Midweek cracks in the Great Firewall

China’s stringent Internet censorship apparatus has apparently loosened, with a slew of previously blocked websites suddenly becoming available. Yesterday, ChinaGeeks has reported that Vimeo, bit.ly, Xmarks and the Voice of America news service could be accessed without VPNs or proxies. Twitter client HootSuite was also briefly available.

Most surprising is that a host of both Chinese and Western pornographic sites also became accessible. 2009 saw an intense crackdown on online pornography, and a large portion of the CCP’s rationale for censoring the Internet is that lewd content triggers ‘immorality’ and ‘social instability.’

This puzzling change of heart may simply be a technical glitch in the Great Firewall. For Isaac Mao, this could be China’s response to a recent WTO report that criticised the PRC’s “picky” and “unreasonable” export restrictions. However, bloggers at shlaowai offered an alternative reason:

With 10 percent less females in the entire population, men are having a tougher time finding mates and are therefore growing horny as hell without access to any form of release, giving rise to social discontent. Who is angrier than a really sexually frustrated man? No one…What kind of people pick up a knife and attack children at a kindergarten in a brutal and unfathomable act of malice? Horny men.

Ideas are continuing to hover to grasp why this lifting of censors has happened in the first place. Adding to the peculiarity is that tomorrow (4th June) marks the 21st anniversary of the pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square, perhaps the most sensitive time of year for the Chinese government. Around this time, it is likely that more, not fewer, sites would become blocked.

Interestingly, as C. Custer from ChinaGeeks said, Western media were pretty slow on the uptake of what China’s Twitterati understood as a newsworthy occurrence. Given that the holy trinity of blocked sites – YouTube, Twitter and Facebook – remains censored, it is unlikely that this puzzling shift in the GFW signals any long-lasting change that would otherwise warrant a story.

Han Han on Google’s exit

Han Han, photo from Paper Republic

Danwei has posted a translation of blogger and racecar driving bad boy Han Han’s thoughts on Google’s departure. The whole entry can be read by clicking here, but the following excerpts are certainly worth reposting:

How many real Chinese people actually care about the “opening up” of the “censored results?” In a normal country, the few that do could move people’s reason, but in China they probably aren’t much use.

(…)

To a lot of Chinese people, the value of seeking such things is not nearly as high as seeking an apartment building or an online game to play. Because everyone’s life is so high pressure, they don’t have any ideals. A mouthful of dirty rice is enough. There’s no big difference between eating it while kneeling or eating it while standing up. Perhaps Google thought that freedom, truth, justice, and other such things would mean a lot to a large portion of Chinese netizens. But in reality, these things are nothing compared to a finding a 100 RMB bill on the street.

Really, Google would have been better off saying that it was leaving because China Central Television was framing it. That would be a bit more effective. Google’s stated reasons for leaving do not resonate with the majority of Chinese citizens – there’s nothing there for them to identify with. This is a race of people who can eat genetically modified grain and oil distilled from recycled food scraps, drink melamine-infused milk, and take inferior vaccines. Their tolerance is higher than you can imagine. Their needs are lower than you can imagine.

Google and China: the sequel

Like most relocations, the recent move of Google’s Chinese service to Hong Kong has not been painless. On Monday, Google said that its mobile services in China were being partially blocked. Then, yesterday evening, much of Google’s search services were unavailable in mainland China. Many users reported that searches made from the google.com.hk page resulted in a resetting of the Internet connection, meaning no results were displayed. Browser error messages appeared regardless of what was being searched.

Some saw the disruption as the Chinese government’s eventual blocking of the Hong Kong site, the expected response to Google’s re-routing last week.

Initially, Google took the blame, saying that its own internal changes had conflicted with the filtering of the Great Firewall. The FT reported that Google had

configured its servers by accident in a way that made all its traffic appear to involve an organisation banned by the Chinese government. This had led to an automatic blocking of its search results by China’s “Great Firewall”, which filters information coming into the mainland.

