worked as a user experience researcher at Microsoft China. All of the information and claims about Microsoft in this post are based solely on public sources (except for my newly-created word "kadzillion") and in no way represent "inside knowledge" on my part. The rampant pirating of Microsoft's products in China is well-known and easy to see.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Julliard School Betting on Artistic Growth in China

Chengcheng Jiang in Time reported on the Julliard School's plans to open a campus, its first outside of the U.S., for pre-college & pre-professional students in Tianjin, China. Some of the reasons for Julliard's new campus highlight the different directions that China and the U.S. are headed in their commitment to the arts:
The Juilliard brand is landing in China at a time when interest in — and money for — the arts is on the rise. As part of President’s Hu Jintao‘s plans to build the nation’s soft power, the central government has established ambitious targets for the development of what it calls China’s ‘cultural industries.’ In the current Five Year Plan, the government’s blueprint for growth, for instance, 2 billion RMB, or about $315 million, has been earmarked for a national arts fund.

This level of enthusiasm and funding is a welcome change for American educators who are used to dealing with dwindling audiences and funding cuts. “The tradition of government funding of the arts has never existed in United States,” [The president of the Julliard School, Joseph Polisi,] told TIME on a recent visit to China to announce the new campus. “What has supported the arts for most of the 20th century in America was the value system where the public educational system saw the arts as being important as part of an overall education.” That, of course, has changed. But in China, he says, parents and school systems increasingly value music. “I see Chinese students, I see Chinese faculty members, I see Chinese educational administrators, who are all working towards an environment that is supportive of the classical arts.”
Like the aviation industry, the development of the arts could be representative of broader changes in China. And similar to some other fields, if the U.S. shoots itself in the foot and does not continue to support the arts, America could decline in a field where it now shines regardless of what China does.

Another set of issues raised by Julliard's plans relate to censorship. Julliard will be joining a variety of other American institutions of higher education with campuses or with plans to build campuses in China. They have had to consider how to best foster open learning in China. Isaac Stone Fish in The Daily Beast reported on the degree to which American universities have adjusted to China's censorship and how it is not easy when it is sometimes not clear what is off-limits:
Rowena He left China in the 1990s and is currently teaching 
courses at Harvard University about the 1989 Tiananmen Square movement
 and its aftermath—a course that she could not teach in China. “The 
problem is, we don’t know where the line is and what the punishment
 would be. That’s where fear and self-censorship comes from,” she says.
It would seem, though, that Julliard may have fewer challenges in this regard and may be less likely to have professors barred from China. Although there are many popular music songs which are banned in China, I am not aware of any cases where the style of music typically studied and performed at a school such as Julliard has been banned. However, there are certainly pieces which have the potential to be considered sensitive [if you are aware of any such pieces being banned, I would be curious to hear about it].

Regardless of the challenges that may be ahead, I think it is wonderful that Julliard is pushing forward in China. It will help to further spread the arts and creative expression in China. It will also provide Julliard a valuable mechanism to funnel talented and trained musicians to its main campus. Like other leading schools, it continues to draw many talented people to the U.S.

Whether the U.S. appreciates how valuable that can be and works to ensure it continues is another question.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Eric Schmidt's Comments on China: The Risks for Google

In the previous post, I discussed recent comments made by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Google Chairman Eric Schmidt that link freedom of expression to economic strength. One could worry that Schmidt's claims, such as those about the inevitability of the "political and social liberalization that will fundamentally change the nature of the Chinese government's relationship to its citizenry", could be seen as threatening to the Chinese government and create more problems for Google (more on Schmidt's comments by Josh Rogin here). However, although the Chinese government is very unlikely to be pleased or respond positively, I am not convinced that Schmidt made a mistake in publicly expressing his views. The following provides some of the reasons I feel this way (not intended to be a full review of what is a complex situation with many layers).

What type of risks do Schmidt's comments present for Google?

Some of Google's major services, such as YouTube, are already blocked in China. Even many of Google's services that are "available" face regular interference from China's Great Firewall. Schmidt mentioned a reason he has little optimism for improvements in the near future:
"It's probably the case where the Chinese government will continue to make it difficult to use Google services," said Schmidt. "The conflict there is at some basic level: We want that information [flowing] into China, and at some basic level the government doesn't want that to happen."
Despite the challenges for their online services, according to Google it "continues to thrive" in China (video of Bloomberg interview with Daniel Alegre, president of Google's Asia-Pacific division, here). One of the brighter spots for Google in China is selling global ads to Chinese companies. It seems unlikely these sales would be impacted by Schmidt's comments (Bill Bishop has made this point as well). What happens to Google's services in China has no effect on its services elsewhere in the world. Chinese companies' desire for ad space in foreign markets will likely only increase. Similar to what I discussed in my post last year comparing Google Maps and Baidu Map, Google can offer a world's worth more than any Chinese online service.

Given the already existing problems for Google services in China, a bleak outlook in the near future for the change Google apparently awaits, and at least one of Google's key sources of revenue in China not likely being affected, Google does not have as much to lose in the short term as it could first seem.

