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.