Global Times on Blocked Foreign Web Sites in China

This is one of those Global Times stories that leaves you scratching your head, raising a topic that is usually considered off-limits, but never going quite far enough to lay blame where it belongs. It seems to put the blame for blocked overseas Web sites in China on Chinese ISPs, who block the sites for economic reasons. Or maybe it’s due to router issues. The reporter, of course, never approaches the third rail, namely that these sites are blocked by the government, no matter what ISP you’re using.

But the fact that they’re writing about this at all is extraordinary.

Web users in a number of major Chinese cities reported difficulties in getting to overseas websites as their access has been seemingly frequently interrupted since early this month.

Overseas websites, including Gmail and Yahoo, became inaccessible as requests to log onto these websites returned error messages, while connections to MSN Messenger were unstable and Apple’s App Store was off-limits, Web users in cities including Beijing and Shenzhen reported since May 6.

This stop-and-start access to sites whose servers are located outside of the Chinese mainland was mostly reported by corporate users and businesses, where demands to visit overseas sites are large.

A number of institutions, including Zhejiang University in Hangzhou and Southern Medical University in Guangzhou, posted notices earlier this month, attributing instability to “restrictions on visits to foreign websites by the Internet service providers – China Unicom and China Telecom.”

….Global Voices Advocacy, a pressure group [?], said the interruption followed the use of “monitoring software on routers that direct Internet traffic within and across China’s borders,” the Guardian reported. It added that the new software appears to be able to detect large amounts of connections being made to overseas Internet locations.

Fang Binxing, president of Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications, attributed the interruptions to Internet service providers’ economic concerns.

“Service providers have to pay the bill of the international Internet flow for their users. So there is incentive for the companies to discourage users to visit foreign websites,” he said.

So we have some theories, but no answers. Not a single word about censorship, needless to say. The article even mentions that VPNs have been failing lately, but then it leaves you hanging as to why that is. Closing lines:

The [MII] official referred the Global Times to the State Internet Information Office, a newly established department to administer both online publishing and Internet access management.

Calls to the office went unanswered Tuesday. The Internet Surveillance Department of Beijing Public Security Bureau said they were not aware of this matter.

That’s a closer you’d expect to see in the Wall Street Journal, not the Global Times. What is this article actually about? Are the GT journalists really trying to be investigative reporters, stymied by China’s security bureaucracy? How often does a Chinese newspaper say they tried to contact a government agency but got no response? As I said, rather bewildering.

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Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 19 Comments

That Fang Binxing, the father of the GFW, should pin the blame on internet service providers’ cost concerns is particularly precious.

May 18, 2011 @ 10:39 am | Comment

Precious indeed.

What I want to know is why the GT published this story at all. Something just doesn’t make sense. Then again, it IS the Global Times.

May 18, 2011 @ 10:58 am | Comment

Heard it all before, but don’t be too suprised about the ending. They use that exact line a number of times recently. I been told that more to do with the fact that they cannot tell the outcome, then with the failed ambition of contacting someone relevent to the issue.

In the end this is still reporting from China, by Chinese, and yes, some of them are ambitious investigative journalists, but then they also often end up in oversea departments for their publications ;) go figure

May 18, 2011 @ 11:00 am | Comment

Most irritating is the fact that the editors at the Global Times all know exactly how the censorship works (duh). I’ve discussed it with senior people there many times. I even asked if they could help me get my site unblocked. They just laughed.

May 18, 2011 @ 11:09 am | Comment

Lots of annoyance about this not least in the GT newsroom, which communicates almost entirely by msn…

May 18, 2011 @ 11:16 am | Comment

Seems like Global Times fulfills its raison d’etre here. Trying to be a more liberal voice than others in Chinese media, but caught in that eternal ebb and flow that is their hallmark.

There is mention that websites are blocked in China, and I think what we are seeing here is GT going as far as they can without stepping on toes. Note the mention of Blue Wave saying that they were told ”to limit access to foreign sites.” The headline itself is a nice little giveaway as well.

May 18, 2011 @ 11:34 am | Comment

I find 3 things interesting here. The first is the unclear motivation for the story. As has been alluded to, it is no big mystery as to who is behind the funny business wrt access to overseas websites. But obviously they can’t come right out and say it. So why even bring it up, then have to tiptoe around it. Especially when everyone writing it and reading it are doing the nudge-nudge wink-wink.

