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

Thursday, January 7, 2016

A Closed Space Filled with Books China Doesn't Want Read: Causeway Bay Books in Hong Kong

If you are looking for something different from The Nostalgia Book Room — a Cultural Revolution themed store in Shaoguan, Guangdong — Causeway Bay Books with its banned-in-mainland-China offerings might be the answer. Today I decided to visit the store for the first time.

Far from Wuya Lane, the store can be found on the more crowded Lockhart Road in Hong Kong, a city with broader freedoms than Shaoguan and the rest of mainland China.

Causeway Bay Books on Lockhart Road in Hong Kong

The store doesn't display an English name, but a blue and white sign with its Chinese name 銅鑼灣書店 is easy to spot near an exit for the Causeway Bay MTR station. As you get closer, more signs confirm you have arrived at the right place.

Storefront signs for Causeway Bay Books (銅鑼灣書店)

All that remains is to enter the building and go up one story by stairs.

entrance to building where Causeway Bay Books is located

A sign outside the building today, may have convinced some people to abort a visit to the store though.

sign with "公安出未注意!" repeated three times

With an apparent typo*, it emphatically warns police from mainland China are around. Duly noted.

When I arrived at the store's entrance inside the building, I saw a man who looked somewhat like a cross between Zhou Yongkang and Hulk Hogan photographing notes on the store's outer door. He turned towards me and appraised the situation. After I smiled, he emitted a sound somewhat like a cross between a grunt and a laugh. He soon left without a word, which did not surprise me. But I did not expect he would go up instead of down the steps. I did not see him again.

Unfortunately, I am not able to provide a look inside the store as I did with The Nostalgia Book Room. Due to the suspicious disappearances of five people who worked there, Causeway Bay Books is currently closed.

door to Causeway Bay Books with "Closed" sign and notes left by visitors

During the approximately five minutes I was near the door, 4 people stopped by. One person initially acted as if they were going to a location higher in the building, but all appeared to have come solely to visit the store. Several took photographs, and all read the notes with wishes in Chinese for a safe return of the booksellers. The notes differed from those which appear in a video of another person's earlier visit to the closed store.

One note had a message in English similar to some Chinese messages on other notes.

note with messages "祝願早日平安回 重新營業" and "Freedom of speech never dies"
Freedom of speech never dies
from HKer
Freedom of speech may not now be dead in Hong Kong. But the current closure of Causeway Bay Books and a much larger international bookstore chain removing "controversial" books from its shelves in Hong Kong are signs of how it is suffering a thousand ongoing cuts.

locked chain around an outdoor metal door

*Thanks to several Hongkongers who believe this represents a common type of error for helping me sort this out. 未 appears to be a result of two errors regarding the likely intended character 沒. 沒 and 末 sound the same in Cantonese. 末 and 未 look similar. As someone who once researched language cognition by examining errors in written English, I found this intriguing.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

No Rain and Missing People & Books in Hong Kong

Unlike yesterday, no Hong Kong AMBER signal was needed to warn of heavy rains today in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong Island on a clear day

The booksellers remain missing though. And more is missing:
English-language-focused Page One, which has a total of eight outlets in the city – six of them at Hong Kong International Airport – is understood to have begun withdrawing sensitive material from sale in late November, around the time the first of five men linked to Causeway Bay Books went missing. . . .

"The manager did not tell us the reason, but said Page One would no longer sell banned [in mainland China] books ever again.”
The Chinese government's role in the booksellers' disappearance remains unclear. But surely they like this result.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

U.S. Destroyer Appears in the South China Sea and the Nanxiong Bus Station

China allowed news agencies to report a U.S. destroyer recently making the "most significant U.S. challenge yet to the 12-nautical-mile territorial limits China claims around artificial islands it has built up in the Spratly archipelago". Today at a bus station in Nanxiong, a county-level city in northern Guangdong, I saw news posted about the "illegal" action.

Woman at a bus station in Nanxiong, China, reading news about the U.S. challenging some of China's territorial claims in the South China Sea

In discussing some of the incident's coverage by "the most-watched and most tightly-controlled news broadcast" in China, Andrew Chubb points out why China may not similarly cover future challenges by the U.S.:
The high-handed demand that the American side “correct its mistakes” leaves the CCP well positioned to claim that its stern response forced an aggressive hegemon to back down. At least one US official has described the patrols as “routine“, suggesting there will be more to come. Even if the US patrols happen, say, once a month from now on, it will be up to the CCP to decide how often Chinese mass audiences hear about this. Having established a high level of domestic publicity on this occasion, the CCP might well be able to (implicitly or explicitly) encourage the perception that it forced the US to back down, simply by not affording the same level of publicity to future FoN patrols.
I am not going to even try to predict what will happen, other than that I doubt the issues over the territorial claims will be resolved anytime soon. Read Chubb's post "China announces the US’s Spratly patrols to the masses" for more analysis of the news coverage on CCTV's Xinwen Lianbo and an example of how China's control of news can be as newsworthy as the news itself.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

