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.


RIP Kim Jong Il. In hell.

You absolutely must see the new Next Media Animation’s great video on Kim Jong Il’s passing. Go there now.

You should also see the Global Times’ special page on what China’s Foreign Minister calls “the unfortunate passing of Kim Jong Il.” They also print the reactions of Chinese netizens, my favorite of which makes a plea to Kim’s successor, “Don’t abuse the people by stripping them of democracy and imposing authoritarian rule.” Because, as we all know, the utopia of North Korea enjoyed a thriving democracy.

It’s not good to speak ill of the dead, but this is a glaring exception. Kim, I hope you enjoy the flames of hell for all eternity.

This is an open thread.


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.


Tax evader Ai Weiwei released on bail

[Note: Whatever you do, don’t miss Math’s classic comment to this post.]

As you all know by now, Ai Weiwei is out on bail and has confessed to the crime of tax evasion (the usual charge against dissidents). I heard him interviewed by the BBC today, and all he could say, sheepishly, is that he’s home now and cannot comment on anything. Released, despite what my friend from the Global times told me eight weeks ago:

“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?”

Well, apparently China has bitten the bullet and humiliated itself. Maybe global outrage really can work, at least in high-profile cases like this. To me, this biting of the bullet makes China look better, at least a little bit, than if they’d kept Ai Weiwei hidden away under lock and key. It is less humiliating for China than appearing weak and terrified by an activist artist. From today’s NY Times:

The release of Mr. Ai, 54, who is widely known and admired outside China, appeared to be a rare example in recent years of China’s bowing to international pressure on human rights. Mr. Ai was the most prominent of hundreds of people detained since China intensified a broad crackdown on critics of the government in February, when anonymous calls for mass protests modeled after the revolutions in the Middle East percolated on the Chinese Internet.

China’s move to douse any flicker of dissent was the harshest in many years outside restive ethnic regions in the far west, and the vast majority of those detained in the crackdown were, like Mr. Ai, held in secret locations for weeks with no legal justification.

Chinese officials announced in May that the authorities were investigating Mr. Ai on suspicion of tax evasion, after police officers took him from the main Beijing airport on April 3 as Mr. Ai prepared to board a flight to Hong Kong. Supporters of Mr. Ai said the tax inquiry was a pretext to silence one of the most vocal critics of the Chinese Communist Party.

Right, they arrested him and held him in a secret location for three months because he evaded taxes. The tax evasion thingy is kind of droll, considering China’s hyperbolic response 8 weeks ago to the international outrage over Ai’s disappearance. Remember the Global Times rant in response to the international outcry? [Update: Wow, it looks like this link has gone dead! Wonder why.]

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.

Tax evasion indeed. I am thrilled he has been released. Let’s not forget, however, that there’s a long list of other less high-profile “tax evaders” who remain in custody.

Amnesty International is calling for the immediate release of Ai Weiwei’s four associates Wen Tao, Hu Mingfen, Liu Zhenggang and Zhang Jinsong, who all disappeared into secret detention after Ai was detained.

Ai Weiwei is one of over 130 activists, lawyers, bloggers and tweeters detained since February in a sweeping crackdown on dissent prompted by government fears of a ‘Jasmine Revolution’ inspired by the Middle East and North Africa.

Let’s hope the CCP’s sweet forbearance and beneficence continue, and that the rest of the detainees are soon freed. (And no, I’m not recommending you hold your breath.)


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.


Is there a Western conspiracy against China?

My former employer The Global Times wants to know.

Is there a “plot” among the Western countries against China? In answer to this, few Chinese people would give a definitive answer. However, actions taken by the West have forced Chinese citizens to speculate about this matter.

Tomorrow will see the ceremony for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, which has been awarded to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, who has devoted himself to subverting the government. Furthermore, at the invitation of the Nobel committee, several dissidents who are hostile toward the Chinese government, will converge in Oslo from around the world.

The modern world is much like a sports arena, in which China has passed the first round and qualified for the final. As a newcomer, China may not be well prepared, with sloppy technique, lacking audience support and seeming like a stranger to the surroundings. China has no other choice but to fight on in the competition, strictly following the rules set by others.

Suddenly, boos and catcalls resound from the stands, from the Westerners in the pricey seats. Worse than this, the referee blows the whistle against China, amid jeers from cheerleaders and media, relishing exposing China’s “scandals.” What can the Chinese team do?

