Censorship blues

I think virtually every expat in China who returns home on vacation goes through the same culture shock when they get back to Beijing (or wherever): there is that jolt of not being able to get onto a web site that loaded instantly while you were away on vacation. All of a sudden, the bliss you had experienced of getting onto Gmail in a fraction of a second goes up in smoke as you watch the page opening sloth-like, ever so slowly, if it doesn’t time out altogether. No matter how many times you go back and forth between China and home, returning to China’s Internet still ignites a burst of annoyance and frustration, especially since it seems to be getting steadily worse.

No, this is nothing new. I think the newest aspect of the GFW is its focus on Google/Gmail. I was stunned when I visited China a few weeks ago and waited and waited for my email to show up. But now, after Google’s complaints of new China-based hack attacks, it’s gotten even slower, if that’s possible. And they’re messing with your VPNs, too. China, the country going through such marvelous reforms, wants to torture visitors to foreign sites and block anything they’re afraid might be inharmonious. And the key word is “afraid.” You only take such Draconian measures when you’re scared shitless.

Which takes us to a charming post by my friend Jeremiah about his return to China after spending time at home with his family. Some excerpts:

We just returned from two weeks in the “Free Internet Zone” known as New Hampshire to find that things online in China are as bad, or maybe worse, than ever.

The latest variation seems to be the “punish the IP address” approach. It works like this:

* I use a VPN too much to access materials that the man-purse brigade who run things around here finds objectionable. This could be anything from “Wen Jiabao in a Poodle Skirt” to accessing overseas libraries and journals on Chinese history.

* After a period of time, VPN stops working. Upon turning off the VPN, I find that while Chinese sites load normally, ALL foreign websites – no matter how benign – are now blocked.

* After a short “time-out,” things get back to normal and I can then view overseas sites and use the VPN again.

* Rinse. Lather. Repeat.

….For me personally, this is all more annoying than anything else. Eventually the VPN kicks in and I’m able to get work done. It might take a little longer, but it is what it is.

But this obsessive need to control information also speaks to a larger truth: No matter how well China is doing or how satisfied people are with their lives, the Chinese government consistently acts like the once-cuckolded husband who can neither forgive his wife nor forget her fling…even after 22 years of relatively good times.

Read the whole thing for some good laughs. What makes it so depressing is that it’s so unnecessary and does nothing to make China look good. I also doubt that if they lifted the block there would be revolution. Like in the days of Stalin, the CCP has to keep reminding the public who’s in charge lest they get any ideas…. It is better to be feared than loved.

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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: 3 Comments

For someone with complete control of the local infrastructure and no moral restrictions, it is quite easy to disturb an VPN. They cannot see what is within but they can slow it down or kill intermittently the connection, making the experience of accessing the free Internet outside Chinas LAN quite frustrating.

One possible work around would be something inspired in the SETI@Home project.

http://setiathome.berkeley.edu/

A massive number of volunteered computers, extensibly geographically distributed, offering a secure encrypted connection. The moment one IP is blocked, another one is ready to use. Available IPs could rotated in the same session, jumping from one to another in random pattern. Similar to a frequency hopping radoi.

Maybe even using port jumping.

Given a massive enough number of IP addresses, the GFW will have a hard time trying to identify and filtering them. If they try, they could basically bring down China internet.. I mean LAN.

It would be combined with changes in encryption and traffic patterns, and some authentication to prevent faked volunteered computers.

Any volunteers for the project?

June 11, 2011 @ 7:12 am | Comment

I can easily generate an NP problem, but you cannot easily solve it (given enough big numbers)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/P_versus_NP_problem

June 11, 2011 @ 7:15 am | Comment

I think “afraid” is key here. These are not the actions of a secure government. Reading about the latest “mass incidents” and people’s reaction to them makes me truly question if the current regime is as secure as we tend to think it is.

June 15, 2011 @ 6:37 am | Comment

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