Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Internet control in China

I am sorry to announce that is blocked in China, as are all of the other blogspot blogs, as are all of the wordpress blogs, and I'm sure many others. No, it's nothing I said--(heh heh--just kidding). They're blocked, I assume, because some government tool who happened or happens to be in charge of internet censorship came across a blogspot blog that he or she found disparaging to the Chinese government. So that tool has made my job a little bit more difficult.

I had actually been planning to post this entry some months ago. But then all of a sudden blogspot sites were unblocked! They had all been blocked since I arrived here in March, and then one day they were all freely available. Why? Who knows? Just a few days ago I was very happy to discover that Wikipedia, which had also been blocked since I arrived here, was also all of a sudden unblocked! How nice! Maybe things are turning around, I thought. Then, just as suddenly, the blogspot blogs were re-blocked. Why? Who knows? Ask the nameless bureaucratic tool who blocked them. (I'm very happy that wikipedia is unblocked, though).

Most of you have heard of the internet censorship here--described by some as "The Great Firewall of China", though it's actually officially called "Golden Shield" (Jindun 金盾). You can read all about it in this wikipedia article. I won't repeat too much of that article, but will try to add a few details.

Blogs are extremely popular in China--there are probably millions (yes, millions) of them. Earlier this year the blog tracking site Technorati (also blocked in China) acknowleged that the most linked-to blog in the world was that of actress-singer-director Xu Jinglei 徐静蕾 (though as of 11/10/06 she's fallen to number 5). Most Chinese blogs are of the "lifestyle" sort--about personal issues, feelings, hobbies, etc., and celebrity blogs like Xu's are very popular. Someone recently told me that many if not most of these celebrity blogs are in fact bogus--ghost writers are hired to write the blogs, and the stars are there just there to attract traffic to the websites. Who's to say if Xu's is that way or not. But Xu Jinglei has, through her blogging identity, now become even more of a commodity than she was before--she now appears in print and billboard advertisements for computer systems.

This is what most corporate and state power the world over would like the internet to be about: happy professionals selling things and blogging about nothing.

It seems to me that recently there have been more and more academically and even politically oriented blogs, with book reviews, social commentary etc. A few big Chinese companies such as Sina and Tianya act as the hosting sites for the vast majority of Chinese blogs. The government requires Chinese blog companies to police their own sites. If an individual blog has some unacceptable post, then the company can be held responsible, so they hire their own people to review and delete bad blogs. Some foreign blog sites refuse to do that, so when objectionable material crops up, the entire domains are blocked. A major exception is MSN Spaces, which has agreed to abide by Chinese government restrictions, and monitors it's own blog sites (obviously there are MSN people here in China doing that—though I wouldn't put it past Microsoft to hire some tools in Redmond, Washington to delete Chinese blog posts, either). More recently, a regulation has been proposed requiring that people use their own names to register for blogs (though the blogs can still be published anonymously). So their hope is that while you can post and remain anonymous to your audience, the company that hosts you, and thus the guvmn't, will know who you are.

My guess is that the government is most concerned with blocking blogs and sites established by Falun Gong zealots (who I might discuss in another post, unless I decide to censor myself [I don't particularly like them, by the way]), the lamaist Free Tibet crowd, and pro-US democracy activists, all of whom make frequent use of the internet to publish their criticisms. But the government censors are increasingly blocking other sites as well, some of which might seem rather unexpected to those not familiar with the course the Chinese Communist Party has taken in the last 20 or so years. Notably, a number of well known Marxist and leftists sites have been blocked in China during the last year, including the web magazine China and the World (中国与世界), the Cultural Revolution Research Web (中国文革研究网), and even the important forum at Workers and Peasants Heaven and Earth (工农天地). None of these sites are "against the Chinese Communist Party" in the least--in fact, they are unabashedly pro-Maoist and (to varying degrees) anti-capitalist--and that's precisely why they were shut down.
Chinese people must be protected from bad things such as these...