…The West has shown great creativity in conspiring against China. With its ideology remaining dominant at present, the West has not ceased harassing China with all kinds of tricks like the Nobel Peace Prize.

It might be advisable for China not to buy the conspiracy theory, for communication would be much smoother if given the benefit of the doubt. However, China has to maintain its independence in thinking and ensure its discerning ability is not swayed by outside powers. As long as China can keep its independent judgment, its security will be ensured even when faced with a conspiracy.

Love the sports metaphor.

This is one kooky editorial. It’s loaded with gems that are typical of the angrier commenters here: the West is intentionally and strategically seeking to hobble China; the West is self-righteous and hypocritical and sanctimonious, going after a benevolent, peace-loving China while engulfing the world in chaos; China must gird its loins and fight against those powers that seek to harm it. These powers wish only bad for China. These powers hate China.

Despite a series of spats and misunderstandings between China and the West, globalization is forcing the country to adapt to co-existing with the “noble countries” in the West. China has to act discreetly, obeying rules set by the West and trying not to disturb their interests when seeking to safeguard its own welfare. Meanwhile, these “noble countries” launch broadsides at China’s actions, even where no wrongdoing exists.

Do they really not get that in the eyes of civilized nations the idea of jailing a dissident for 11 years for seeking democratic reforms is unpleasant? That the civilized nations react the same way to political repression in Myanmar and Zimbabwe and other nations?

One thing I liked about Global Times was their tendency to balance the more hysterical editorials and columns with more sensible voices. I remember editing a particularly vitriolic column by a former general that all but advocated war over the South China Sea. This was tempered by a far less psychotic response that noted the weakness of China’s navy and its utter unpreparedness for war. It urged a more moderate approach, like negotiating. I mention this because I’m hoping they’ll follow this pattern now. Editorials like this, with no balancing voice, will make China appear kukoo for Cocoa Puffs.

Via Shanghaiist, which has its own excellent response to the insanity.


Tibet – Shangri-La on steroids

Somehow I missed this priceless column in The Global Times (and I thank this blogger for pointing it out).

This extraordinary travelogue tripe article by the former UN ambassador to Bolivia. After gushing over the joys of China liberating the Tibetans from serfdom and the shiny new infrastructure all Tibetans should be grateful for, the author really ramps up the propaganda:

I had a chance to talk to some educators in Tibet. I asked them about the language used in primary education, weary of the alleged loss of the Tibetan language in the formal education system. I was told the kids learn three languages: Tibetan, Chinese and English! I had thought my own children were something of a special case, as they have been learning French, Spanish and Finnish since they started schooling, but I realize these Tibetan kids will be as internationally literate as my children are, with all the same opportunities that will provide them in life.

…Then there was a family of herdsmen; being summer, they were living in their tent (and beside the tent there was a small solar panel for generating electricity enough for hot water, TV, and the lights in the evening), however they told us they already had a fix house in the village, where they would stay during the winter. And best of all: the government is subsidizing 30% of the new housing, which has been built in collaborative efforts by the villagers, and display the characteristics of the traditional Tibetan culture, both in terms of the materials used and the colorful decorations in the main rooms inside.

These houses are very bright, spacious and beautifully decorated. I saw several generations living there together. What I hadn’t realized before is that the life expectancy of a Tibetan used to be a mere 35 years – couldn’t see so many generations there together in the past – whereas now the life expectancy has doubled to 67 years. This is not only an impressive testament of the improvement of the human rights in Tibet during the past 50 years, but it also provides the old folks the opportunity to tell their grandchildren what life was like in the past. They will pass on the best of the Tibetan culture to their grandchildren, and they will also be able to tell how much life has improved since 1959!

Where’s my motion sickness bag?

Check out the very humorous comments to the blog post that led me to this puffiest of puff pieces. I don’t think I’ve ever seen every talking point about Tibet squeezed so neatly (and breathlessly) into a single vessel. It’s fitting that the blogger brings it up in the context of the Ask Alessandro columns; this one is nearly as funny.

For the record: I am not a Free Tibet groupie and I acknowledge the good China has done for Tibet, and the bad. Where I can never stop ragging on The Party is its dopey propaganda efforts to create a perception of modern-day Tibet that is nearly as ridiculous as the Western perceptions based on the James Hilton novel and the sentimental movie that followed it (and which, admittedly, I loved as a teenager; there’s no doubt these works of fiction helped put some serious stars in Americans’ eyes).

I was pretty random in my quote selection from the GT article. Do be sure to read it all.