The organisation in question was Radio Free Asia, a human rights and free speech radio station, also referred to as RFA. Coincidentally, a string of characters Google had introduced to all its search queries globally to improve results included the letters “gs_rfai”. Google said that the GFW had associated the letters ‘rfa’ with Radio Free Asia, resulting in the lockdown.

Yet, this being China and the reality never being quite simple, the events took a twist. Some hours later, Google attributed the problem to the GFW itself, claiming that the server configuration had occurred a week ago, thus could not have caused Tuesday’s fiasco. To quote Forbes’ Andy Greenberg, “China just happened to tweak its censorship of Radio Free Asia today, which sent Google searches into the ether.”

The convoluted events cap a sequence of icy tensions continuing to mount. As with the Google-China saga in its entirety, this week’s ongoing confusion reiterates the unpredictable and intricate workings of China’s censorship machinery.

Conspiracy theories are also hovering. According to Forbes’ Taylor Bulley,

China momentarily changed its RFA censorship purposefully in a manner that would give Google a taste of what it’s like to lose its China traffic without actually blocking Google. That might be a maneuver to let the PRC save face internationally and still give Google a chance to come back to the negotiation table with China’s cadres. (Google isn’t likely to compromise at this point, of course, but China wouldn’t have lost anything by trying.)

But the key issue is indeed that any chance of compromise is slim. While I do not buy the argument that the manoeuvre could have given Google a chance to negotiate (especially if a negotiation is not even on the cards), giving Google a taste of its own medicine seems plausible: saving face is certainly a top priority for the PRC, not least during this time of extra criticism.

In the meantime, the WSJ posits that, while a permanent blockage of Google’s searches by China may always be possible, it would not be an ideal move:

[it] would deal a sharp blow to the company’s hopes of continuing to operate part of its business in the country after dismantling its censored Chinese site. Google said last week that it hoped to maintain its music search and maps services in China, along with sales and research-and-development operations.

(…)

Many analysts have believed Beijing would stop short of that [permanent blockage] for fear of infuriating Google’s tens of millions of regular Chinese users, not to mention foreign businesses that require access to information.

What remains certain is that tensions are continuing to unfold murkily, not least thanks to another reminder of the difficulties that Internet companies in China face. As early as last Thursday, less than three days after google.cn’s relocation, the Yahoo e-mail accounts of at least a dozen rights activists, academics and journalists covering China were hacked. Upon trying to access their accounts, victims received an automated message that read, “we have detected an issue [with your account].”

Speaking to AP, Clifford Coonan, China correspondent for The Independent and the Irish Times, said,

I’d just be interested to see if anyone in the business community or outside of journalism and academia has had the same problem, then it might be less sinister (…) It’s obviously annoying, but if it’s just journalists and academics, that’s scary.

It is too soon to tell, however, whether this addition to the chain of events mirrors something more than a simple concoction of bad timing and coincidence.

Gathering thoughts on Google

Photo by Ng Han Guan/AP

It is safe to say most of us are all Googled out by now. Throughout 23rd March, news of the Internet giant’s dramatic exit from China after it suffered a Chinese-originated cyber attack flowed unwaveringly through feeds, blogs, social media platforms and mainstream news outlets. A total eclipse of Twitter seems to have passed slightly, giving a minute to gather some thoughts on the matter.

The big question, of course, is what are the implications of Google’s move? Business-wise, Google may have inflicted substantial self-harm by pulling out of China. An AP report suggests the company’s market value has been severely dented by the spat, with one analyst predicting a reduction of $10 billion to $15 billion, or $30 to $50 per share. Chinese powerhouses are also set to succeed thanks to Google’s exit.

But the other side of the coin is that these losses come with the territory of taking a principled stand against the demands of an authoritarian government.

For the liberals among us who advocate freedom of expression online, we have seen wider-reaching debates on the issue of censorship. The cyber attack that was the straw that broke Google’s back shed light on the intricacies of the Great Firewall and how far it is isolating China. The response from the US, in the form of Hillary Clinton’s staunch speech, has also helped spurred on a debate on both government and Internet companies’ accountability.