The possible benefits to Google if China "strikes back"

Even if China decides to retaliate against Google's online services in China, it could still be to Google's net advantage, particularly in the long term. Some people will positively view Schmidt's comments as evidence that Google is willing to forsake profits in order to hold true to more idealistic aims. Such a view could be strengthened or further considered if China reacts in an obvious manner.

Although any immediate benefit may be most clearly seen in markets such as the U.S., where railing against China's censorship is well received by many, there could also be benefits in China. To be clear, many in China will never see Schmidt's comments. Regardless, the comments can serve as a reminder or signal to a valuable segment of Google's users (and potential users) in China who do hear them and are sympathetic to Schmidt's beliefs and hopes (see the previous post for how tying freedom of expression to China's economy could be relevant in this regards). Schmidt's comments can be yet another drop in the bucket to let people feel "Google still cares". If censorship eventually fails in China as Schmidt expects, Google's consistent strong voice on this topic could provide it with a core block of users/supporters serving as a valuable seed for future growth.

A long term evaluation required

As I wrote before, one of Schmidt's likely hopes is for Google to be prepared for the changes that he believes are inevitable but may not occur in the immediate future. His comments and Google's recent actions suggest they are thinking long term, particularly in regards to the online services they offer (or wish to offer) in China. Although there are other points to consider (for example, I have not touched on Android nor on other ways the Chinese government could respond), the above points suggest there is reason to believe that not only will Schmidt's comments not cause Google great harm, but they could even provide benefits.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Hillary Clinton and Eric Schmidt on the Economics of Freedom in China

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Google Chairman Eric Schmidt recently made separate but similar comments that China needs to provide more freedoms for its people. There is much to mull over, and I recommend reading both of the pieces I reference below and Clinton's speech. In future posts I will soon cover other issues, but I will now briefly focus on a common theme in what Clinton and Schmidt said -- the belief that free expression is critical to China's continued economic development.

Jane Perlez in The New York Times shared some of what Clinton recently said while in Mongolia, a young democracy on China's northern border:
“You can’t have economic liberalization without political liberalization eventually,” [U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton] said. “It’s true that clamping down on political expression or maintaining a tight grip on what people read, say or see can create an illusion of security. But illusions fade — because people’s yearning for liberty don’t.”

In a dig at China as it wrestles with an economic downturn after a decade of double-digit growth, Mrs. Clinton added, “Countries that want to be open for business but closed to free expression will find that this approach comes at cost: it kills innovation and discourages entrepreneurship, which are vital for sustainable growth.”
Clinton's speech also includes a telling passage where she mentions that wealth is not sufficient without freedom but then emphasizes how freedom can lead to more wealth:
We need to make the 21st century a time in which people across Asia don’t only become wealthy; they also must become more free. And each of us can help make that happen through our policies, our programs and our actions. And if we do, the benefit is not only will people be more free, but they will be more secure and more prosperous. If we don’t, we will limit the human and economic potential of this great region.
On the same day as Clinton's speech, Josh Rogin in The Cable shared some of what Schmidt said about his expectation that China's "active, dynamic censorship" will eventually fail:
"I personally believe that you cannot build a modern knowledge society with that kind of behavior, that is my opinion," he said. "I think most people at Google would agree with that. The natural next question is when [will China change], and no one knows the answer to that question. [But] in a long enough time period, do I think that this kind of regime approach will end? I think absolutely."

The push for information freedom in China goes hand in hand with the push for economic modernization, according to Schmidt, and government-sponsored censorship hampers both.

"We argue strongly that you can't build a high-end, very sophisticated economy... with this kind of active censorship. That is our view," he said.
The way Clinton and Schmidt both frame the benefits of increased freedoms is significant. The freedoms they speak of do not always directly address the pragmatic day to day concerns of many Chinese and may be easily dismissed in the face of other challenges. But expressing their value in terms of an issue that is a major concern for most in China -- economic growth -- may catch more attention and cause deeper consideration. Even if people are not convinced of the connection between free speech and China's economy, what could matter most at first is if more people in China simply further consider the possibility that what is in the interests of the U.S. and Google could also be in their own best interests.

There may be some short term pains due to what has been recently said, and the potential gains may not appear soon (something I will further address in a later post). But Clinton and Schmidt do not appear to be solely focused on the short term. One of Clinton's goals is to help convince China to change. Her speech is just a small part of that effort. One of Schmidt's likely goals is for Google to be prepared for the changes that he believes are inevitable. Yet these changes will still require "a long enough time period" to be realized. And both of their hopes for increasing freedoms in China may be more likely or more quickly realized due to something that matters to many people in China and elsewhere --- money.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Twitter for Good in Shanghai

While waiting to meet a friend at a mall in Shanghai's Pudong district I briefly stopped by a small English language bookstore. Although Shanghai has mobile bookstores, there are reasons, such as quality, fakes, and selection, to buy books from more reputable dealers.

