Chinese Censorship

So I’m on a business trip in Beijing, living pretty comfortably in a tidy 4-star hotel (actually, it’s a “Green” hotel, with its so-called dedication to the environment, meaning they won’t change your bedding until you tell them). I have all the typical modern (aka “Western”) features you’d find back home in say, a Best Western or Hampton Inn: a/c, comfy beds (though a tad stiff), multiple pillows, thirsty towels, color TV with BBC, CNN International, and even free HBO, though the movies are a little low-rent, or “so 2000 and late”, as Fergie says. As I write this, I am trying to feign interest in “Prom Night 2”. OK, it’s either this or the 50 or so Chinese channels where I don’t understand a word.

I’m not trying to be the ugly American here; I travel quite a bit and pride myself on being able to blend in and take in whatever cultural mores prevail. But I’m also someone who, like it or not, is simply used to having technology around and accessible at all times. More to the point, I like having access to information. The Internet, you know.

Ethernet Cable So there is this Ethernet cable that extends from the wall that I am supposed to plug into my Sony VAIO. So far, so good. I suppose if this were a 5 or 6 star hotel, like the St Regis or the opulent Raffles Hotel down by Tienanmen Square, you’d get other modern conveniences like….wireless access to the Internet. I even just passed by a Starbucks tonight after dinner and noticed some open laptops, so maybe you don’t have to spend all that much to get this feature that we have grown so used to back home. $750 for a suite or $4 for a caramel macchiato –you decide.

But here’s where the problem is…most of the time. See, I haven’t had any interruption in my Broadband service sitting here in my hotel, nor for that matter, at my office across the street. Again, so far, so good. Besides doing my work and answering my e-mail each day, sure, I like to surf some websites, get some info, what not. But I can’t for the life of me figure out why certain sites are either blocked to me or never load (more likely), or are spotty in their access.

Of course, I’m not accessing porn sites either, since surely we know the Chinese government is adamant about blocking all access to these kinds of Western forms of vulgarity. There simply has to be a reason why even the most innocuous sites that many Americans go to everyday cannot be reached, no matter how much you try.

Censorship in China

The recent kerfuffle between Google and the Chinese government may be indirectly related to this, but I’m not sure how much. Last week, Google said it might abandon its Chinese search engine and possibly leave the country altogether because of what it called a “highly sophisticated attack” by Chinese-based hackers and state censorship .

The US government, in the form of Secretary of State Clinton and eventually President Obama got involved soon after, as they tried to reassure the Chinese government that, while they were concerned about this development, it would not affect US-Sino relations. Observers here, perhaps cynically, pointed out that Obama was in effect protecting Google, which, it claimed was his 4th largest “donor” to his administration –whatever that means. (I mean how do you just donate to the President while he is running the country?)

Google in China

What is probably true is that there is some angling for the government to support Baidu , its own answer to Google . Plus, the government probably has good reason to try to contain all that is under the giant Google umbrella, and all that it professes to control in its “good versus evil” universe.

Back to those websites I can’t access. Youtube ? Forget about it. It’s part of Google. We can guess why, probably. Why unfurl all the possibilities of topless women telling jokes, or academic or non-academic discussions of life, liberty and you-know-what, on to a population of 1+ billion. The dangers are tremendous.

Here are some more websites that, in the course of the last couple of weeks now, I have found difficult to reach. I’ll try to explain why.

1.    Facebook and Twitter

Setting up and maintaining social networks, putting up information on your “Wall” about eating lotus root soup, or even scoring a fabulously fake “Giorgio Arani” handbag at the Silk Market: this could set off quite a revolution. There have to be legions of Facebookers you can poke here; I just can’t get there. Thinking of sending some Tweets? I can’t help you, but why would even want to?

2.    MySpace

Isn’t this the tween-heavy social website that has dweeby co-founder Tom Anderson on everyone’s site? The one person you can’t get rid of, let alone all those drunk pics from last week’s rush party. Yeah, you know. Again, deeply detrimental in a collectivist society like this one. Bonus points: not having to listen to drippy Goth rock by Emo-types struggling to be famous.

3.    IMDB

Ah, the Internet Movie Database. Movie-going here is rather popular, even if they do mangle the translations pretty often. (Case in point: “Boogie Nights” becomes “His Great Device Makes Him Famous”). But why deprive the movie-crazed public that helped make “Avatar” the biggest world-wide movie ever this past week of vital information such as listing all 400 (or so) Jackie Chan movies? Maybe it’s because actually getting movies (wink, wink, can we say piracy?) is as easy as walking to the entrance to the nearest subway station. So the average Chinese will never know that there was a visible overhead microphone “goof” in the latest Jen Aniston rom-com.

4.    Gawker

Kind of lower-rent Huffington Post (which is accessible), but not quite as smutty as Dlisted (also easy to find), this website purports to be all gossip from the “Beltway” to Hollywood. Yeah, yeah, whatever. It’s not just that it’s not all that well-written, but maybe the Chinese are right to deprive so many of so little. In a country where people can easily follow the plastic surgeries of Franken-Heidi Montag on Perez Hilton, nothing really makes sense here. Oddly enough, sister site Jalopnik pulls up its zippy coverage of automobile news just fine.

5.    Yelp

This one’s kind of weird, and in all honesty, sometimes it does work. I happened to be looking up a restaurant the other night after reading Alan Richman’s column in GQ, and the site never loaded. Ten minutes later it did, but not completely. A lot of the links were missing, and of course so were all of the pictures that Yelpers used to be able to attach to their sometimes snarky/sometimes helpful reviews. I am not sure a country with one of the world’s finest cuisines has reason to be threatened someone’s review of Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles in LA, however.

By the way, if you’re in Beijing and crave some tasty and fairly authentic Italian pasta, head to the mini “Annie’s Restaurant” chain. A big bowl of rigatoni with a bacon Arrabiata sauce? $7! A bowl of hearty minestrone or a Caprese salad that will knock you off your feet? $4. And oh yeah, a decent SanGiovese to wash it all down. Go here and say hi to Jenny, the manager at the SOHO New Town location. You’ll thank me later.

Annie's Restaurant

Amid all this, there are other inconsistencies in how people around her access information. On the one hand, not all video clips that appear in any website, even something like Huffington Post, will be there at all. Not just that the clip doesn’t play, no —there is literally a BLANK SPACE there.

Blank Space Huffington Post

Nothing is left to the imagination here. Some social sites, like LinkedIn and Friendster are fine all around. Sometimes the temptation is just too much: you can visit Hulu, and all those TV shows and movies we love back home that are all listed here, but you cannot play any one of them.

Missing Clip Dlisted

Finally, how is it that I am can easily connect to my TV/TiVo HD back home at this very moment to catch Matt Lauer on the “Today” from 16 hours ago, live on my Slingbox, and, conceivably stream a movie from Amazon or Blockbuster all the way, 6000 miles to my computer screen? Technology is a funny thing; for the first time in a while, I don’t feel so far away from home.

Now if I could just surf as if I were really home.

Experiencing China for Yourself!

Got FireFox?

The Firefox add-on China Channel offers internet user outside China to surf the web as if they were in China. Take an unforgetable virtual trip to China and experience the technical expertise of the Chinese Ministry of Information Industry (supported by western companies). It’s open source, free and easy.

China Channel Firefox Add-On

click the big red fox

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