Global Times takes us behind the Great Firewall

This is interesting. I’ve often expressed surprise that the Global Times can go as far as they do in pushing the envelope and covering stories that seem clearly to cross the typical red lines the government imposes. We saw it very early on the year the English-language version first went to press and one article made a passing reference to the June 4 Incident — a passing and innocuous mention, yes, but it was also historic. All that said, we know the GT’s main function is to serve party interests and often to stoke nationalism and, when it suits them, to portray the US as a country that is not always China’s friend.

The interesting part: Today the newspaper published a rather detailed look at how China’s Internet community, Sina Weibo users in particular, can retrieve censored Weibo entries. For instance, it explains the machinations of the website Freeweibo:

Launched on October 10, 2012, Freeweibo retrieves data automatically from Weibo to provide “uncensored and anonymous Sina Weibo searches.”

“We ignore relevant laws, legislation and policy,” the welcome message on the website reads, a response to the expression Weibo and Chinese search engines use to explain why searches for certain words come back empty.

The website, in both English and Chinese, displays posts that are blocked or deleted on Sina Weibo. When searching for keywords, Freeweibo breaks search results down to “blocked by Sina Weibo” and “official search results,” which allows users to see which search results are missing from the official Weibo.

Freeweibo has around 10,000 unique visitors per day, with most coming from China, including Taiwan, based on the language setting, according to Percy Alpha, the pseudonym used by one of the founders.

A week after the website went live, it was blocked on the mainland. But the creators of the website have also been trying to provide mirror sites that are accessible without a VPN.

From the list of blocked keywords provided on the website, it is also clear when some words become sensitive and when such scrutiny is lifted.

For instance, the name of Bo Xilai, former Party chief of Chongqing who was recently prosecuted on corruption charges, was banned from searches until July 25, the day the news of his prosecution was announced.

The article describes other tools in remarkable detail, and lets those responsible for them refer to “censorship,” a word the government usually tries to dance around. It even tells readers they can find deleted Web material over at China Digital Times, an organization you’d think they would never reference.

The entire tone of the article, especially looking at the interviews they conduct with the developers of these tools, is welcoming, as if citizens have a right to understand how the censorship works and it’s okay to tell them how they can find ways to get around it. It freely acknowledges the filtering and banning, such as Bo Xilai’s name. And it acknowledges there are ways to see sites like Freeweibo without a VPN.

This is a far cry from the usual party line that these sites are blocked due to technical or economic issues. You can read my earlier post about such excuses over here: “Fang Binxing, president of Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications, attributed the interruptions to Internet service providers’ economic concerns.” Right.

Global Times continues to surprise. Read the whole thing; it’s like they’re lifting the curtain over the GFW, and actually admitting what it’s all about.


Global Times on the Wenzhou train crash, one year later

I was (am) always curious about the seemingly opposing forces at the Global times. Often I was amazed at how far they would go allowing commentators to criticize the CCP, even columns mocking China’s navy and arguing it was hardly ready to participate in any conflict in the South China Sea. So many examples like that. There was a 2009 op-ed praising Deng Yujiao, the karaoke waitress in Badong who stabbed a lascivious government official to death. And a lot more. These were balanced, of course, with xenophobic outbursts, sabre rattling and incredibly paranoid/irrational arguments about the West and the Western media. But still….I was amazed at what got past the censors at what the censors let through. But I never doubted that it was strategic. Nothing got through by accident. Give the people some space to vent, as long as they never cross the line, the fat red line between acceptable criticism and advocating for democracy or for greater freedom in Tibet or for referring to a massacre in 1989.

I wondered about this same thing tonight as I read this piece on the one-year anniversary of the Wenzhou train crash. It’s actually a damn good article; it’s real journalism. Paragraphs like these just pop out at me:

At the scene of the accident, wreaths for the deceased have been removed, memorial poems written on the viaduct pillar have been scrubbed off and there are no signs of the crash. Everything seems to show life has returned to normal. But the local villagers still remember the tragedy vividly.

“I will never forget that night, even now when there’s a thunderstorm and lightning, I am little worried about the viaduct, and worry that such accidents will happen again,” a local resident, who refused to disclose his full name, told the Global Times.

