I am currently visiting Shanghai. It’s my first trip to the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and first visit to Asia. The streets are clean, the cuisine is surprisingly strong, and the ever-punctual locals are immensely proud of their nation’s rising stature and, thus, repeatedly display a refreshing desire to make foreigners feel welcome.
This openness of spirit not only contrasts with China’s long history of isolationism, but is also not fully true, especially when one digs into the digital weeds. Because what would make foreign businessmen, educators and press feel most welcome would be a genuinely free and open Chinese Internet.
Even though I am staying at an American hotel chain near the city’s ruggedly picaresque Bund (waterfront area), access to my monk.com business server, my innocuous personal website jamescrotty.com, and essential social media tools (including Twitter Twitter and Facebook, not to mention all things Google Google) are all blocked.
This image can be found via the Chinese web, but discussions of it cannot.
At first, I met this digital deprivation with relief, since I am a hyper-checker of all things Internet. However, after my brief media fast, I realized that not even the usual VPN (Virtual Private Network) fixes for connecting to servers outside what even locals dub “the Great Firewall of China” (officially, the Golden Shield Project) were effective in accessing emails and mission-critical websites.
After a spell, I started to make sense of the mighty algorithm by which Chinese censors filtered web traffic flowing through the country’s Beijing-based servers. I took bets with companions about what sites would open and what sites would not. For example, the algorithm allowed access to the headlines on MSN.com and Yahoo Yahoo.com. However, when one clicked on a link, the resulting article was often unavailable. Case in point: links to stories that portrayed China in a favorable or neutral light invariably worked. A link to a semi-salacious story (e.g., the Madonna-Drake kiss at Coachella) invariably did not. In fact, pretty much anything on TMZ.com was unavailable.
China’s 618 million netizens seem resigned to this reality. Most of them implicitly accept that many sites and certain topics – such as the three T’s of Tiananmen Square, Taiwan, and Tibet – are verboten. Moreover, they are not oblivious to how censorship affects visitors. For example, I summoned two different hotel employees to my room to fix my web blockages. After quickly checking my connection and attempting the usual VPN workarounds, they nodded a polite apology and made a swift exit.
For the Chinese, this comical level of censorship – which only increased after social media took off in 2009 – is not a practical impediment. In their intrepid, make-do manner, they usually find a way around the censors, even as the veiled threat of punishment by an all-watching state makes what Sir Ken Robinson terms “divergent thinking” highly unlikely.