A Few Perspectives on the Chinese Government's Strength

In the essay "China After the Reform Era", Carl F. Minzner argues China has taken significant steps back from many of the reforms it made during the post-Mao era. Some examples he mentions include:
The crackdown on public-interest lawyers has tightened. Social-media sites have been subjected to tighter controls. Even those used to a degree of immunity have found themselves targeted. Foreign businesses have been alarmed by stepped-up corruption probes into pharmaceutical companies, dawn raids by antimonopoly regulators on firms ranging from Microsoft to Mercedes-Benz, and proposed antiterror rules that would require foreign software companies to hand over their encryption keys. New civil society laws have tightened restrictions on foreign NGOs. As of early 2015, central CCP organs had begun to speak of the need to “rectify” higher education, purge “Western values” from textbooks, and redirect art and architecture back toward traditional Chinese forms.
In "Is Xi Jinping Losing Control of China?" J. Michael Cole argues that recent changes indicate a decline in power:
All of this—the new stricter laws, the crackdown on non-governmental organizations, lawyers, bloggers, web sites, and journalists—is indicative of a government that does not have the situation under control, a situation that is unlikely to be helped by the recent stock market crash. Rarely is authoritarianism a signal of strength; instead, it stems from fear, paranoia, and panic . . .
But not everyone is convinced these are all signs the Chinese government is losing control. In the ChinaFile conversation "China’s ‘Rule by Law’ Takes an Ugly Turn" Keith Hand suggests quite the opposite:
I think we need to consider a different possibility. Together with China’s assertive posture in territorial disputes, the adoption of a broad national security law, and proposed legislation that would place strict new limits on the Internet and activities by foreign non-profits, the mass detention of rights lawyers suggests to me that China’s leaders are so confident in their strength that they no longer need to maintain the pretense of limited engagement and tolerance.
For now, I simply recommend the above three pieces. They offer plenty of food for thought.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Chinese and American Fourths Today in Changsha, China

This afternoon in Changsha, Hunan, I saw several things which could bring to mind an historical day on the 4th.

U.S. Flag hanging at a bar in Changsha

woman wearing a shirt with a design resembling the U.S. flag

shirt for sale with a 96 and patterns similar to the U.S. flag
Add caption

shoes with U.S. flags worn by two females

But of course, today is the 4th of June and not the 4th of July. None of the American-themed items I saw seemed out of the ordinary compared to other days in Changsha anyway.

I didn't see anything related to today's historical importance, though, except something which brought to mind China's ability to create "The People’s Republic of Amnesia".

young woman being photographed with a sculpture of an alpaca-like creature

If you have questions about why the alpaca-like creature triggered such a reaction, I recommend reading an brief piece on China's grass-mud horse. The second photo is especially fitting.

Otherwise, what I saw today most reminded me of what I saw one year ago in Hengyang, Hunan, three years ago in Qinghai, Xining, and four years ago in Chengdu, Sichuan. Not much has recently changed in China regarding this day, but the efforts to silence and forget have spread.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Little By Little: More Expression at a Hong Kong Pier

Where there was a temporary Tiananmen memorial in Hong Kong earlier this week, today the pedestrian area was back to its usual state.

people walking at the Kowloon Public Pier

Nearby, also as usual, several musical groups were performing — including Poco A Poco.

musical group Poco A Poco performing at the Kowloon Public Pier

Next to their sign was a QR code to the Poco A Poco Facebook page which expresses:
Positive Message x Hong Kong!
Spread Love
Spread Smile
Spread Happiness
Although their goals differ from those who built the memorial, Poco A Poco's use of Facebook, popular in Hong Kong but blocked in mainland China, is also a sign of how there is less censorship and more free expression in Hong Kong than almost everywhere else in China.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

A Temporary Tiananmen Memorial in Hong Kong

Hong Kong's Kowloon Public Pier offers a stunning view of Hong Kong Island and is a popular destination for tourists, including many from mainland China. When I walked by this past Sunday afternoon on a traditional Chinese holiday, Qingming (Ching Ming) Festival, otherwise known in English as Tomb-Sweeping Day, I saw displays about the violent crackdown which occurred around Beijing's Tiananmen Square nearly 26 years ago. There was also a monument for those who died and posters advertising the yearly June 4 Tiananmen candlelight vigil held in Hong Kong. It was organized by The Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China. Their website at does not appear to be accessible at the moment, but a Wikipedia entry describes their goals as:
. . . supporting patriotic democratic movements in China, putting an end to the current one-party dictatorship established by the Communist Party of China, and building a democratic China. It has become the largest grassroots pro-democracy advocacy group in Hong Kong, comprising over 200 base-level members from labour, councillor offices, religious, students, women and political commentary interest groups.
While I was at the pier, the displays caught the eyes of numerous passersby, some possibly from mainland China where such information is heavily censored. Here is a bit of what could be seen:

