Computers and Internet

Introduction

Ever since I started this blog in November 2005, I have included entries about the state of the Internet in China. In some cases, the state will have been the poor service and second-rate infrastructure causing problems accessing the Web; in others, it will have been the effects of state (and local) censorship. In the summer of 2014, I started culling posts from the Computers and Internet category because of their ephemeral nature, and have replaced them with this more general page. At the time of writing, quite a lot of posts remain, but these will gradually be thinned out.

Before 2008…

There was already some censorship when I arrived in China in the autumn of 2002. For example, the BBC site was almost impossible to access beyond the main page, but Nanny’s dead hand lay less heavily on the con­trols in those days. Before 2008, it would inexplicably twitch, and some website such as blogger would become inaccessible. Sometime later, Nan­ny’s hand would twitch again, and blogger would return. There were never any discernible reasons for this behaviour.

The Golden Shield Project (as I believe it was called; aka, the Great Firewall of China) is ridiculously misnamed. If this thing had been designed, say, to block spam, it might indeed be a shield, but a shield is meant to defend from external attacks, and outside of this one faces China to defend the rest of the world. (Love the irony.)

…and after

As the Beijing Olympics approached, the Internet was generally accessible, but, as I predicted, this state of affairs did not last, and since 2009 various major websites and services such as Facebook and Twitter have probably been permanently blocked in China. Having seen the list of blocked sites on GreatFire.org, I know that a lot of what gets blocked deserves to get blocked, but high-profile sites such as Facebook seem to have fallen victim to the Party’s rampant desire to control everyone else’s lives, and possibly to the commercial desires of the Chinese equivalent of Facebook which knows that it can’t compete against Facebook.

The state of the Internet from China has worsened considerably since 2002, especially after the Olympics. It is, as I said above, about control, and thus the maintenance of the Party’s power.

There goes gmail

Just after Christmas 2014, gmail got knobbled. I noticed that I was no longer getting notifications of mail messages on my phone, which informed me that my last update had been the previous Friday (26th of December). The following week, the stories started emerging that the service had been blocked. It was on the 30th that The Guardian published a story which gave the official reason, viz. Google had not been obeying Chinese law.

Paint me a deep shade of sceptical. If Google has been disobeying Chinese law for the past few years ever since the original spat, why did it take the imperial government so long to block gmail?

Does this really have something to do with the protests in Hong Kong in 2014 even though I assume that gmail is unaffected in the Territory? Could it be something to do with North Korea’s internet access being allegedly blocked by the US? Could this be another instance of instance of pro­tect­ionism on behalf of Chinese internet companies? Could it be all three and various others?

As I said above, I noticed that I wasn’t getting notifications from gmail about mail messages from Boxing Day, but after opening channel D on my phone and getting a whole spate of missed messages, I then got notific­at­ions the day after without having to use a VPN. And no, gmail had not been unblocked.

Mobile access to gmail was restored, but at the time of writing (11.01.15), it’s gone again, but impossible to say whether this is for good or merely gone for the weekend because the switch in the Department of Online Paranoia gets set to “off” on Fridays.

It seems that that may have been a one-off because gmail has remained accessible via my phone at weekends as well.

Appendix

The following paragraph was originally elsewhere in this post, but it seems germane for it to be moved here.

In 2014, I bought a new mobile phone. I was able to set up gmail on it and get messages, but when the phone finally got updated to W8.1 in August, the connection to gmail needed to be re-established. I managed to access the login screen once, but trying to access Google or gmail on the phone via the Internet got perpetually blocked. It was only by going through the option of “Other account” that I managed to access gmail again.

Excuses, excuses

The excuses for neutering the Net, local or international, are

  1. Harmony and stability – ironic considering the number of mass incidents across China.
  2. Think of the children – it seems that the youth of China are all mentally unstable, or expected to behave like little Puritans.
  3. Terrorism – there may be something in this, but it’s another convenient excuse to spread control across the whole population on the basis of the activities of a tiny minority of people.
  4. Rumours – which may be just that, and good riddance, but this can also be used to throttle unexpurgated versions of the truth. If the government was more transparent, some rumours might be avoided. If the locals could think for themselves, they might be a little less vulnerable to them.

To this list could be added protectionism and vindictiveness. The latter has been Google’s problem. Although companies operating in China should comply with Chinese law, the real issue was probably not so much that Google declared it would flout the law, but that it dared to say no, and like your average Chinese child, the Party had a tantrum.

The effects of Internet censorship

But while we may abhor excessive censorship hidden behind some fairly pitiful excuses, who is really affected by any of this? The Chinese? The crude assumption is that they all desire to breathe the sweet air of freedom, and must want to debate and know about the truth about Tibet, Taiwan, Tiananmen Square, Falun Gong, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, etc. Perhaps some do, but most probably don’t care that much, and on the whole, people are rather parochial. (However, this is not to say that they like the present situation. The man who is behind the develop­ment of the Great Firewall is generally loathed.)

No, the truth is that online censorship affects expats to a far greater extent than it does the Chinese because it affects our Internet rather than China’s playpen-like Intranet. I assume that the blocks on English-language sites was a consequence of compulsory English classes in China. The irritating irony is that barely any Chinese school children would ever go near the Anglo­phone Internet because English is a book language which has no value outside of school. Even though learning English has been downgraded in the education system, I doubt whether that will lead to the unblocking of any sites.

