Sunday, 23 December 2012

The Menacing Firewall

China likes to boast it has some 600 million internet users
When I lived in Beijing, I did not have access to Facebook, my blog, Youtube or Twitter for three years.

That's because they were blocked from entering the Great Firewall, which the Chinese government erected to protect its citizens from what it considers to be dangerous, salacious or subversive. Its definition of these three things can change at any time, depending on which direction the wind blows.

Why block Youtube? Because there are videos of the Dalai Lama and other content not deemed suitable for China's "netizens", and in the case of blocking Facebook and Twitter, it was more a move of blocking its competition to give time to Chinese programmers to create its own version of these two popular social media sites so these sites first. And then when enough time had passed, Facebook was finally allowed to enter the China market, but by then it was hoped netizens would not be interested in joining the real thing.

The only way to jump over the Great Firewall is through using virtual private networks or VPN. The local ones were pretty much useless -- after entering them through a cryptic password, I would be able to get onto the Facebook site, but then when I tried to sign in, it would never load up the new page or go to "This Page Not Found".

And so to covertly pass Chinese internet censors, web surfers, mostly expats, would buy the services of foreign VPN, which allows them to post their tweets on Twitter, get information from blocked sites and check emails.

For many companies it is also the only way they can safely do business in China, for example conduct financial transactions and more importantly prevent Chinese companies and the government from getting access to confidential information.

However, in recent days China has stepped up its Great Firewall protection, making it harder for VPNs to get access to the unfiltered World Wide Web.

The Global Times newspaper, associated with People's Daily, confirmed the firewall had been "upgraded", but also warned unregistered foreign VPNs were operating illegally.

In commenting about the latest development, Chinese ambassador to Britain, Liu Xiaoming, told the BBC that there was a "misconception about the internet and development in China."

"In fact, the Chinese are very much open in terms of the internet," he said. "In fact, we have the most number of internet users in China today."

China has an estimated 600 million internet users.

May we interrupt to point out that Liu may be referring to how the Chinese like to go online, but this does not necessarily mean they have open access to the internet.

And the most number of internet users? Perhaps its because China has the largest population in the world?

Nevertheless, the tightening of internet controls in China is making it harder for international companies to do business in the country, according to Josh Ong, China editor of the technology monitoring site The Next Web.

"A lot of companies have a general policy that they must use their own proxy network in order to transfer data, especially into and out of China," he said. "So you are looking at banks or e-commerce companies, anyone who is transferring very sensitive information, a lot of them use corporate VPNs."

Ong suggested the latest move could be linked to the recent leadership change in the Chinese Communist Party.

"It is certainly possible that some of it is just a general flexing of might, kind of coming in with a strong arm to really show who's in control," he said. "But there is definitely something intentional happening when these VPN services are being restricted."

Many expats and China watchers see this development as a bad sign not only for VPN users but for China as well.

Bill Bishop wrote on DealBook in November that China's management of the internet "has not been encouraging for those who want to believe the leadership will push reforms."

I have lived in Beijing since 2005, and these have been the most draconian few days of internet restrictions I have experienced," he wrote. "Indiscriminate blocking of major parts of the global internet is not going to help China in its quest to internationalize the renminbi and make it a reserve currency," Bishop writes. "Internet controls at the level of the last few days may also deter foreign firms from moving their regional headquarters to China."

Meanwhile Barbara Demick of the Los Angeles Times bureau in Beijing tweeted last month: "Note to Chinese censors: If you pull our vpns [sic], main Asia news bureaus will have to move to Tokyo. Not good for China."

But does the Chinese government really care?

It probably would gladly get rid of foreign journalists from its country so that the government has a better control of the media.

So we hope all foreign journalists in China will be even more determined to get the news out of the country because we need them there more than ever to tell us what is really going on.

Perhaps there are determined programmers out there keen to figure out a way to break down the Great Firewall?

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