Booth for Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China at Kowloon Public Pier

sign:" Offer a flower to those who died for democracy in China, especially the Tiananmen Martyrs of June 4th 1989 on Ching Ming Festival today when the Chinese people commemorate their deceased dear ones.'

statues and memorial by the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China

man and boy reading stories of people who died near Tiananmen Square

men reading information posted by Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China

people reading information about Tiananmen Square

a sign with an image of Tank Man

sign:"Remember June 4 and Spread the Truth, the Tide of Democracy Cannot be Stopped!

young woman reading formation about Tiananmen Square

Young man photographic information post by Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China with his mobile phone

Monday, April 6, 2015

Sneaking a Peak at The New York Times in China

sign with words "ON SALE HERE — International New York Times"

The above sign currently appears near a newsstand at the Tsim Sha Tsui Star Ferry Pier in Hong Kong. It caught my eye since since The New York Times is not easy to read in mainland China, especially since it is blocked online.

Despite the challenges, here is one way the Times has tried to reach people in China as described by Heather Timmons:
Every time a new article appears on the Times’s Chinese language website, three or four copies of it appear on “mirror” sites scattered around the internet. While these mirrors, like this one of the company’s home page, are often quickly made inaccessible by censors, new ones crop up constantly, often made or sanctioned by the Times. The recent hacking attack on GitHub targeted a “mirror” of the New York Times’s Chinese-language site was not set up by the Times itself, but the strategy is the same—create a webpage that points readers in China to New York Times’ Chinese language content, and circumvents censors.
For more about the situation and other methods used by the Times, read the full article by Heather Timmons on Quartz.

Monday, December 15, 2014

China's National Anthem Ban

China has expressed its concern about when and where the national anthem is played:
China has banned the national anthem from being performed at weddings, funerals, commercial and other non-political events, state media reports.

Under new rules, the anthem is to be reserved for major political and diplomatic occasions, as well as places such as sporting arenas and schools.
Performing the anthem in the wrong setting will lead to people being "criticised and corrected". I am not sure how the rules apply if a wedding is held at a sports arena.

I see a bit of irony in China banning only its own national anthem and am reminded of an event in China several years ago which involved another patriotic song:
China's state TV accompanied coverage of the historic launch of the country's first space laboratory with a patriotic US song, America the Beautiful. . . .

Viewers of CCTV were treated to a minute-long animation set to the American song.
I suspect some criticism and correction occurred at CCTV's offices afterwards. Regardless, China has not announced any bans on America the Beautiful—something wedding and funeral planners might want to keep in mind. As CCTV knows, it's a great piece.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

European Union Wants More "Effective and Complete" Censorship for the "Right to be Forgotten"

Several months ago in a deep look at the European Union's online "right to be forgotten", Jeffrey Toobin described what put it into place:
In 1998, a Spanish newspaper called La Vanguardia published two small notices stating that certain property owned by a lawyer named Mario Costeja González was going to be auctioned to pay off his debts. Costeja cleared up the financial difficulties, but the newspaper records continued to surface whenever anyone Googled his name. In 2010, Costeja went to Spanish authorities to demand that the newspaper remove the items from its Web site and that Google remove the links from searches for his name. The Spanish Data Protection Agency, which is the local representative of a Continent-wide network of computer-privacy regulators, denied the claim against La Vanguardia but granted the claim against Google. This spring, the European Court of Justice, which operates as a kind of Supreme Court for the twenty-eight members of the European Union, affirmed the Spanish agency’s decisions. La Vanguardia could leave the Costeja items up on its Web site, but Google was prohibited from linking to them on any searches relating to Costeja’s name. The Court went on to say, in a broadly worded directive, that all individuals in the countries within its jurisdiction had the right to prohibit Google from linking to items that were “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive in relation to the purposes for which they were processed and in the light of the time that has elapsed.”
As a recent press release clarifies, the ruling doesn't require the complete removal of applicable links:
The judgment expressly states that the right only affects the results obtained from searches made on the basis of a person’s name and does not require deletion of the link from the indexes of the search engine altogether. That is, the original information will still be accessible using other search terms, or by direct access to the source.
Google has since complied by censoring search results on a case by case basis only on its relevant European websites, such as for Germany. The "localization" of the censorship is similar to how Google once censored, and Bing continues to censor, search results for China — censorship specific to China's regulations only occurred/occurs on their China-based services. There would be an incredible outcry in places such as the U.S. and Europe had China insisted on their censorship rules applying elsewhere.

However, this is essentially what the E.U. now expects in regards to its "right to be forgotten". Mike Masnik sums up a key aspect of the new guidelines:
Specifically, it argues that if a person's privacy rights are violated by having results show up in search engines in Europe, then those same rights are violated if they show up in any non-EU search results as well (all emphasis in the original):
The [data protection working group] considers that in order to give full effect to the data subject’s rights as defined in the Court’s ruling, de-listing decisions must be implemented in such a way that they guarantee the effective and complete protection of data subjects’ rights and that EU law cannot be circumvented. In that sense, limiting de-listing to EU domains on the grounds that users tend to access search engines via their national domains cannot be considered a sufficient means to satisfactorily guarantee the rights of data subjects according to the ruling. In practice, this means that in any case de-listing should also be effective on all relevant .com domains.

