I’ve been walking on eggshells the last couple of weeks… and really struggling with the urge to smash the hell out of them.
It’s probably safe to say that I am now officially – journalistically – on the Chinese government’s radar. They’ve blocked my website, an online portfolio that was never used as a blog or a social networking tool. It’s just a way to showcase my work.
And I guess they really didn’t like my work.
The blocking, in itself, isn’t actually a huge surprise. China’s net crackdowns and page blockages are relatively public, and the ongoing struggle with Google catches regular media attention (recently Gmail access was temporarily blocked…again). Even the average Chinese Joes know what they’re missing out on.
But something like this, blocking a personal work portfolio, takes it further. When a government blocks a website, it’s censorship. When a very large and powerful government blocks a very small and trivial personal website, it’s paranoia.
There are, technically, a set of regulations (read Section Five, in particular) that state which kinds of websites aren’t allowed, but the rules are wishy-washy. The list dates back to 1997 and the wording is cleverly broad, most of it implying that any threat to “social harmony” can be shut down.
Apparently my dinky little website fits somewhere in that category. China sees me as a “social threat.”
While they’d never openly admit it, the Chinese government is terrified of an Egypt (or Tunisia, or Syria, or Bahrain) repeat. Which means everything and everyone even remotely related to social media is under a particularly watchful eye, Big Brother-style. Now that they’ve “found” me, I need to watch what I say and where I say it. In other words, to live here, I must give in to the government’s ultimate goal and the journalist’s ultimate aversion: self-censorship.
In just the last few weeks, foreigners – the press and expatriates alike – have been subjected to harsher-than-usual crackdowns. Journalists in Shanghai and Beijing have been forced to dress down on videotape, while events like Shanghai’s annual St. Patrick’s Day parade have been cancelled at the last minute. All because they were too near “locations that had been selected as protest sites in Internet postings,” according to The New York Times.
Needless to say, just about all of the social networking sites (Twitter, Facebook, YouTube etc.) are blocked in China. And though there are local equivalents, they’re all closely monitored by the government. If the authorities don’t like what they read, poof. It’s gone.
For example, a search for the term “jasmine” (referring to the Tunisia uprising) on China’s most popular microblogging site, Sina Weibo, yields no results. Type “jasmine revolution” into google.cn (which redirects automatically to google.com.hk) and you end up with a fairly surprising listing of relevant, newsy links. That’s not the case at all, though, with China’s Google search engine equivalent, Baidu, where the same phrase brings up far fewer links, and nothing particularly recent.
Even typing in “Tunisia” doesn’t pull up much apart from tourism sites. On the other hand, search for “Egypt” and you’ll get revolutionary stories and timelines from news sources all over the world. It’s funny, because almost all of those search results and websites were blocked while the revolution was actually happening.
This selective censoring is an attempt to shut up online calls for a “Jasmine Revolution” of China’s own, but why the other searches are allowed again isn’t entirely clear – just like most of the government’s online operations.
While the top dogs are cracking down on the one hand, they’re loosening up on the other. Web pages like those of the BBC, Huffington Post, Voice of America and so on, which used to be blocked, are suddenly available again. Granted, those pages are still regularly shut out for a while when something controversial happens, like presenting Liu Xiaobo with the Nobel peace prize.
Still, whatever is accessible online is being closely watched. In December of last year, rumors started circulating about China wanting to block the use of Skype entirely. Although that never actually happened (at least not yet), reports of Chinese officials spying on Skype messages go all the way back to 2008.
Some reports have suggested the existence of a mafia of tens (or even hundreds) of thousands of government employees, hired for the sole purpose of scouring online communications like microblogs, Skype and emails.
Whether this monster-team of “internet police” actually exists, though, or whether it’s all automated is, for obvious reasons, unknown. This isn’t the kind of information China just tosses around.
But one big question mark remains: Why, after all this hassle and nitpicking, do the authorities continue to make it so easy to bypass all these limitations? All you need are some clever acronyms or a proxy server and you’re golden. This is both common knowledge and common practice for foreigners and locals alike.
Chinese netizens, for example, know exactly what triggers the censors. Words like “government” (Chinese: 政府 or zheng fu) become ZF, whereas slang and insults like “cao ni ma” (fuck your mom) are replaced with characters that sound the same (like those for “grass mud horse”).
It’s a bit of a trial and error system on the user’s part, and while the government has made efforts to plug these kinds of holes in the “Great Firewall,” new ones keep popping up.
Thanks to this brilliant way to game the system, I can tread a little harder on my eggshells. I can still pass along my website, and we can still Google “protests” and “freedom.”
But we better not, for one second, think the government doesn’t know about it.