And then there’s this:

Although boasting one of the fastest high-speed trains in the world, the way the Ministry of Railways (MOR) disposed of the wreckage and delayed the results of an investigation into the crash sparked public fury and widespread doubt as to the wisdom of the massive investment in high-speed railways….

Though unwilling to discuss the past, Wang Jian still complained about the MOR. “After the memorial service, the MOR officials fled and have never contacted us ever since. The investigation result was delayed, and the complete name list of all the passengers on the trains has still never been released,” he said.

“The MOR did punish someone, but nobody was even jailed,” Wang complained.

This doesn’t sound like state-controlled propaganda. But maybe it is; maybe it’s doing exactly what the party wants it to do, placing the blame on a specific group of bunglers. I honestly don’t know. The one thing I always thought when I read articles like this, hypercritical of the government, was that it somehow fit within the approved party discourse — that the government was willing to let the media go this far and even encouraged it to do so in some instances, especially when reporting on corruption and local malfeasance.

Is this an example of opening up and greater freedom of the press? Or is it the same old propaganda, disguised as a watchdog media, that is actually planting exactly the stories the government wants it to? I wonder.


Behind the curtain of the Global Times

If you’re curious, you’ll find everything you need to know here. Yes, it quotes me, and also Jeremy Goldkorn, Michael Anti and others. I especially like the headline. But doesn’t it apply to nearly all Chinese media?

Update: Wow, we’re on a roll today. Don’t miss this follow-up.


The Global Times and brain-eating worms

Just go here now for the whole slippery story. Parody can never be this funny.

Just one tiny snip: Here’s the headline from the print edition of the Global Times:

‘Brain-eating Parasitic Worms No Cause for Alarm’

What would our lives be like without English-language Chinese media?


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.


Update: Global Times and Ai Weiwei

Five full days after my post on Ai Weiwei and the Global Times was published, I received an email from someone relatively high up at the paper telling me that my description of the meeting with Mr. Hu and the staff as depicted in the post was categorically untrue. I’m putting this post up because I want the newspaper’s response to be on the record.

I can say definitively that the lower portion of the post, in which I describe my conversation with a GT editor, is true because I was there having the conversation. I cannot say definitively that the episode involving Mr. Hu is true, as I wasn’t there, obviously. But I can say that I heard about it from sources I trust like brothers/sisters. I was told that throughout the day, after the meeting, the office was buzzing about Mr. Hu’s announcement.

That said, it is still hearsay. A former journalist, I used trusted sources and thought long and hard about putting up the post to begin with. I wasn’t there. Maybe the meeting was perceived differently by different attendees. Maybe the story I heard was exaggerated, or maybe it was totally accurate. I definitely believe that the story, or at least the gist of it, is true, but I also have to offer the other side of the story.

In spite of my frustrations with the direction the Global Times has taken, underscored by the recent Ai Weiwei editorials, I still have great respect for many who work there, and good memories of our working together. The higher-level person who contacted me and insisted the story is false is one of those people I deeply respect.

So there’s both sides. I wanted to put it all on the table and let readers know how the paper responded.

As I said, it was five full days before the paper contacted me. The entry was translated into Chinese the very day it posted and got a fair amount of distribution. If it were categorically false I wish they had contacted me on day one, when they first read it.

Apologies for a long and possibly ambiguous post. I hope it’s clear why I felt I had to write it.


The Global Times and Ai Weiwei

Note: The Global Times has expressed a different opinion about what happened. Please see this post and the ensuing comments.

Nine days ago, Hu Xijin, the editor in chief of The Global Times, assembled all of the Chinese staff into the paper’s large conference room and shut the door. As is nearly always the case with such meetings, the expats, known as “foreign experts,” were not permitted inside.

Hu had a direct and simple order for his shock troops staff: They were to go to their desks and seek out any Chinese comment threads, any discussions on Chinese BBS’s and portals and blogs — any discussion on the Internet at all — about the detention of Ai Weiwei and counter them with the party line, as expressed so clearly and ominously in a recent Global Times editorial, namely that Ai Weiwei is a self-appointed maverick who deserves to be detained, and who is being used by hostile Western powers to embarrass, hurt and destabilize China. This was not a request, it was a direct order. It was compulsory.

This tells us quite clearly how determined the party is to get its message out about Ai Weiwei, even if it’s in gross violation of journalist ethics, if not downright sleazy. It adds a whole new dimension to the concept of the 50-center.