During my visit to the store, I noticed one section labeled "Chinese Related":



It contained a variety of books that did not seem to fit the category, but a book about Twitter in this row especially caught my attention:


"Twitter for Good: Change the World One Tweet at a Time" by Claire Diaz-Ortiz, who "lead[s] social innovation at Twitter", has been described:
As recent events in Japan, the Middle East, and Haiti have shown, Twitter offers a unique platform to connect individuals and influence change in ways that were unthinkable only a short time ago. In Twitter for Good, Claire Diaz Ortiz, Twitter’s head of corporate social innovation and philanthropy, shares the same strategies she offers to organizations launching cause-based campaigns. Filled with dynamic examples from initiatives around the world, this groundbreaking book offers practical guidelines for harnessing individual activism via Twitter as a force for social change.
Similar to how Facebook's popularity as a political tool in Taiwan likely caught the attention of mainland Chinese officials, the realization that Twitter allows individuals to join together and be a "force for social change" is likely at least part of the reason the online social networking service is now blocked in China.

So it could be expected that Twitter for Good would also be unavailable in China. But in addition to the bookstore I visited it is (currently) listed for sale on the Chinese online retail website 360buy and the Chinese online auction websites Paipai, and Taobao. It is also listed on Douban -- a Chinese social networking service website "allowing registered users to record information and create content related to movies, books, and music". However, no copies appear to be listed on several major online retailers for books such as Dangdang, 99 Online Bookstore, or Amazon.com China, despite those sites offering other books about Twitter such as Twitter Revolution. Regardless of whether or not there is a ban on Twitter for Good, it appears to be openly sold in China. Like the availability of other books about Twitter -- in English and Chinese -- it highlights the fuzziness of the line between what is and is not censored there.

Despite the Chinese government's concerns, there are signs that there are agencies with hopes for online social networking services in China -- particularly Sina Weibo. Unlike Twitter, Sina Weibo's ability and willingness to quickly censor its content per the Chinese government's desires provides a degree of control. This control combined with Sina Weibo's large reach can make it a attractive tool. For example, after an incident of a seriously injured girl being ignored by numerous passersby government officials reached out through Weibo:
The Political and Legislative Affairs Committee of the CPC Guangdong Committee on Tuesday published a message on Weibo calling for citizens to make suggestions on how the law could better assist those who offer help to people in danger.

The message read: "Please stop the coldness. Guangdong province is going to hold a discussion to criticize the behavior of leaving people in mortal danger out of indifference, and to advocate the spirit to lend a hand to those who need help. Your advice may be written into the province's legislative rules."
Maybe those Chinese officials could learn something useful from Twitter for Good to improve their efforts on Sina Weibo. In that sense, maybe Twitter for Good is indeed "Chinese Related".

Regardless, although Diaz-Ortiz would likely appreciate her books being read by more people in China (especially if the books are not unlicensed copies), she may prefer something even simpler that could also potentially aid positive social change in China -- unblocking Twitter.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

The New York Times in Chinese with Twitter & Facebook

The New York Times has unveiled a new Chinese-language web site at cn.nytimes.com. As Christine Haughney reported, the Times will not adjust its news coverage despite targeting readers in a place where there is significant censorship, mainland China:
The Times Company, which is well aware of the censorship issues that can come up in China, stressed that it would not become an official Chinese media company. The Times has set up its server outside China and the site will follow the paper’s journalistic standards. Mr. Kahn said that while the Chinese government occasionally blocked certain articles from nytimes.com, he was hopeful that the Chinese government would be receptive to the Chinese-language project.

“We’re not tailoring it to the demands of the Chinese government, so we’re not operating like a Chinese media company,” Mr. Kahn said. “China operates a very vigorous firewall. We have no control over that. We hope and expect that Chinese officials will welcome what we’re doing.”
Although the Times claims it will not be "tailoring it to the demands of the Chinese government" there are several signs that design changes have been made to better suit Chinese readers. One obvious example is the ability to easily share articles on popular online services in mainland China such as Sina Weibo, QQ, and Renren.

sample article from The New York Times Chinese site showing various share options

As seen in the above example (from the article here), options are also available to share on Twitter and Facebook -- notable since both of these services are currently blocked in mainland China. If either of those options are selected while behind China's Great Firewall it is not possible to post the article. It is also notable that there does not appear to be a button to share articles on Google+, an option that is readily available on the main www.nytimes.com site.

However, people in mainland China may not be the only Chinese readers being targeted with the site as evidenced by the option for displaying the text in Traditional Chinese. That is the style of characters commonly used in a number of Chinese-speaking areas outside of mainland China, such as Taiwan and Hong Kong. In those places Twitter and Facebook are freely available.

I tested posting articles onto Twitter while using a VPN in China to get through China's Great Firewall and had no problem. However, I ran into a problem when I tested the Facebook option. For any article I tried I was brought to this page:

Paulie Sharer's Timeline page on Facebook

I have never heard of Paulie Sharer, and I wonder whether his last name is somehow tied to this obvious error. A quick online search suggests that the problem is not specific to me nor the Times, but at this point there is not much more I can say definitively. Although I am sure this is not the result the Times desires, I can only imagine whether Paulie Sharer is noticing an unusual number of friend requests.