Although in its formative stages, this discussion has by no means been limited to Western commentators. Over the weekend, an open-source letter was published by a group of Chinese activists demanding clarity of the Google/China fiasco. Rebecca MacKinnon translated,

if Google.cn were to no longer exist, or if China were to further block other Google services, has the Chinese government considered how their blocking of foreign websites and censorship of domestic websites violates Chinese citizens’ right to scientific, educational, environmental, clean energy and other information? How will this loss be lessened or compensated for?

Netizens who may well have been apolitical prior to the events were jolted by Google’s tough stance. However, this must be kept in perspective. As MacKinnon says, the events reflect

a recognition that China’s status quo – at least when it comes to censorship, regulation, and manipulation of the Internet – is unlikely to improve any time soon, and may in fact continue to get worse.

The issue of censorship has been, and was always going to be, a non-negotiable for Beijing. The sophisticated techniques used to contain public opinion and the spread of information were always going continue regardless of whatever Google chose to do. An interesting question, as pointed out by C.Custer, is why have people stopped caring about the fact that Google was hacked? Speaking to James Fallows of The Atlantic, Google’s chief legal officer David Drummond clarified the events:

This attack, which was from China, was different. It was almost singularly focused on getting into Gmail accounts specifically of human rights activists, inside China or outside. They tried to do that through Google systems that thwarted them. On top of that, there were separate attacks, many of them, on individual Gmail users who were political activists inside and outside China. There were political aspects to this hacking attacks that were quite unusual.

That was distasteful to us. It seemed to us that this was all part of an overall system bent on suppressing expression, whether it was by controlling internet search results or trying to surveil activists. It is all part of the same repressive program, from our point of view. We felt that we were being part of that.

Playing the victim card (and rightly so) got Google little sympathy from China. The Telegraph’s Malcolm Moore spoke to a handful of Shanghai’s upwardly mobile middle class about the fiasco. One sales manager in their mid-twenties said,

Google should have complied and adapted, rather than swimming against the tide. It is really a shame that it has now decided to go, but I do not think it will have a long-lasting effect on us.

A government official in charge of the Internet bureau under the State Council Information Office also showed little mercy:

Google has violated its written promise it made when entering the Chinese market by stopping filtering its searching service and blaming China in insinuation for alleged hacker attacks (…) This is totally wrong. We’re uncompromisingly opposed to the politicization of commercial issues, and express our discontent and indignation to Google for its unreasonable accusations and conducts.

But despite China’s desires, the issue was always going to be politicised. Google was forced to take a stand and, in so doing, dealt itself tough cards. Indeed, in this light China could certainly come out as the bad guy. As Foreign Policy’s Blake Hounshell clarifies, the results could include:

exposing the country’s claims of increased openness as hollow, scaring away potential investors, and taking away a valuable source of innovation and healthy competition.

What is also crucial is that, in terms of diplomatic relations, the timing of the saga was particularly tense. With US arms sales to Taiwan, a meeting between the Dalai Lama and Obama, and not to mention the US continually pressing China to revaluate the Renminbi, the Google-China fiasco has done nothing to heal the wounds between East and West.

Indeed, Google’s actions may well have provided fuel for a more aggressive US policy towards China. Google co-founder Sergey Brin certainly wasted no time in calling on the US to put more pressure on Beijing. He said,

Human rights issues deserve equal time to the trade issues that are high priority now … I hope this gets taken seriously.

Since services and information are our most successful exports, if regulations in China effectively prevent us from being competitive, then they are a trade barrier.

Plus, while the White House expressed disappointment that a deal was not reached between the two giants, it would have been foolish to have ever expected an agreement. Google had sealed its fate with its first announcement in January that it was going to stop censoring search results on google.cn: China was never going to back down.

In spite of this, Brin remains hopeful. He told the New York Times, “perhaps we can return to serving mainland China in the future.” And while Google told The Guardian it wants to continue R&D work in China, what happens next remains shrouded in confusion. Drummond told The Atlantic,

We don’t know what to expect. We have done what we have done. We are fully complying with Chinese law. We’re not operating our search engine within the Firewall any more.  We will continue to talk with them about how to operate our other services.