I’ve avoided Ai Weiwei, mainly because I’m on vacation and my Internet connections have been remarkably dodgy, which I attribute to Ai Weiwei, or at least to what he stands for. The CCP has to stifle voices of dissent when it feels vulnerable, and the Internet is always the first place they clamp down.

I’m sitting in a hotel in Nanjing and will try to make this a brief post, although I am brimming with thoughts on the topic.

The Global Times showed its truest and most sinister colors with a now infamous editorial warning that Ai Weiwei was about to hit a “red line,” and if//when he does he is asking for trouble. This was a not-so-veiled threat to all Chinese activists. The CCP is on the march, my friends. They’re kicking butt and taking names, and they’re coming for you.

It is reckless collision against China’s basic political framework and ignorance of China’s judicial sovereignty to exaggerate a specific case in China and attack China with fierce comments before finding out the truth. The West’s behavior aims at disrupting the attention of Chinese society and attempts to modify the value system of the Chinese people.

Ai Weiwei likes to do something “others dare not do.” He has been close to the red line of Chinese law. Objectively speaking, Chinese society does not have much experience in dealing with such persons. However, as long as Ai Weiwei continuously marches forward, he will inevitably touch the red line one day.

The West ignored the complexity of China’s running judicial environment and the characteristics of Ai Weiwei’s individual behavior. They simply described it as China’s “human rights suppression.” “Human rights” have really become the paint of Western politicians and the media, with which they are wiping off the fact in this world.

This is disturbing on so many levels I don’t think I need to drill down. It speaks for itself. It’s nauseating.

Instead, I’d like to talk about a meeting i had with a senior editor of the GT just 48 hours ago. She is urbane, sophisticated, educated, talented and a truly wonderful person. She also epitomizes the archetype of the sophisticated, urbane, educated Chinese who insist on toeing the Party line at all costs. I believe — I know — that this is completely sincere. But it’s also quite frustrating. “Getting through” to such a person, especially when it’s a good friend you admire, is infinitely frustrating when they seem to put up seamless, airtight mental barriers that you simply cannot break through.

I paraphrase, but with accuracy:

“Why doesn’t the West see that we do things our way in China? We have 1.3 billion people, all those mouths to feed and to protect through a harmonious society. You don’t have this situation. You are developed and your populations are small. Human rights doesn’t mean to the West what it means in China. Most Chinese support Ai Weiwei’s detention. They support Liu Xiaobo’s detention. He is a criminal trying to impose Western-style government on a society that doesn’t want it. Why won’t the West understand how humiliating it was to award the Nobel Prize to someone we put in jail, a man who is a criminal to the Chinese? How should we feel? How should we react?”

This led to a very long conversation — over an hour — in which I explained that if only China would actually engage in a dialog about these issues with the outside world instead of sabre-rattling and always sounding like a misunderstood and petulant child, maybe then China would advance its cause and help people outside China understand what China is really all about, how human rights are seen through Chinese eyes.

I specifically pointed to the Ai Weiwei editiorial.

“Don’t you realize the entire expat community here in Beijing and many others around the world are buzzing about this editorial, shocked at its belligerence, its snide and strident tone, its implied threats and its undercurrent of violence? Maybe, as you keep saying, the West truly doesn’t understand China. Well, you are focusing now on soft power. The Global Times itself is actually an outgrowth of China’s thirst for soft power, for global reputation and respect. And look at how you’re failing. You are driving away foreign talent and making China look worse, not better — in precise contradiction to the paper’s stated goals. If your media and leaders could articulate China’s point of view as clearly and calmly as you just did in this conversation maybe then China could get somewhere in fostering understanding. But railing against Ai Weiwei at the top of your lungs — a man seen as an artist and a celebrity — is exactly what you should not be doing. Why not throw the West a bone and let him go, declare an amnesty and then explain why he was detained in the first place.”

This evoked quite a response.

“Let Ai Weiwei go? But Richard, how can we do that? How can China admit to the world it is being defeated, it is bowing to international pressure and not doing what is right for China? How can we humilate ourselves like that?”

I said it’s been done before (look at North Korea surrendering reporter “spies” after Bill Clinton paid them a visit). In an instant, it would force a new dimension to the issue, and show China was willing to be less hysterical. And I said China appears hysterical, becoming increasingly strident, and that nothing demonstrates this more clearly than the direction the Global Times is taking.