Regardless, I consider it a positive that The New York Times will be able to reach more readers in mainland China. And many will be watching to see if China later blocks the site -- just like what recently happened to Bloomberg's news site (H/T Edward Wong).

Monday, June 4, 2012

The Thirty-fifth Day of May in Xining, China

As I walked around Xining, Qinghai province, on this thirty-fifth day of May, I noticed that at these various shopping areas:

vegetable market in Xining, China
Vegetable market

street market in Xining, China
Street market

underground shopping center in Xining, China
Underground shopping center

Life seemed to be going on as usual. But when I looked upon Xining's peaceful Central Square:

Central Square in Xining, China


And later in one of Xining's major shopping districts saw police, one openly holding a large gun:

Police van and policeman holding a large gun in Xining, China

I thought of some recently shared photos from 23 years ago of soldiers in Beijing. Later, I pondered China's curious stock market numbers and the various extensions of censorship in China on this day.

For now, I will simply share a photo of these candles I saw several months ago at a temple in Zhuhai's Bailian Dong Park:

lotus shaped candles in a temple in Zhuhai, China

Regardless of who is to blame and why such a terrible event occurred, they remind me of the lights that went out 23 years ago.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Not Black & White: Access in China to Amazon, Facebook, Google+, Windows Live, Yahoo! and More

China's blocking of numerous sites with its "Great Firewall" has been the subject of much attention here, but I haven't touched on the subject recently. So I decided to conduct some "tests" in order to get a sense of current conditions in China for accessing a variety of major websites. As publicly available in-depth reports on the topic are hard to find, I am happy to share what I've found. While I've noticed that an earlier post of mine on the accessibility of Google+ in China was cited in testimony (see here) provided to the The Congressional-Executive Commission on China in the U.S., my primary goal is simply to help readers who are outside of China better appreciate the online experience of website blocking in China. It's often not as clear cut as some may expect.

While there exist several websites that provide the status of websites' accessibility in China, I felt it was worth undertaking my own exploration since none of those services (as far as I am aware) examine whether any blocking is only occurring at the DNS level. This is an important distinction since DNS-blocking is usually very easy to overcome (for some links to information about DNS-blocking see here). Also, DNS-blocking may suggest that China is not fully concerned about the website or that a "formal" decision to block the site has not been made. Other potential problems with using semi-automated websites include their apparent inabilities to test internal pages of sites requiring a login (particularly relevant for many social networking services) and to distinguish cases between a website being significantly slowed or disrupted instead of being fully blocked.

I conducted the tests on January 21 and January 23 while in Guangzhou, China. On each day every website was tested under each of these conditions: using default locally available DNS servers; using non-China-based DNS servers; using a VPN (while also using a non-China-based DNS server). Therefore, every website was tested at least 6 times in total. After changing DNS settings, I deleted all Internet cookies in the browser and rebooted the computer (there are methods for changing DNS settings which should not require rebooting, but I've found them to be less than 100% reliable).

When using a VPN, which can be used to "get through" China's Great Firewall and allow a user to access the Internet as if they were outside of mainland China, all of the reported websites responded normally. This suggests that the problems I observed while not using a VPN were not due to general problems with the websites or my computer. All results reported below are from conditions where a VPN was not used (the "normal" situation for many in China).

First I'll present sites that were completely inaccessible. Second, I'll present sites that were fully accessible. Third, I'll present sites that weren't fully blocked, but did not load normally.

Unlike explorations I conducted last year (see here for the most recent prior tests I conducted on Google+), I noticed no apparent differences for any of the tested websites when using a local versus non-local DNS server. I also found no obvious differences in any site's performance between the two days of testing. Therefore, all results that follow are collapsed across those two conditions.

Sites I could not access from China:

Facebook, Twitter, Vimeo, YouTube

None of these services were accessible. In all cases there was a definitive failed response after some period of time (and not an indefinite wait with no response). Based on previous reports & experience, there are no surprises here as all of these services have been known to be blocked in China.

Sites I could access from China without problem:

eBay -- eBay's U.S. website loaded very quickly on a consistent basis and no problems were seen. Because of this, I used it as a baseline in comparing other sites. If another site loaded slowly, I could use eBay to demonstrate that the problem wasn't due to general slowness in the Internet connection or in connecting to web sites outside of China.

Amazon China -- The Chinese version of Amazon's site loaded very quickly, and I never noticed a problem.

Windows Live & MSN -- I had no problem logging into or using Live (including Hotmail and browser-based Messenger) and MSN.

NPR -- Again, I had no problem accessing the site nor in listening to its streaming audio reports.

Sites I could access, but with problems:

Google+ and Gmail -- My post from last summer "Access to Google+ in China" includes reports from more than 10 days up until the beginning of August. It indicates that DNS-blocking of Google+ appears to have become the norm during the period of testing. However, in the current testing Google+ was not blocked, although sometimes logging in or accessing new information could require waiting several minutes or reloading the page. On one occasion, images (not including Google's icons) wouldn't appear, either in the streams or pages dedicated for photos. Here's an example of a public post by journalist Malcolm Moore when no images were appearing:

post from Google+ with question mark symbols in place of images

It's worth noting that article referenced in the post, "China rushes to jail activists before political handover", was available in China, although the sidebar content on The Telegraph took significantly longer to load than the main content.