Second, usually when confronted with a perceived access to information problem, the official response is that there is no problem. But here, the authorities actually seem to be acknowledging that there is a problem. Of course, they’re off-loading it onto private enterprise. But still, such an acknowledgment is unusual. Maybe they’re trying out a new formula.

And third, the GT is actually seeking out the stakeholders and explicitly attempting to solicit a response. How incredibly fair and balanced of them. Maybe they’re turning over a new leaf in search of overseas credibility so that they can better fulfill their mandate. Or maybe they’re just paying some lip service to the concept of journalistic principles.

May 18, 2011 @ 12:28 pm | Comment

This is partly the result of schizophrenic desire to imbue the English-language version of Global Times with tone of open, hard-hitting, investigative journalism, while at the same time not actually stating the obvious, embarrassing truth. I’ve met some ex-pat writers from the Global Times, and they are often frustrated writers who would like to build some journalistic cred with this gig, but are well aware of the limits they are working under. Dancing in chains, as they say. It’s well known that the Chinese editors/overlords want them to adopt this quasi real-news style, but without revealing the fact that Global Times is still just another “throat and tongue of the Party”. This is also true of CCTV English channel shows like “Dialogue”, which also pretends to be a real talk show.

May 18, 2011 @ 1:38 pm | Comment

Here’s an interesting thing…I was going through my FB author page to make sure I had relevant articles that I linked to archived, and I came to the GT piece on the “Father of the Great Firewall,” who is Fang Binxing, right? It was an interesting interview that revealed little factoids like, Father of the Great Firewall uses four different VPNs so he can view blocked websites.

That article is gone. Harmonized, as far as I can tell.

May 18, 2011 @ 4:22 pm | Comment

Damage limitation, maybe? Trying to say to non-Chinese “look we’re not pretending this isn’t happening, but did you consider that ACTUALLY these other reasons are to blame?”

The question is, what is being reported in the mainstream Chinese langauge news?

May 18, 2011 @ 8:28 pm | Comment

Are the GT journalists really trying to be investigative reporters, stymied by China’s security bureaucracy? How often does a Chinese newspaper say they tried to contact a government agency but got no response?

To look at the Global Times – the English-language publication, not Huanqiu Shibao – as part of the Chinese press is problematic, to say the least. It’s more like a leaflet right from a government agency. Propaganda among foreigners is the GT’s Raison d’être.
That said, websites and papers addressing a Chinese readership frequently contact the authorities, too, even if not – in this “internationalised” way – when it comes to censorship issues.

May 18, 2011 @ 8:43 pm | Comment

Agree with Raj. It’s the Chinese press that really matters.

May 18, 2011 @ 8:46 pm | Comment

Fascinating case of cognitive dissonance.

May 18, 2011 @ 9:10 pm | Comment

This is a low-cost, low-risk attempt to subtly shift the international discussion away from topics about government censorship. If 10,000 people read this and 500 believe it, that’s 500 more people who are overlooking or excusing internet censorship. There is nothing for GT to lose by publishing these stories and plenty to gain.

May 19, 2011 @ 9:05 am | Comment

So GT has invented low cost reporting?

May 19, 2011 @ 3:43 pm | Comment

As Raj alluded to, I wouldn’t get too excited if this is only appearing in the English language version of GT. I’d be more interested in seeing what excuses are being made in the Chinese language press. Is there a point, I wonder, beyond which even ‘patriotic’ Chinese will start to squeal about the inconvenience of blocked websites? Blocking Gmail, for example?

May 19, 2011 @ 9:29 pm | Comment

GT’s Chinese-language sister, Huanqiu Shibao, has recently been quite explicit, re censorship, Mick. I seem to remember that there has been one or another echo of this approach in China’s English-language media, too, but without calling upon peoples’ nationalism. In some ways, the messages to Chinese readers and foreigners seem to have converged occasionally, but not consistantly.

May 19, 2011 @ 11:56 pm | Comment

[...] happened to a nicer guy? To the guy who earlier this week said foreign websites were blocked because they create extra costs for Chinese ISPs? The man behind the Great Firewall who, rather humporously, boasts that he uses no fewer than six [...]

May 20, 2011 @ 5:23 am | Pingback

Maybe this is a save face strategy. Do they realize that they have gone too far with censorship and a change is in the works?

May 20, 2011 @ 7:07 am | Comment

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