This was, as I said, a long, polite and serious discussion. I never experienced anything quite like it before, because despite the mental barriers I referred, to, she genuinely wanted to hear my opinion and to learn how the West sees China, and I think she actually “got” that the GT, even if they’re right, is scaring people away and damaging its own cause with readers who are not Chinese. She actually said she wanted to discuss my argument with her superiors. (And no, I am not so vain or arrogant or naive as to believe my little talk will change the shape of Chinese journalism.)

All of this said, the detention of Ai Weiwei and many other activists who have the misfortune of being nameless and faceless to us is unpardonable, and self-defeating. I know, they were sending a message to the people of China, not to Americans 10,000 miles away. But again, they say they want soft power, they say they want to be a global superpower, they say they want fair treatment in the media. Well, sorry, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t repress with one hand and paint a picture of a happy harmonious rules-following society with the other. Detaining Ai Weiwei was the worst thing you could have done, trumped only by your idiocy in attacking him in savage, ugly, deranged editorials.

Go out and do your thing, Global Times 50-centers. While a lot of people will be fooled, enough will see through the propaganda. I admire the young aspiring journalists I worked with there two years ago. If any of you are reading this (which is not very likely), I urge you to think for yourselves, and understand that while journalists have several roles, astroturfing message boards isn’t one of them.

I am delighted to read that the GT editorial has sparked “scorn and ridicule” among much of China’s Twitterati and social media users. I am glad to make my small contribution to this much-deserved scorn and ridicule.

Update: Be sure to see Lisa’s post that has a lot to say on this topic. And sorry for all the typos in the first version of this post. I never wrote a post this fast.

Update 2: Please be sure to see James Fallows’ new post on this topic, which kindly cites my own post.

Looks like my post has been translated into Chinese.


The Global Times on Charlie Sheen

[Update: See the Shanghaiist piece on the same article. Maybe the entire thing is a joke, along the lines of Ask Alessandro? If so, it’s amazing this got through the editors.]

I’ve been watching Charlie Sheen’s implosion with a mixture of bewilderment, amusement and horror, wondering how anyone could consider him a viable parent, and also wondering why anyone would choose to self-immolate in front of the entire world.

I felt the same three emotions when I looked at this Global Times op-ed on how Sheen is “not filial.” Here’s what jumped out:

Ignoring public pleas from his father, Sheen has continued a weeklong media blitz, exhibiting obvious signs of mania. With no firm hand to guide them, Western media has deliberately goaded him into making increasingly delusional statements, more concerned about “winning” higher ratings than Sheen’s own sense of pride, or the negative example his brash public admissions about his private sex life and unverifiable international conspiracies could be setting for society.

Oh dear. You see, the US media needs a “firm hand to guide them.” What does this mean? What “firm hand” is he referring to? I can only assume he’s saying the West needs some good old-fashioned Chinese-style censorship. They apply a firm hand, alright.

After cataloging Sheen’s sins and vicissitudes, the editorial concludes:

In Chinese society, these problems are dealt with delicately and privately. Sheen is like a typical Westerner throwing fuel on the fire with each interview and tweet. It is almost as if he feels no shame and is loving the attention.

Oy vey. As if this is typical of how “Westerners” behave. The news programs this week are all Charlie all the time precisely because his behavior is an aberration. In China there is obsession with celebrities as well, though the media there, guided by a firm hand, would never dream of giving them a platform as the US media has done for bad-boy Sheen. In response, I would say this writer is behaving “in a typical Chinese-newspaper way,” wagging his finger at the US and pointing to one idiot as proof that Westerners typically “throw fuel on the fire” with no shame or contrition.

It’s hilarious, and absurd.


NY Times blocked in China as it reveals Wen Jiabao’s obscene family wealth

I remember when Wen Jiabao first became prime minister. There were such high hopes, and they’ve never really abated: Wen has always been seen as “the good CCP leader.” As if by magic, he was always on the scene as tragedies struck, be they earthquakes or floods or winter storms in Guangzhou at Chinese New Year time or high-speed rail crashes. And there was something genuine about the Man of the People, the one who cared about China’s disenfranchised. And maybe he really does care. He would have to be a damned good actor if he didn’t.