Gmail was similar to Google+. I could access it but sometimes I needed to wait for a period of time to access new information. Additionally, Google Chat would occasionally loose connection (I've heard friends in China regularly report a similar experience).

So, both Google+ and Gmail could be a pain to use at times (and sometimes they had no problems at all) but they never appeared to be fully blocked.

Yahoo! -- Yahoo! presented one of the more interesting cases. When first accessing the main page at www.yahoo.com it took approximately 9 minutes for the page to load. That length of time was very consistent across several testings. When the page finally did load it was not rendered correctly as seen here in three screen shots of sections from the same page:

improperly rendered Yahoo page with two Yahoo logos overlaid
Top of main page for Yahoo!

improperly rendered Yahoo page with icons incorrectly displayed in a long column
This column of icons continued at great length

improperly rendered Yahoo page
This content also rendered incorrectly and should appear near the top.
Instead, it followed pages and pages of the icons seen in the previous photo.

However, there was no problem accessing other sites at Yahoo! such as news.yahoo.com or mail.yahoo.com. On several occasions the main page would correctly load after first waiting for the incorrectly rendered Yahoo! main page to load and either 1. reloading the page or 2. going to another Yahoo! site & then returning the main page. However, this behavior was not consistent and sometimes another 9 minutes would be needed for the main page to reload.

Amazon.com -- Typically, the first time trying to access Amazon's U.S. website led to complete failure. However, a reload would cause the main page to quickly appear. The site would typically be usable for a period of time then occasionally it would become temporarily inaccessible again. Such behavior never occurred on Amazon's China-based site.

Bing -- Microsoft's Bing performed without problem. However, on one occasion it became inaccessible for several minutes. I was not able to replicate the experience.

CNN -- A quick overview of CNN indicated no problems except that all videos and video sections of the website would not load.

This blog: Isidor's Fugue -- Similar to the main page of Yahoo!, this blog wasn't blocked but is rendered incorrectly. For example, all of the non-post content on the right side of the page incorrectly appears at the end of all posts on the page. Additionally, some of the space between lines of text is compressed as seen here:


...


Also, for the "Blog Archive" normally only the most recent month's posts appear without clicking on the triangle figures. However, as seen above other months (but not all) appeared as well. Additionally, it is typical that some of the images in posts will not not appear (all images are hosted by Google). A refresh of the page can cause missing images to appear, but then sometimes others images will not load. I'm not aware of any pattern other than that I have yet to see every photo successfully load and the banner photo never loads. That some likely explains why I have data indicating that it's not uncommon for visitors from China to reload pages.

I should note that I don't think any of the interference is directed specifically at the blog but is instead due to it being hosted on Google's service Blogger. However, I haven't yet specifically tested this.

Conclusion:

If there's only one thing I could say, it would be that accessibility of sites in China isn't as simple as "yes" or "no". It's much more nuanced as seen in the last set of sites presented above. This means that checking automated reports of a website's accessibility in China won't necessarily provide key details. For example, my ability to use Google+ stands in contrast to the status at the time for plus.google.com on greatfirewallofchina.org (failed for 5 locations in China, but none are Guangzhou) and websitepulse.com (failed for Guangzhou). This isn't the only difference I've found (they also list Yahoo! as ok). They may be due to testing/reporting methods used or variations, especially in DNS-blocking, in different locations in China (it's also possible that the Great Firewall engages in user-specific blocking based on a variety of factors). While I suspect location is not the main explanation for many (if not all) of the differences if found, I can make no strong claim at the moment as to whether I would find similar results if I were in other locations in China. Ideally, people would conduct identical tests at the same time on multiple occasions in several locations. Well, actually... ideally the Chinese government would provide an explanation of what they were doing.

How are the peculiar results for some of the sites caused? In large part due to the variety of the results found and the complexity of the various technologies possibly involved, I'm not now able to provide any certain answers. I'd certainly welcome input from readers.

Why would the Great Firewall only partially interfere with a website? In some cases, the Chinese government's goals may be best met by not fully blocking a website, but merely making it sufficiently annoying to use so people are disuaded from using it. Other cases may be a result of no clear or country-wide directive existing as to whether a particular website should be blocked. But I also suspect that not all interference is necessarily intended and some of it may instead be "leftovers" of past actions by the Great Firewall or the result of actions not targeted towards the site in question. That the Great Firewall may behave in such a "messy" manner comes as no great surprise. For a more in-depth discussion on the workings of the Great Firewall see an in-depth article by James Fallows here.