Under EU law, everyone has a right to data protection.
The key line here is not actually bolded in the original. It's the "this means that in any case de-listing should also be effective on all relevant .com domains." Basically, if it can be reached from Europe, it has to be blocked. Or, in even shorter form, "EU regulations apply around the globe online."
Even if Google could address the E.U.'s concern by limiting E.U. users to local versions of Google or by censoring across all domains only for requests coming from the EU, either of these methods would likely be easily circumventable through use of a VPN, similar to how VPNs are used in China to access blocked websites. So, even though .com domains are specifically mentioned, it's hard to see how Masnik's summary for the guidelines, "E.U. regulations apply around the globe online", isn't accurate in the end since the search service providers are expected to guarantee "effective and complete protection".

In general, the related issues I've been pondering fall into two categories: 1) the merits and practicality of the "right to be forgotten" and 2) the E.U.'s apparent attempt to unilaterally apply it globally. I will have more to say about both later and will end this post with a question related to China which feels somewhat surreal to even have to ask.

Is it simply a matter of time until the E.U. demands a Chinese online search service accessible in Europe, such as Baidu, selectively "forget" something?

In other words, could the E.U. cause even more censorship in China?

Friday, November 14, 2014

The New York Times Responds to Xi Jinping With a Less-Than-Full Account of Its Own Actions

In the past, The New York Times has allowed government requests to impact what and when they publish. For example:
In an unusual note, [The New York Times] said in its story that it held off publishing the 3,600-word article for a year after the newspaper's representatives met with White House officials. It said the White House had asked the paper not to publish the story at all, "arguing that it could jeopardize continuing investigations and alert would-be terrorists that they might be under scrutiny."

The Times said it agreed to remove information that administration officials said could be "useful" to terrorists and delayed publication for a year "to conduct additional reporting."
And the Times has itself acknowledged that it "has come under fire in the past for agreeing to government requests to hold back sensitive stories or information".

Yet in a recent response to President Xi Jinping's comments regarding some foreign journalists' inability to obtain visas, the Times' editorial board wrote:
The Times has no intention of altering its coverage to meet the demands of any government — be it that of China, the United States or any other nation. Nor would any credible news organization.
Technically speaking, the White House's requests may not count as "demands", and the Times carefully writes "has no intention". At the very least though, as Bill Bishop wrote, their claim is "a bit disingenuous".

The Times has indeed altered its coverage in the name of U.S. national security — something surely not lost on the Chinese government. Both the U.S. government and the Chinese government desire to limit the spread of information that could negatively impact national security. Yet they differ significantly in how they try to achieve this goal and how they define "national security" — no small matter in the Times' predicament in China.

In painting a misleading picture of its own willingness to alter coverage, the Times does not provide "the fullest, most truthful discussion of events and people shaping the world" but does provide an easy excuse to dismiss their argument or question their intentions. And in doing so, the Times misses an opportunity to make more nuanced points useful for discussing how foreign journalists operating with greater freedom could be to China's genuine benefit, including its national security.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Seven Tiananmen Tweets

Much has been recently expressed and shared regarding the events at Tiananmen Square 25 years ago and their lasting impact in China today. Below are seven people's tweets I retweeted (shared) last week during my moments on Twitter (if no images automatically appear, viewing this post on the blog (not in a reader) and / or enabling javascript may do the trick). The tweets are brief and only a small piece of the picture, but they say much.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Google Blocked in China (Part 10¹⁰⁰)

Recently reported the increased blocking of Google's services. As described by Dan Levin in The New York Times:
The authorities in China have made Google’s services largely inaccessible in recent days, a move most likely related to the government’s broad efforts to stifle discussion of the 25th anniversary of the crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square on June 3 and 4, 1989.

In addition to Google’s search engines being blocked, the company’s products, including Gmail, Calendar and Translate, have been affected.
I have done some repeated testing over the course of several hours at my location in Hengyang, Hunan province with the VPN I use to "break through" China's Great Firewall (GFW) turned off and using a local DNS servers. My experience was mostly consistent with what is described except I was able to reliably reach:

1. Google China's "splash page" at
2. Google's map service for China at
3. Google's translation service for China at

The map and translation services were useable, but some components didn't quickly or ever load. Notably, all of the above services appear to be based in mainland China. Mainland Chinese users are redirected to Google's Hong Kong servers for other services. Except for one brief initial moment, I have not been able to access Google's services based on servers outside of mainland China.