Another issue is the crude nature of the blocking, which catches large numbers of inoffensive sites. Indeed, that’s most of WordPress or blogspot or any other blogging service because the majority of posts aren’t in Chin­ese and have nothing to do with China. Even if these two conditions were satisfied, only a minority would be on topics which get Nanny hot and sweaty. But although Chinese has a word for “subtle”, the imperial govern­ment has no idea what it means.

I have long wondered why the files section of the pgnmentor site was blocked. My original hypothesis was that PGN (Portable Game Notation; used to record chess games) was the initials of someone important, but I wonder whether -tor had got conflated with TOR, the anonymising net­work, which is also blocked from China. This is an example of one of the more baffling blocks I’ve encountered, and possibly an example of how crude blocking can be.

Today and tomorrow

Much of what has been blocked from China will probably never be un­blocked again. The vacillation before 2008 seems to have passed, and we are now in an era of increasing paranoia. First Weibo got strangled, and then WeChat. The Chinese Intranet may be reasonably lively in spite of all the restrictions, but it’s still little more than an open prison full of people impotently shouting at each other while the governor occasionally stands on the prison walls, shouts at the rest of the world through a megaphone, but only speaks for himself.

For the moment, some VPNs still work from China, but there was a mass culling in 2013, which seems to have killed off free ones such as Freegate, and a few commercial ones.

While China may want to prevent its citizens from having free access to the Web (although quite a number of my pupils are already on Facebook long before they go abroad), it seems that people accept (and expect) that the expats all use VPNs. A question which I can’t answer is whether (at least unofficially) it would be detrimental for Nanny to find the means to kill off all VPNs, even although her primary concern is always for the continuing ignorance of her citizens. While I’m sure China does not care one way or the other about individual expats, there may be some concern that the whole­sale neutralisation of VPNs might be bad for business.

Recent pronouncements (Wuzhen, November 2014) from China about the Internet are merely its dull, dreary anodyne vision for a place which it wants to turn into the on-line equivalent of CCTV. There was nothing in the de­claration about the Web being a place where people can air their views with­out fear of persecution or ethically untenable loss of freedom.

January 2015

Recent reports have been saying that VPNs have been taking a further ham­mering. In the middle of January, Astrill’s UK servers kept failing, and searches via Google kept being redirected to Hong Kong (which, I thought, would’ve been blocked anyway).

While that seems to have passed for the moment, the message from Astrill is that its service has been blocked on iOS devices. (03.02.15. As I dis­cover­ed today, this has also affected my Windowsphone as well; I don’t know whether Android phones are any better off.)

Other VPNs, including ones which have previously been considered highly reliable, have also been affected by the latest bout of peevishness.

November 2015

W10 seems to be doing Nanny’s job for her. The latest version, 1511, flopped onto my machines last weekend, since when, Internet access has been ropey with or without a VPN, but more so with it. Whatever the problem is, it seems to affect both Firefox and Chrome, and appears, in part, to affect links from Facebook, but it’s also not unusual for pages to need to be reloaded regardless of their point of origin.

Meanwhile, after a Chinese citizen was murdered by the deranged Beardies in the Middle East, the censors have been busy killing off the online discussion perhaps because a.) people would ask what had been done to save him; b.) if efforts were made, why weren’t they effective; and c.) what is the Party going to do in retaliation (just look at France)? Beijing has issued its usual platitudes, and there the matter will almost certainly come to an end.

December 2015

It may not be W10 after all because a colleague of mine who’s still using W7 was also having issues with Astrill, which was taking a fair old hammering at the weekend, which I strongly suspect to be a consequence of some port-forwarding bug that I read about on The Register just recently.

It’s also possible that W10 has been a chance for the Party boys to bugger the Internet just that little bit more. How long before MS’s data slurping proves to be a vulnerability that can be exploited by a certain group of ragingly paranoid oriental despots?

Astrill is still functioning, but less effectively at the time of writing. Often pages need to be reloaded before they appear. I’m hoping Astrill will be able to compensate somehow, or they’re working on a new version of their software (and we haven’t had one of those in some time).

At the time of writing, Astrill has hit v. 3 beta, which is recommended for anyone in China using W10 because of a DNS leak. It’s not stable, as it keeps crashing out and restarting, but it seems to be functioning more effectively than 2.9.3 has been recently.

January 2016

I get the impression that when Astrill is having issues, it’s because there’s some issue with W10 which needs patching. Just before the latest update, links from Facebook were not functioning properly. The only way to access an external site was to go to the page and then switch servers or the page would never load and would often result in an Astrill error page.

The other news this month is about Netflix trying to block VPN access to its service. A lot of people who are in countries where they don’t need VPNs might use such things to access content only available on Netflix in the US. I hear that the service is rubbish in the UK. But what if you’re an expat American in the UK? Does this mean that whether you have a VPN or not, you can’t access Netflix in the States? What about expats in socially backward countries like China where Netflix is blocked (and even if it wasn’t, the English-language content would probably just be Dr Who, Sherlock, and Big Bang Theory)?

We’re starved of the “good” stuff here and excluded from accessing our own cultures and from being part of a common cultural milieu. We do sometimes make this observation to our pupils. An ignorance of what’s popular in the US or the UK means that when they go to university abroad, they won’t be able to participate effectively with their English-speaking peers. (Well, I can pretend that might happen; on Facebook very few of my former pupils ever post pictures of their interactions with non-Chinese people.)

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