Finally, although there was a crackdown on VPNs in China last year, recently I have had no problem using a VPN and all sites loaded normally while using it. I'll have more to say on the VPN issue in a later post. I've noticed a curious pattern of results there, too.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

From Censorship to Creativity

It's not uncommon to hear people in China, both non-Chinese and Chinese, claim that to China's detriment creativity is stifled there -- whether due to traditional Chinese education methods, censorship, or other reasons.  It's an important issue as China hopes to play a bigger role in the world both culturally and economically.  Whatever the case may be, the Chinese government should feel assured that at least in one way its policies are helping to foster creativity.  The engrossing article "Where an Internet Joke Is Not Just a Joke" by Brook Larmer in the New York Times Magazine explains:
No government in the world pours more resources into patrolling the Web than China’s, tracking down unwanted content and supposed miscreants among the online population of 500 million with an army of more than 50,000 censors and vast networks of advanced filtering software. Yet despite these restrictions — or precisely because of them — the Internet is flourishing as the wittiest space in China. “Censorship warps us in many ways, but it is also the mother of creativity,” says Hu Yong, an Internet expert and associate professor at Peking University. “It forces people to invent indirect ways to get their meaning across, and humor works as a natural form of encryption.”

To slip past censors, Chinese bloggers have become masters of comic subterfuge, cloaking their messages in protective layers of irony and satire. This is not a new concept, but it has erupted so powerfully that it now defines the ethos of the Internet in China. Coded language has become part of mainstream culture, with the most contagious memes tapping into widely shared feelings about issues that cannot be openly discussed, from corruption and economic inequality to censorship itself. “Beyond its comic value, this humor shows where netizens are pushing against the boundaries of the state,” says Xiao Qiang, an adjunct professor at the University of California, Berkeley, whose Web site, China Digital Times, maintains an entertaining lexicon of coded Internet terms. “Nothing else gives us a clearer view of the pressure points in Chinese society.”
The article goes on to discuss the efforts of Wen Yunchao and Pi San who have each found their own methods of expressing their ideas creatively in a heavily censored environment.  They each have also had concerns about the impact it could have on their own safety.  The Chinese government may bemoan the treatment it receives by the foreign press, but it's hard to see how they could be any more hard hitting than what has been expressed by Wen and Pi.

There is much more I could say, but for now I just highly recommend reading the full article.  If you're not yet convinced, then maybe the cartoon below (may not be suitable for children due to violence) by Pi San will compel you.  As noted in the web magazine Danwei:
Kuang Kuang’s adventures are pure fantasy, but to many Chinese people born in the 1970s and 1980s, Kuang Kuang’s school experiences are all too familiar. The animations are also the closest thing China has to South Park.

In the episode you can watch below, Kuang Kuang is madder then hell, and he’s not going to take it any more, so he blows up his school, something many overworked Chinese school children have probably fantasized about.
Here's the video:

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

A Conversation with a Journalism Student and Shantou, Guangdong Province

Recently while riding a train in southern Taiwan, I had the opportunity to speak to student who is studying journalism at Shantou University in Shantou, Guangdong province in mainland China.  She was in Taiwan as part of a student exchange program -- a sign of the openness that is growing between Taiwan and mainland China.  She had several positive things to say about Taiwan, so I asked her whether she'd prefer to later work in Taiwan or Mainland China (if she had the choice).  She said Mainland China even though in her own words it was more "challenging" due to the level of censorship applied by the Chinese government.  Despite that, she felt that China would offer her greater opportunity since there was "more to discover".

Her story reminded me of many others I've heard from some of the youth I've spoken to in China -- frustrated by censorship but pragmatically accepting it as a part of life.  In a later post (yes, I have a lot of "later posts" lined up and am working on them), I'll write about another student I met who is studying law and journalism at a university not too far from Shantou.  Her story helps to draw attention to the broad array of views that are held by people in China.  However, it can be challenging to express those views when some of your articles are blocked from being published in the school newspaper because they're not "appropriate".

I visited Shantou (map) this past winter and also had the chance to visit Shantou University.  Shantou is less than an hour drive from another city I highlighted in a post over half a year ago -- Chaozhou, Guangdong.  Although Shantou is roughly in the middle of two other cities covered in recent posts, Hong Kong & Taipei, and shares aspects of their cultures, it is readily apparent that its economic development lags significantly behind them.

In my usual spirit I'll share a selection of photos to provide a glimpse of some scenes around the city.  The photos around the university in particular provide a hint of some of the issues I was exploring there.

students picking up delivered packages sitting outside, several with Amazon.com logos of the boxes
Students picking up their recently delivered packages at Shantou University.  Notice a familiar logo?

PC's were the norm in the Shantou University library.

This Shantou University classroom was filled with Macs, though.

The people with umbrellas are actually part of an artistic piece at Shantou Unversity.

A typical street scene

One of the main streets of Shantou

A pedestrian shopping street

What was this man watching on the TV in a small restaurant?

American wrestling

However, I sampled their famous snacks & sweets.

A kiddie play area in a shopping center

A slide offers a quick and fun way to descend this hill in the Queshi Scenic Area.