I would also like to comment on two sentences in the post:
Back in 2009, Google decided to remove itself from China so that it no longer needed to censor its content. But it seems that Google is quite happy that GFW does the censorship work for them.
To be clear, Google has not fully removed itself from China and still has offices, employees, free lunches, etc. here. In 2010 it did stop censoring its search results per China's rules and redirected some of its services to servers in Hong Kong. I would not be surprised if Google is "quite happy" not to be censoring as it did in China before. But I doubt they would characterize the GFW as doing "the censorship work for them". Google has already made it clear it would no longer censor regardless. My guess is that Google prefers the GFW selectively blocking Google search over completely blocking it. But what would make them "quite happy" is if the GFW ceased to exist.

During the course of today's testing, I noticed some curiosities that deserve further attention. If they prove noteworthy, I will share them while also moving forward with posts on other themes.

Finally, as this post proves since I need to access blocked-in-China Blogger to write it, my VPN is working as usual at the moment.

Friday, May 30, 2014

The Power of Paper and Censorship in Thailand

One reason to read George Orwell's "Nineteen Eighty-Four" in paperback:

person holding a copy of George Orwell's "Nineteen Eighty-Four"

The silent reading protest against the military coup in Thailand occurred in a country which has seen a sharp recent increase in censorship. For one overview of the censorship now occurring in Thailand's traditional media and online social media see Aim Sinpeng's guest post on The Washington Post. A number of Thai companies have readily accommodated the military's requests, but foreign companies with online services popular in Thailand are proving to be more of a challenge. For example, Facebook and Google so far haven't displayed any eagerness to meet with Thai officials and "discuss online anticoup dissent".

Perhaps most telling about what the military has in mind for the long term are plans for a new system to monitor online expression in Thailand:
The director of the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology’s IT crime prevention bureau, Thanit Prapatanan, tells VOA it will likely be several months before the plan for the new control system is worked out.

Thanit cites the example of China, where he argues that filtering does not have a significant impact on society, rather it just blocks some websites deemed dangerous, but all Internet ports are not closed.
Thanit's use of China as a positive example says much.

I won't try to guess what steps Thai's military will take next. But if Thailand follows China's lead in restricting online expression, it's hard to imagine that the censorship won't significantly impact Thailand's society in Twenty Fourteen.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Online Ads in China for Breaking Through the Great Firewall

In previous years, I have documented some of the impact of China's Great Firewall, which selectively blocks or interferes with websites and services on the Internet in China. When I typically connect to the Internet, though, I use a paid-for personal virtual private network (VPN). The VPN allows me to have an online experience as if I were outside of China and not directly affected by the Great Firewall. China has at times taken efforts to block personal VPNs, but the companies providing them can offer new ways to connect. It can feel somewhat like a game of Whac-A-Mole.

Recently, I stopped by a cafe in Hengyang, Hunan province, and sat at a table which had a computer with Internet access. I took advantage of the opportunity to see whether what I saw on a "local" computer presumably not using a VPN differed from what I had seen while not using a VPN on my own computer. Most seemed the same. For example, my own blog was partially blocked, likely due to it having a non-blocked domain name but being hosted on Google's Blogger, which is blocked in China. To serve as a sort of baseline, part of my quick exploration included visiting several foreign websites that I would not expect to be blocked in China. One aspect of what I saw offers an opportunity to highlight some issues regarding VPN usage in China.

I checked ESPN's sports website first. After an initial pause, it loaded and based on just looking at it nothing was obviously amiss*.

ESPN home page with an ad for a VPN service on a computer in Hengyang, China

But one portion of the screen jumped out at me: an advertisement for a "VPN for China" from GoTrusted with the selling point of unblocking websites such as Facebook and YouTube.

I clicked the ad and GoTrusted's website quickly loaded.

GoTrusted home page on a computer in Hengyang, China

Next, I checked two blogs offering viewpoints from different sides of the American political spectrum. One, Balloon Juice, has a more liberal perspective and was not blocked.

Balloon Juice home page with an ad for a VPN service on a computer in Hengyang, China

It had an ad for another site offering VPNs, Facebook and China were again both specifically mentioned. I clicked the ad and the site loaded without any apparent problem. home page on a computer in Hengyang, China

The other blog I visited, Hot Air, offers a more conservative perspective and loaded without any obvious problems as well.

Hot Air home page with an ad for two VPN services on a computer in Hengyang, China

Not only did Hot Air include ads for both of the previously mentioned VPNs, but it also had other ads such as "Explore Topeka" and "Immigration Attorney".

China probably isn't too concerned about ESPN, Balloon Juice, Hot Air, or information on Topeka, but what about the VPN advertisements? Regarding foreign companies offering VPNs, in 2010 CNN reported:
Steve Dickinson, a China-based lawyer with Harris & Moure, an international business law firm, said that companies supplying VPN products in China are technically breaking Chinese law.

"China has no jurisdiction over such persons. As long as they do not physically enter China, there is no risk," he said in an email to CNN.
To which Dan Harris on the China Law Blog added:
... if I were the president of one of these VPN companies, I would at least think long and hard before going to China. And if I were super paranoid, I might even want to know which countries might or might not extradite me to China.
And last year The Wall Street Journal reported:
While companies use commercial VPN services routinely for secure data, foreigners, China's elite and other tech-savvy users can use personal VPNs to leap the Great Firewall to use services like Facebook.