Whether this epic fiasco ends up damaging China more than Google remains to be seen. In the midst of the tense bickering, it can be hard to see what Google has concretely achieved, not least since China’s censorship shows no signs of easing. However, in taking positive lessons from the fiercer debates on free speech online, perhaps some of the political and diplomatic fallout can be eased.

UPDATED – Google stops censoring Chinese search engine

Photo Credit: Jin/Getty

Google has finally shut down its search engine service in mainland China. It subsequently began directing Chinese users to its uncensored search engine in Hong Kong. David Drummond, Google’s Senior Vice President, and Corporate Development and Chief Legal Officer, wrote,

Earlier today we stopped censoring our search services—Google Search, Google News, and Google Images—on Google.cn. Users visiting Google.cn are now being redirected to Google.com.hk, where we are offering uncensored search in simplified Chinese, specifically designed for users in mainland China and delivered via our servers in Hong Kong. Users in Hong Kong will continue to receive their existing uncensored, traditional Chinese service, also from Google.com.hk.

But word has also been spreading that China will, to quote Christina Larson, “lean on Internet-service providers within China to block access to google.com.hk.” The Twittersphere had an air of vehemence in response to this, with Michael Anti retweeting the following:

RT @heicailiao: For HKers like myself, Google’s move shows how valuable HK’s autonomy is. We must not budge, not an inch.

Human rights groups and activists were quick to applaud Google’s stand against censorship. Amnesty International told The Guardian,

It’s very welcome news that Google appears to be moving back towards these principles. This now lays down the gauntlet to other internet companies operating in China: to be transparent about what filtering and censorship the government requires them to do and to stand up for free speech where they can, using legal appeals and other judicial measures.

The Committee to Protect Journalists also welcomed the ‘principled’ move:

In the long run, however, we hope that it ramps up pressure on the Chinese government to allow its citizens to access the news and information they need to be informed and engaged citizens.

The White House, meanwhile, expressed disappointment. National Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer said,

We are disappointed that Google and the Chinese government were unable to reach an agreement that would allow Google to continue operating its search services in China on its Google.cn website.

For Rebecca MacKinnon, the ball is now very much in the Chinese government’s court. She recommends Beijing leave the situation as it is:

The longer this high profile fracas goes on, the greater Chinese Internet users awareness will be about the lengths to which their government goes to blinker their knowledge of the world. That may inspire more people to start learning how to use circumvention tools for getting around the censorship.

As for China’s response, the People’s Daily reported the words of the official in charge of the Internet bureau under the State Council Information Office:

Google has violated its written promise it made when entering the Chinese market by stopping filtering its searching service and blaming China in insinuation for alleged hacker attacks (…) This is totally wrong. We’re uncompromisingly opposed to the politicization of commercial issues, and express our discontent and indignation to Google for its unreasonable accusations and conducts.

This post will be updated as more news flows in. For The Guardian’s liveblog, click here.

Google and China: open letters and new debates

Photo Credit: Jin/Getty

The potentially final chapter in the Google-China saga may come this week, with the Internet giant close to following through with its threat of pulling out of China altogether. In mid-Janauary, Google announced it would stop censoring search results on google.cn, having being the victim of a sophisticated cyber attack originating in the PRC.

The events triggered an East-West discussion over Internet freedom, with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton quickly asserting its importance. Chinese mainstream media has, meanwhile, has been blazing a trail against what they see as an ‘information imperialist’ with intricate ties to the US government. Google was most recently asked not to ‘politcalize’ (?) the conflict, as a Xinhua commentary published on Sunday claimed:

It is unfair for Google to impose its own value and yardsticks on Internet regulation to China, which has its own time-honored tradition, culture and value.

This response has not been surprising: the issue of censorship is a non-negotiable for Beijing. But the saga has gone beyond reminding us of the policing of the Chinese Internet to truly illuminating how different it is from its Western counterpart: simply, Google’s moves could potentially push China closing to harbouring what we now know could be a sprawling Intranet.