A market in Shantou's central "Old Town"

Another scene in the "Old Town"

Harry Potter working his magic

Friday, September 30, 2011

Facebook in Taiwan: Lessons for Mainland China

When I recently arrived in Taiwan I didn't have a set agenda and was open to exploring a variety of issues relating to how it compares to Mainland China.  A discussion with some high school students in Hualien provided an opening to what I found to be one of the more interesting contrasts.  Unlike in Mainland China where Facebook is blocked, many youth I spoke to in Taiwan regularly use Facebook.  My experiences appear to have been reasonably representative.  Adaline Lau on ClickZ Asia notes that Facebook had caught up to its largest rival in Taiwan, Yahoo's Wretch.cc, about one year ago.  And Paul Mozur on The Wall Street Journal shares that as of March 2011 about 40% of Taiwan's population had a Facebook account.

Susan Su on Inside Facebook last year examined the potential lessons that could be learned from Facebook's dramatic growth in Taiwan:
In short, Taiwan has become a Facebook country.

It’s not just the fact that the site has reached market saturation, however, but the rapidity with which it did so. It took a whirlwind three quarters for Facebook to jump from fewer than 400,000 total Taiwanese users in June of 2009 to its current 6.2 million. What were the factors that account for this rapid rise, and could they be replicated in Japan, Korea or mainland China (assuming Facebook were to become unblocked in that country)?
Su suggests that Taiwan serves as a valuable "hybrid" to examine since it shares a variety of characteristics with different nearby countries.  For example, its economy is comparable to South Korea, yet it shares a spoken language with Mainland China.  Because of this, Facebook's success in Taiwan may provide particularly invaluable insights for how Facebook could grow in nearby regions where it is relatively struggling.  While I think there are some issues in using Taiwan as an example this way, I think it's worth exploring what Su's conclusions about Taiwan may say about Mainland China.

In a nutshell, Su argues that "stagnant competitors" and social games were key to Facebook's growth in Taiwan.

Given that Mainland China already has a number of active social networking services, such as Renren, QQ, Sina Weibo, etc., that I wouldn't label as stagnant (at least not all of them), some may argue that the market there is saturated and doesn't offer the same opportunity to Facebook as Taiwan did.  However, as I noted in my earlier post about the potential value of Facebook (and some other global services) operating in Mainland China, I think there is ample space for services that can meet a key need that no Chinese company can now fulfill -- connecting Chinese users to the rest of the world.

Regardless, Facebook is most likely going to have great difficulty making any gains in China as long as it remains blocked there.  In this regard, it's important to consider how Facebook's impact in Taiwan may be influencing the Chinese government.  As I've shown before, it can certainly influence some Chinese people.  So, if the Chinese government is now viewing Taiwan as a test case does it believe Facebook is only a "safe" social gaming site there?  I doubt it.  Not only has Facebook been rapidly gaining popularity in Taiwan for its social gaming, but it's becoming increasingly ingrained into another area in which Taiwan greatly differs from Mainland China: politics.  Paul Mozur writes:
President Ma Ying-jeou opened his official Facebook fan page on Jan. 28, using the social network to disseminate videos of his speeches, provide updates on his activities and offer sometimes fiery responses to criticism from the local press. Other high profile politicians with official Facebook pages include Taiwan’s first democratically elected president, Li Teng-hui, and opposition Democratic Progressive Party presidential candidates Tsai Ing-wen and Su Tseng-chang. Meanwhile, groups from aboriginal associations to environmental activists and students upset about new mandatory Confucian curriculum use the space as a forum to plan activities and distribute petitions.

Far from being a force for revolution as social networking sites have become in the Middle East, Facebook in Taiwan is in the process of being fully integrated into its democratic system. But the myriad ways the site has proven a powerful tool for organizing people and Taiwan’s cultural and linguistic closeness to China is likely to give Chinese officials pause when considering whether to allow Facebook to enter China. Most likely that means any plan for Facebook would have to include self-censorship and cooperation with the Chinese Communist Party that would earn the company a healthy dose of opprobrium in the U.S..
I agree that Facebook's role in Taiwanese political issues is "likely to give Chinese officials pause".

As I argued in an earlier post, even if a company that offers global social networking services has to censor in order to operate throughout China, its availability can provide important benefits.  However, something I didn't discuss at the time is that companies such as Facebook may be blocked in Mainland China even if they offer to censor material.  Issues such as competition or social gaming are all beside the point if the Chinese government simply won't allow Facebook, censored or not, to operate unblocked in Mainland China.  I'll comment more on this possibility in a later post.

For now, I'll just express again that Taiwan's Internet environment serves as a important comparison to Mainland China's.  I suspect some Chinese officials would agree.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Facebook Contrasts: Students in Taiwan and Mainland China

Hualien City is a smaller city on the eastern coast of Taiwan with some wonderful natural scenery nearby.  One afternoon a few days ago I stopped by a store in Hualien well-known for its shaved-ice desserts.  While I was there, several local senior high school students who were also enjoying the desserts asked if they could sit with me and chat.  They were likely interested in speaking to a foreigner and practicing their English.