Another very important site that has run into trouble is perhaps the most influential leftist website in China today, the site of the Utopia Bookstore ( 乌有之乡) in Beijing. This site hosts a collection of hundreds of articles by many dozens of left Chinese contributors, some famous, some not, and the editors post new critical essays every day. Earlier in the year it was blocked by government authorities alarmed at the explosion of sympathy for the plight of the migrant worker Wang Binyu 王斌余, who murdered four people in a fit of rage after being repeatedly refused two years of back wages from his corrupt employer which he needed to pay for an operation for his father. Their domain,, was blocked, but then allowed to reopen some time later with a different domain name: I asked one of the people associated with the site why they were forced to change the domain name if the government had decided to unblock them. He said that it was the government's way of letting them know who's boss, and that the site could be shut down again if they published anything too critical of the government's policies.

The most informative article on what's behind the recent targeting of leftist websites is an interview by the academic and activist Stephen Philion with one of the editors of the blocked website Chinese Worker (中国工人), a site dedicated to articles by and of interest to one of the groups who has been left in the dust by the current free market "reforms": the working class. As the editor of the site explains, their site was supposedly not blocked because of its content, but because they could not pay an outrageous and prohibitively expensive phony registration fee which the government arbitrarily demanded of them. Eventually the site was set up again outside of China, but the censors in China found it and blocked it again immediately.

Q: Now, why would the Chinese government, a socialist government in name, be concerned about a website run by leftists discussing the kinds of things that were discussed on the China Workers Website?
A: Well, because the government is not making socialism....[The] National People's Congress will be convened soon, and the government knows that workers and farmers' voices will be heard by representatives and might even make way into the speeches made at the Congress. The government doesn't want that -- it actually fears even the possibility of it. So, when the national representatives speak, workers are supposed to keep their mouths shut....If you claim you're the leader of the working class and then you turn around and lay off a huge mass of state-owned enterprise workers, without doing anything to protect the power or interests of the workers' unions, of course you're going to face an angry response from workers....China today is basically controlled by a new capitalist class....You realize at this time some one third of China's business owners are members of the Communist Party! What in the world is this? Who says capitalists can speak for the workers of China?

So how, you might wonder, with blogspot blocked, how am I able to reach my own blog? Well, I have my ways. It turns out that the "Great Firewall of China" is pretty easily circumvented. As a matter of fact, it's completely trivial for anyone who has a pretty good knowledge of the internet. It is, however, annoying and slow. Also, not everyone here knows how to do it, and when the government finds out one method of getting around their firewall, they block it. It's a cat and mouse game.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Saul is back

My apologies, dear readers, for the long blogging hiatus. I got behind on the things that I was planning on blogging about, and the more behind I got, the more things I wanted to write about, and the more work catching up seemed to be. But I have come to realize that this long period of inactivity has probably lost me several hundred readers. Considering that the overall readership of my blog is in the high tens of millions, one might think that this need not be a huge concern for me. (I have no direct evidence on which to base this tens of millions figure, but I derive it from my own estimation of my personal charisma and global influence). But it is a pity to lose even one reader. So in order to redeem myself in the face of those several hundred wayward, faithless, impatient, attention defficit disorder-afflicted louts, I am returning to my blog. Hooray!

I'm going to try to briefly get to some of the things I've been thinking about and doing over the past few months. I'm not going to go back and talk about everything. Some things I might get around to later.

I think that in order to quickly get around to more material, I'm going to quote some letters that I've written to people in the past few months. So if you're inclined to say, "Hey, that jerk just copied that blog entry from a letter he wrote me two months ago!", well, what are you going to do? I'm in China. Come and get me. Bring it on.

Saturday, April 01, 2006


My school is right on the Third Ring Road, one of the major traffic arteries in Beijing.