But it is illegal for foreign companies to operate a VPN in China without a local partner, according to lawyers and state-run media ...
GoTrusted, the company I saw advertised on ESPN and Hot Air, lists a U.S. address in Stuart, Florida, on its "About" page and the registrant information for its domain name also has a Stuart, Florida, address. GoTrusted does not mention a Chinese partner., the company I saw advertised on Balloon Juice and Hot Air, is a different case. Its "About" page does not provide a location and only lists an email address. The registrant information for its domain name, though, shows an address in Shanghai, China, with a street I haven't been able to locate on an online map.

This raises a number of questions about the service. For example, is the "company" running based in mainland China? If it is, has it registered its services with the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology as it reportedly should? If it isn't based in mainland China, where is it based and why is a Chinese address and phone number listed for the registrant of its domain name? Questions like these aren't only relevant for determining any potential legal jeopardy faced by the company. VPNs should also provide a degree of anonymity, privacy, and security through effective data encryption. I would need to know more about before potentially having confidence I could trust it to meet my expectations in that regards.

Whatever the case may be with GoTrusted and, one can ask whether it is technically illegal to use VPNs in China that are operated by foreign companies technically breaking Chinese law. The site VPN Instructions had this to say in commenting on the WSJ article:
It is not illegal to use a VPN in China if the Virtual Private Network’s nodes and servers are outside of mainland China. The Shanghai-based lawyer we conferred with, along with our deep understanding of China’s Internet landscape, shows us that there are no laws on the books in China that prohibit any user in China from connecting to a VPN outside of mainland China.
I don't know whether the relevant government authorities in China would agree. And I wouldn't tell someone they are 100% in the clear using a VPN from a company operating illegally in China. But I am personally not too worried unless signs appear that China believes it is illegal. I am not aware of anyone being arrested simply for using these VPNs. And China surely knows they are being used.

So some companies are technically breaking Chinese laws by offering VPN services in China, and the users of those VPNs appear to be in the clear, at least at the moment. What about sites with ads for VPNs?

If the VPN is operating legally in China, presumably there are no problems advertising it. If it isn't, I don't know, and I can think of several issues, such as the location of the servers placing the ads, which may be relevant. It would be great to hear from some lawyers and relevant authorities on this topic.

Finally, if ESPN, Balloon Juice, and Hot Air felt concerned about this issue, I suspect they would point out they are not choosing the specific ads to display. The URL for all of the VPN ads began with "". This indicates the ads were placed through Google's advertising service AdSense. Yes, Google, a company with several services blocked in China, is placing VPN ads targeting people who want to be able to access blocked-in-China websites. In other words, it is being paid to do something that could lead to more users being able to fully access its services. There is a certain beauty in that, although I'm sure the money Google earns this way is nothing compared to the additional revenue Google could generate if the Great Firewall ceased to exist.

The above examples are from just three US-based English websites. There is much more to the story of how VPNs are promoted in China. But these ads highlight the current relative "freedom" in China to use VPNs, even if they are periodically blocked and the companies running them are afoul of Chinese law. And they are another sign of how in some ways China's censorship is not as clear cut as most walls, great or not.

*The Chinese words near the bottom of all of the screenshots are the lyrics to songs playing on the computer and not related to the displayed websites.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Malaysia's Press Conferences May be Frustrating, But They're Better Than China's

With the fate of missing Malaysia Airlines flight 370 and many of the details of who knew what, when they knew it, and what actions they took still unknown, I think it's largely premature to evaluate the Malaysian-led search efforts. Thomas Fuller's article in The New York Times about the scrutiny and criticism now faced by Malaysia's leaders mentions that no country may have been fully prepared to handle the situation. Fuller raises several other interesting points, but with my mind frequently focused on China I found the story he shared about a press conference in Malaysia especially remarkable:
... it was only under a barrage of intense questioning on Wednesday from a room packed with reporters who had arrived from many countries that officials acknowledged that the last recorded radar plot point showed the jet flying in the direction of the Indian Ocean — and at a cruising altitude, suggesting it could have flown much farther.

That raised the question of why the information had not been released earlier.
An important piece of information was only brought to light because of "a barrage of intense questioning". It felt like a world far away from the one revealed in a piece by Andrew Jacobs, also in The New York Times, about government press conferences in China, which are aptly described elsewhere by James Fallows as a "charade". Using a recent Chinese press conference "which caps the annual political gathering known as the National People’s Congress" as an example, Jacobs provided details:
The event is staged, with the complicity of some of the most respected brands in Western journalism ...

... unbeknownst to many people in China [BG: and many people elsewhere who would watch or learn about the press conference], all the questions had been vetted in advance, with foreign reporters and Foreign Ministry officials having negotiated over what topics were permissible, and then how the acceptable questions would be phrased.