It provided an opportunity to learn a little about them and see how they compared to the many youth I've spoken with and researched in Mainland China.  Of course, there is a wide range of youth in Mainland China and I am not sure whether the students I spoke to in Hualien were representative of either their city or of Taiwan.  Still, there was an aspect of the conversation that clearly differed from any I have had in Mainland China.

After chatting for maybe 10-20 minutes they asked something that most youth in Mainland China never ask.

They asked me if I had a Facebook account so that we could be "friends".

In most places I've been in Mainland China if I were speaking to local youth they may ask if I use QQ or Sina Weibo, but almost never do they ask about Facebook.  That isn't surprising since Facebook is blocked in Mainland China.

However, in Taiwan there is no Great Firewall blocking sites such as Facebook on the Internet.  The Taiwanese students told me they use Facebook regularly and that it is particularly useful for keeping connected with their friends from junior high school.  Unlike junior high school, their senior high schools have specialized areas of study, so now many of their friends go to different schools.

There were other indications that Facebook is a regular part of their lives -- in some ways similar to people in other parts of the world.  For example, after having someone take a photo of us with one of their mobile phones they excitedly spoke about later posting the photo on their Facebook accounts.  And at one moment several of them energetically said (zàn) to voice their approval of something.  (zàn) is the equivalent on Facebook in Taiwan for "Like".  They were consciously using it in the same manner they would use it online on Facebook.

Their use of Facebook is striking in comparison to most youth in Mainland China.  Like the waitress in Chengdu I wrote about in an earlier post, I believe there are many in China who would question why it is that these students in Hualien, Taiwan:

Five students in Hualien posing for a photo in a dessert store

are free to use online services such as Facebook without restriction while these students in Zigong, Sichuan province:

Five students in Zigong posing for a photo in a McDonalds

are not only blocked from using Facebook but also services such as YouTube, Twitter, and more.

I suspect that many of these students would agree with the waitress in Chengdu when she said, "That's not fair!"

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Facebook, Taiwan, and a Waitress's Comments on Censorship in China

Several months ago while at a cafe in Chengdu, Sichuan, I spoke with one of the waitresses and asked her a number of questions about her use of the Internet.  Eventually, the conversation touched on the issue of online censorship in China.  In summary, she expressed that she didn't like it in terms how it directly impacted her online experience, but she felt that it was for the best so that China could maintain stability during its current stage of development.

I've heard similar comments from many others across China.  There's much I could say about this viewpoint, but for now I'll just share what followed in this particular case since I believe it highlights some deeper issues and I hope it can stimulate further discussion.

After her comments defending censorship, I simply asked the waitress to take a look at the screen of my laptop, and I pulled up a browser window with Facebook on it.  After looking at the screen for a few moments she asked me how I could be using Facebook -- she knew it was blocked in China.  I briefly explained how I used a VPN to get through China's Great Firewall.

I then pointed out some posts a friend had written on Facebook entirely in Traditional Chinese (Language note: Some Chinese characters exist in both a Simplified Chinese form and a Traditional Chinese form.  In mainland China and Singapore typically Simplified Chinese characters are used when available.  In other places such as Hong Kong or Taiwan typically only Traditional Chinese characters are used).  I asked the waitress what she thought of the posts.  She said she felt that my friend had a "special" way of expressing herself since she used Traditional Chinese.  I suspected the waitress's impression was based on the assumption my friend lived in mainland China, so I then told her that my friend lives in Taiwan.  The waitress nodded and understood that it would be typical for my friend to use Traditional Chinese.

I waited.

After looking at the screen for a bit longer the waitress suddenly cocked her head, looked at me, and with a puzzled expression asked, "They can use Facebook in Taiwan?"  I explained that Facebook wasn't blocked in Taiwan and anyone there was free to use it.

Her face quickly shifted to an indignant expression, and she emphatically said, "That's not fair!  Why can they use it and we can't?!?"

In later discussion she expressed that she was frustrated that she couldn't use a service such as Facebook.  I think it's particularly striking how her expressed acceptance of censorship significantly changed in a short period of time without any confrontational debate or explicit argument.  Instead of justifying the censorship she was beginning to strongly and openly question it.  Especially given the informal nature of this interaction, whether this indicated a deep change of opinion or an opening up of ideas already held is difficult to confidently determine.  Regardless, what she expressed, both verbally and emotionally, had shifted dramatically over the course of the discussion.

In part, I believe what occurred was that the waitress had previously been able to rationalize why it was OK she didn't have the same freedoms as someone in a place such as the US by noting the differences between the countries and cultures.  However, people in Taiwan can be considered "Chinese people" -- from the perspective of the waitress this was true both in terms of ancestry and of country.  Seeing that what was closed off to her and others in mainland China was freely available to anyone in Taiwan made it more difficult for her to maintain her earlier justification of censorship.  I also suspect the comparison to Taiwan impacted her sense of pride and caused a more visceral reaction.

I never did try to provide the waitress an answer to her question about why people in Taiwan can use Facebook but people in mainland China can not.  It was a question I could have easily asked her myself without even bothering with my laptop or Facebook.

But it makes all the difference that she asked it herself.