This has had ramifications for Chinese web users, both apolitical and not. This weekend, an open-source letter was published by a group of activists demanding clarity over the speculation of the last two months. Rebecca MacKinnon translated,

if Google.cn were to no longer exist, or if China were to further block other Google services, has the Chinese government considered how their blocking of foreign websites and censorship of domestic websites violates Chinese citizens’ right to scientific, educational, environmental, clean energy and other information? How will this loss be lessened or compensated for?

As MacKinnon says, the Google-China incident has sparked some soul searching about the extent to which the Chinese government is causing China to be isolated from the rest of the world. A new debate on accountability stretching to both governments and Internet companies may also be a result of recent events.

Google’s potential departure also holds promise for China’s domestic Internet companies keen to capitalise on the situation. As TIME’s Bill Powell says,

Google’s stock price has declined from $595 to about $567, while Baidu, the leading search engine in China, has seen its stock price rise by 50%.

Michael Schuman, meanwhile, has been pondering over the connection, if there is one, between economic progress and human rights. Specifically, could “China’s stand on human rights…cause it to miss out on crucial opportunities necessary for its future growth”? He concludes,

the real test of China’s political and social policies will come as it attempts to shift from an economy that makes cheap stuff to one that innovates and invents advanced products and technologies. Only then will we find out if the government’s control of information and personal freedoms will hamper its efforts to catch up with the United States, Japan and South Korea. Perhaps then China will realize the importance of having Google in its economy rather than outside of it.

Schuman’s opinion is certainly on point as China nears towards a crucial crossroads in its own stage of development. With regards to its economic shift, as China’s middle class becomes wealthier and commands more purchasing power, the government will also need to readjust itself to accommodate this growing echelon of society.

Whether it does so, at least in part, by heeding to the demands of the authors of the aforementioned letter may well be too far off in the distance. While these tumultuous events have increased the volume in previously quiet discussions, we shouldn’t get too excited, not least if this recent Xinhua commentary is anything to go by:

Whether (Google) leaves or not, the Chinese government will keep its Internet regulation principles unchanged.

Ousted editors, mummy astronauts and no more Namibia (*updated*)

  • While breath was held over the 1st March’s joint editorial calling for reform of China’s hukou (household registration system), today one of its authors was ousted. The Economic Observer’s deputy editor in chief, Zhang Hong, was removed from his position and the paper’s top editors received stern warnings, the WSJ reported. *update, 10.03.10 – Zhang has also released this letter (kindly translated by the WSJ) explaining the context and reasoning behind the editorial.*
  • In China and want to do some online research about Namibia? Mei you result. According to The Namibian, the southern African country’s Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) is keen to question President Hu Jintao’s son over a corruption case involving Nutech (of which Hu Haifeng was once chief), allowing the GFW to rear its filtering head when the topic is searched on the PRC’s web.
  • Chinese officials are so concerned that going into space could damage the fertility of the country’s first female astronauts, that only mothers are being picked for training. According to an expert at an air force hospital in China, women are better suited to the role of astronaut than men: they are “more mentally stable, better able to bear loneliness and had better communication skills”, she told The Guardian.
  • TIME‘s Austin Ramzy has provided some answers to why China is putting the brakes on its military spending, as announced during the NPC session. In addition to cutting costs in order to control inflation and delve out more to rural and social sectors, Chinese officials are now more cautious about intimidating foreign observers with the PLA’s stature, Ramzy says.
  • Shanghai Scrap author Adam Minter was not impressed with the US’ pavilion for the upcoming Expo, and not just because of a “mediocre, uninspiring” design. In his piece for Foreign Policy, he gives a detailed overview of the nepotism and fundraising fiascos embroiled in the build-up to May’s event.
  • The severe cut of communication networks in Xinjiang following 2009’s riots may be easing, as recent reports have claimed that the region’s return to the forgotten areas of the WWW is near. Josh from Far West China, however, offers 5 reasons why we should take these claims with a pinch of the proverbial.