But whether he cares or not, it still looks like there’s a dark side to his story. Today China blocked the NY Times after it delivered a bombshell story: Wen’s family members have made billions — yes, billions — of dollars through investments in family ventures and the awarding of contracts. Needless to say, something doesn’t smell right here. Is it conceivable that Wen simply didn’t know, or that he knew and was disgusted by the corruption but felt powerless to control it?

Many relatives of Wen Jiabao, including his son, daughter, younger brother and brother-in-law, have become extraordinarily wealthy during his leadership, an investigation by The New York Times shows. A review of corporate and regulatory records indicates that the prime minister’s relatives, some of whom have a knack for aggressive deal-making, including his wife, have controlled assets worth at least $2.7 billion.

In many cases, the names of the relatives have been hidden behind layers of partnerships and investment vehicles involving friends, work colleagues and business partners. Untangling their financial holdings provides an unusually detailed look at how politically connected people have profited from being at the intersection of government and business as state influence and private wealth converge in China’s fast-growing economy.

Unlike most new businesses in China, the family’s ventures sometimes received financial backing from state-owned companies, including China Mobile, one of the country’s biggest phone operators, the documents show. At other times, the ventures won support from some of Asia’s richest tycoons. The Times found that Mr. Wen’s relatives accumulated shares in banks, jewelers, tourist resorts, telecommunications companies and infrastructure projects, sometimes by using offshore entities.

There was something so simply good about Wen (or the way the media portrayed him), almost saintly. He was, ironically, a crusader against corruption and he was always positioned as the one who had “the people’s interests” at heart. This story delivers a crushing blow to such a carefully crafted image. Either Wen was implausibly ignorant or implausibly impotent, unable to stop his family from exploiting his position.

This is a remarkable story. It is one of the best-researched stories on China I’ve ever seen. It is exhaustive, and by simply relaying the facts it is utterly devastating. This is Pulitzer material, and I don’t say that very often. No wonder the NY Times is blocked in China today. I would be shocked if it weren’t.


NY Times: China’s economy is back while US bleeds

This is the most outspoken article I’ve seen to date in a non-Chinese media proclaiming the bounce-back of China’s economy, in sharp and painful contrast to the ongoing mayhem in America.

Just eight months ago, thousands of Chinese workers rioted outside factories closed by the global downturn.

Now many of those plants have reopened and are hiring again. Some executives are even struggling to find enough temporary staff to fill Christmas orders.

The image of laid-off workers here returning to jobs stands in sharp contrast to the United States, where even as the economy shows signs of improvement, the unemployment rate continues to march toward double digits.

In China, even the hardest-hit factories — those depending on exports to the United States and Europe — are starting to rehire workers. No one here is talking about a jobless recovery.

Even the real estate market is picking up. In this industrial town 90 miles northwest of Shanghai, prospective investors lined up one recent Saturday to buy apartments in the still-unfinished Rose Avenue complex. Many of them slept outside the sales office all night.

“The whole country’s economy is back on track,” said Shi Yingyi, a 34-year-old housewife who joined the throng. “I feel more confident now.”

The confidence stems from China’s three-pronged effort — a combination of stimulus, liberal bank lending and broad government support for exports.

For those of us, like me, who wondered out loud hw China could possible come back so strong so soon when it’s economy was so dependent on exports to the US, the article says not to worry.

…American trade data shows that imports from China only eroded 14.2 percent in the first seven months of this year while imports from the rest of the world plunged 32.6 percent. China’s trade surplus, already the world’s largest, was $108 billion for the first seven months of this year.

No, the article says, China isn’t entirely out of the woods, and the heavy stimulus spending today could be sowing the seeds for trouble tomorrow. But the fact remains (the reporter says): China’s economy is roaring ahead while America’s appears more moribund than ever.

In a style unusually flippant for the NYT, the reporter notes the concerns about all of the fast and loose loans being made by China’s banks, to which he replies in the closing line, “But such concerns are so 2008.”

Maybe it’s all a show, a mirage. But I wouldn’t put any money on China’s economy crashing anytime soon, or on the US economy getting better. I’m here in America, and I can safely say that the mood here is grim, bordering on hopeless. And our suite of very special problems – trillions of dollars of toxic debt, the new wave of upcoming home foreclosures and the steady drop of the US dollar – have yet to deliver their wallop. (Which begs the question, what am I doing here? I’ll let you know once i figure it out.)