This year CNN, Reuters, CNBC, The Associated Press and The Financial Times were among the outlets permitted to ask questions.
Nobody can say for sure, especially now, whether or not China's government would be better managing the current search effort for the missing plane if it were in Malaysia's shoes. But it's hard to believe China would have set up press conferences as open as Malaysia's. To some, that would be seen as an advantage, as at least implied by this tweet:

As Fuller points out, in addition to increasing the chance of revealing more of the truth, the recent questioning of Malaysian officials has highlighted another benefit of real press conferences:
The government is accustomed to getting its way, and the crisis surrounding the missing plane is holding officials accountable in ways unfamiliar to them, [Malaysian lawyer] Ms. Ambiga said.
More truth. More accountability. The process can be messier, but they both increase the chance for improvements beneficial to Malaysia's people.

Malaysian officials are facing challenges, both in finding a missing plane and responding to a vigorous press, rarely, if ever, faced by China's officials. Whatever mistakes may have been recently made, Malaysia should be applauded for its relative openness. A telling point will be whether Malaysia's government uses the current experience as a stepping stone for bringing about important change, including expanding the government's openness and accountability, or sees it as a sign it should follow the model of hiding behind fake press conferences.

Friday, February 28, 2014

They Can't Kill Us All: An Attack on an Editor in Hong Kong

In an earlier post about people voicing their desire for democracy at a Hong Kong Lunar New Year fair I wrote "But many Hongkongers are not content with the additional freedoms they enjoy, some of which are deteriorating or are threatened." The last part of the sentence linked to an article about journalists marching "through Hong Kong to oppose to what they say is the 'rapid deterioration' of freedom of speech."

Around the same time I was writing the post, there was darker news:
The former chief editor of a Hong Kong newspaper whose dismissal in January stirred protests about press freedom in the Chinese territory was slashed Wednesday morning, the police said.

Kevin Lau Chun-to, the former chief editor of Ming Pao, was slashed three times by an attacker who fled with an accomplice on a motorbike, said Simon Kwan King-pan, the chief inspector of the Hong Kong police. The attack happened shortly after 10 a.m. as Mr. Lau was walking from his car in the Sai Wan Ho neighborhood. Mr. Lau was listed in critical condition at a local hospital with a wound in his back and two in his legs, and doctors said he faced a long recovery.
Although the attackers remain unidentified, many in Hong Kong believe the target of the attack was not a coincidence. Hong Kong's South China Morning Post reported:
Two police sources said the nature of the attack on Lau left little doubt that it was designed as a warning.

One said: "If they had wanted to kill him, they would have." The other added: "It was a classic triad hit. They went for the back and legs to warn him."
Despite concerns the attackers will not be brought to justice, "Hong Kong journalists have vowed not to be intimidated". Journalism educator Yuen Chan documented some of the response from students at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Chinese University of Hong Kong students holding sign reading "They cant kill us all"

The attack has received attention in Hong Kong, abroad, and to a degree in parts of mainland China, but it's a different story in Hong Kong's neighbor, Guangdong province:
News of the violent attack on former Ming Pao chief editor Kevin Lau Chun-to was conspicuously absent from Guangdong media yesterday because of a gagging order from the party censor, according to several editors.
Lau's condition has stabilized, and hopefully he makes a full recovery. But whether or not police identify the attackers and determine their motive, the vicious assault on Kevin Lau Chun-to has brought yet more uncertainty to Hong Kong.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Censorship and Creativity on China's 6-4th National Day

Today, October 1, is the National Day of the People's Republic of China. For many in China the public holiday means 7 days off work. For many others in China it means working to serve the seas of Chinese travelers. For my hotel in Zhuhai it means doubling the rate of my room.

China is celebrating this notable holiday for the 64th time.

64 ...

6 4 ...

6-4 ...

6-4 is also notable in China. On that date in 1989 civilian protesters in Beijing's Tiananmen Square were the target of a violent crackdown. Mentions of the date are often censored in China, and it is not uncommon for it to be obliquely referenced with terms such as "May 35". As the South China Morning Post reports (via China Digital Times), some saw today's 64th National Day as opportunity for another indirect reference.
Bloggers jumped at the rare chance to mention and discuss the word “64”, referring to June 4th, allowed by online censors though still strictly monitored, by paying condolences to the students and civilians who died in the 1989 incident.

“64, hard to forget,” a Zhejiang blogger wrote, posting a photo of what looked like an official flower display featuring the number “64” and the Chinese words “hard to forget”.
It wasn't long before the post and reposts were censored. However, the photo made its way from Sina Weibo to online services outside of China were it will not be censored:

I doubt most people in China saw these posts or are thinking about Tiananmen Square today. Nonetheless, the attempt to leverage this holiday to call attention to another day reminds me of a comment by Hu Yong, an associate professor at Peking University's School of Journalism and Communication: "Censorship warps us in many ways, but it is also the mother of creativity".