There are now five ring roads in and around the city. Being on a ring road makes transportation easier, though I don't particularly care for busy streets. I'm in the northern part of the West Third Ring Road, in Haidian district, which is where most of the colleges and universities are. My school is at the location of the red dot.

There aren't nearly as many bikes on the streets as there were the last time I was in China, in 96-99, but they are still here. And there are still a good number of men hauling stuff on big trikes with flat beds on the back. It looks like this guy is hauling recyclables.

This guy's got a smaller load, but you can see him and the trike more clearly.

Here's a bike repairman's shop set up by the side of a small street. These aren't nearly as common as they were before, but there are still a good many around.

Most if not all of the sidewalks along big streets around here are covered with little advertisement stickers. They're for internet bars that also issue make name chops and issue "certificates". I'm not sure what all of that is about. I'll have to ask someone.

Here's a sign for a blind masseur close to where I live.

This is the Michael Jordan store. It's called "Jordan [China]". People still know about the Chicago Bulls here. The basketball court on campus (and every other campus I pass by) is always filled.

This is the Beijing Dance Academy, where Zhang Ziyi (of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and "House of Flying Daggers") went to dance school. It's a stone's throw from my school.

I finally saw House of Flying Daggers about a week ago. I didn't like it. I think I may have finally outgrown bad martial arts movies. The director, Zhang Yimou, has made some pretty good movies in the past, but now he seems to have sold out. He makes crap and he gets paid lots of money for it.

Outside of the Nationalities University (民族大学), there are a lot of "ethnic" restaurants where you can find foods from Western China. Here's a small Muslim-run shop that sells cakes, and beside it (with the red doors) is a Tibetan bar.

This is "Million Land House". I've seen a couple of places like this--fake Western facades with Ionic columns (they're off to the sides in this picture, so you can't really see them) on the front of regular buildings. Both times, they have been restaurants.

Saturday, March 18, 2006


Here is my school--
The China Youth University of Political Sciences
The red banner says "Civilized Society, Civilized People, Civilized Transportation, Civilized Roads"

The school is run by the Communist Youth League. It's on the grounds of the Central CYL School (中央团校), originally established in 1948. The China Youth University for Political Sciences was established as a supplementary school (with a size surpassing the CYL school) here in 1985. The name is a bit misleading--they don't have a political science department yet. That's on the way. They excel in social work and work with juveniles.

The University is small as Beijing universities go. A number of schools in the neighborhood here, such as the Nationalities University, People's University, Beijing University, and Beijing Foreign Studies University, dwarf it in size.

Here is the door at the guard gate: "Hello, Comrade!"
In spite of the Communist Youth League affiliation and the "comrade" business on the door, I don't think that there are many--if any--true believing communists here.

I am not taking classes here, but my institutional affiliation is here. I was introduced to a professor here, Meng Dengying,
by my good friend Viren Murthy back in Chicago. Mr. Meng has a strong interest in Western critical theory and Marxism. He did his Ph.D. thesis on Althusser's theory of ideology. He's more of a theoretician than an activist, but he does try hard to encourage students to spend time working in the poverty-sticken areas in western China. He was eager to introduce me to his students, to let them know that there are Marxists in the United States. Most of his students, like most students in China, think that Marxism is all crap.

I live in the foreign students' dorm. The other students in the dormatory are Koreans, Indonesians, and Japanese. I believe I am the only native English speaker on the campus. Right outside my dorm room they're building a new dorm. They work on it late into the night, maybe all night.
The workers, like most construction workers all over China, are mostly mingong--people from the countryside who have come into the city for work. I'll say a little more about mingong in a later post.

The construction work adds a layer of dust to the ambient dust. The windy season--the time of year when dust blows off of the desert into the city--is just winding down here. Everything outside gets very quickly, and sometimes there are huge gusts of wind that make it difficult to walk or throw a bit of grit into your face. The wind blows down the big signs put up around campus announcing the daily or weekly events.