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Washington Post's WorldViews Corrects Statements About Google China

Yesterday I pushed back against Caitlin Dewey's claims in the blog post "Wikipedia largely alone in defying Chinese self-censorship demands" on The Washington Times. Amongst other issues, I pointed out that the statement "Google China complies with government censorship laws and does not surface pages related to to banned topics" was not accurate.

Dewey later provided an update, which I noted in an update to my post:
Dewey provided the following update to her post:
Samuel Wade at the China Digital Times points out that, while Google formally follows local censorship laws, it also quietly redirects Chinese users from to — which helps them avoid mainland filtering.
Hmm... I'll just say that the biggest impact of redirecting users in mainland China to Google's Hong Kong site is it allows Google to legally not censor search results as required by mainland Chinese law. However, the Great Firewall selectively filters those searches. Google offers encrypted search, which would be difficult for the Great Firewall to filter, but that's often entirely blocked by the Great Firewall. I just tried the encrypted search now and was able to successfully search for a typically blocked query. However, I was soon blocked from continued use of Google. This "messy" sort of blocking is very common with Google in China.
More recently, Dewey edited her post again:
Correction: This post originally stated that Google formally complies with government censorship laws in China. While that is the company’s policy in other countries, it has not been Google’s policy in China since 2010. The post has been corrected.

The corrections include this section on Google:
Google: Google has a long and complicated legacy in China, which has put it on both sides of the censorship debate. Since 2010, however, Google’s Chinese search has been based out of Hong Kong, where Chinese censorship laws don’t apply. (Outside of China, the company has a policy of removing pages from search as required by law — in Germany, for instance, the site takes down pages that glorify Nazism.) In January, Google China removed a feature that told users when their results were censored.
Dewey still does not mention that Wikipedia's encrypted version is currently blocked in China. This provides important context for her point that "Wikipedia offers an encrypted version of the site to help users evade the firewall" and another example of how Wikipedia is not "alone" in China.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Wikipedia is Not Alone in China

In the WorldViews blog post "Wikipedia largely alone in defying Chinese self-censorship demands", Caitlin Dewey makes several claims deserving response.

Dewey writes:
Most of the sites that operate in China obey censorship rules, which ban information on politically sensitive topics such Tibet, the spiritual movement Falun Gong, and the 1989 protests and crackdown most commonly associated with Tiananmen Square.

When it comes to defying censors outright, Wikipedia is an exception, though China’s Great Firewall also blocks a number of prominent American sites. (That doesn’t necessarily imply a stance against censorship on the blocked site’s part — YouTube and Blogspot are both owned by Google, for instance, which already filters results on its search platform within China.)

1. Google: Google China complies with government censorship laws and does not surface pages related to to banned topics. In January, Google removed a feature that told users when their results were censored.
However, Google does not filter "results on its search platform within China". As Google announced on March 22, 2010:
... earlier today we stopped censoring our search services—Google Search, Google News, and Google Images—on Users visiting are now being redirected to, where we are offering uncensored search in simplified Chinese, specifically designed for users in mainland China and delivered via our servers in Hong Kong.
As far as I can tell, this remains true today.

Dewey's claim that Wikipedia is "an exception" and "largely alone" appears to be specific to "top 10 American Web sites by global traffic" which "operate" in China and do not censor in accordance with China's laws. By "operate", I assume Dewey means "are not blocked" since none of Wikipedia's servers are in China. In regards to Wikipedia, Dewey writes:
Wikipedia doesn’t censor its content in China, regardless of language, though China’s Great Firewall automatically blocks controversial pages. Wikipedia offers an encrypted version of the site to help users evade the firewall.
As Dewey notes,  selected "sensitive" articles are indeed blocked in China -- similar to how Google Search is now selectively blocked by the Great Firewall. But this is not all that is blocked. Wikipedia’s entire encrypted version is now blocked in China.

So yes, Wikipedia does not censor according to Chinese laws. But the same could be said of at least half of the other "top 10 American Web sites by global traffic", including Google Search. And yes, unlike Wikipedia, several of those sites which don't censor according to Chinese laws, such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, are entirely blocked by China's Great Firewall. But Wikipedia does not operate normally in China and faces significant blocking despite being partially available. And it is not alone in that respect. Just ask Google.

Update: Dewey provided the following update to her post:
Samuel Wade at the China Digital Times points out that, while Google formally follows local censorship laws, it also quietly redirects Chinese users from to — which helps them avoid mainland filtering.
Hmm... I'll just say that the biggest impact of redirecting users in mainland China to Google's Hong Kong site is it allows Google to legally not censor search results as required by mainland Chinese law. However, the Great Firewall selectively filters those searches. Google offers encrypted search, which would be difficult for the Great Firewall to filter, but that's often entirely blocked by the Great Firewall. I just tried the encrypted search now and was able to successfully search for a typically blocked query. However, I was soon blocked from continued use of Google. This "messy" sort of blocking is very common with Google in China.

Update 2: Dewey's post has been updated again with corrections. For some brief commentary, see my more recent post here.