Shanghai View: Welcome back BBC and hello Wikileaks!

Posted: December 16, 2010 in Whose World Order?
Tags: , , , , ,

My latest for the ECFR blog looking at the internet in China. This is a fascinating subject for those either side of it, confusing as it is. For example, this site is actually the wrong side at the moment, though for a while it was accessible. I have no idea for the rationale behind either case.

Shanghai View: Welcome back BBC and hello Wikileaks!

Date: 16th December 2010  |  Author: Raffaello Pantucci

Categories: China
Tags: BbcChinaNobel Peace PrizeWikileaks

The Chinese censorship of western news organizations including the BBC around last week’s Nobel peace prize ceremony was not a surprise. More unexpected was the speed with which they were back up and running. Meanwhile, WikiLeaks is easier to access from China than ever before.

Things have been tense in China since the decision to award Liu Xiaobo the Nobel Peace Prize. These tensions reached something of an apex last Friday with the actual awards ceremony, as China went into full attack mode against the decision by the committee to award the prize to an individual who is incarcerated in China.

In China itself, however, one could be mistaken for not noticing that this was all going on. While everyone seemed to have heard about it (and I encountered a couple of tense meetings in which it came up), the story was blocked from the airwaves and netwaves. In particular, the BBC and CNN came under heavy assault as they broadcast stories about the event and the Chinese reaction. A friend working for CNN in Beijing reported they were experiencing trouble with their systems, and the channel kept getting blacked out whenever stories came up about events in Oslo. The BBC came under heavy online attack, with all of its sites blocked.

The BBC is now, however, back. As of Monday, the sites were accessible again, though there was no explanation or reasoning offered why they had been pulled or why they returned. This is not the first time the BBC has experienced this: prior to the Olympic games it was blocked, and since then there have been sporadic issues. For example, after the Xinjiang riots last year, the internet and television were sporadically blocked. When Hilary Clinton gave a particularly sensitive speech on web freedom, I recall watching in Beijing as my screen went black.

What is intriguing about this most recent instance is the rapidity with which the BBC has been unblocked. It appears that three days is ample punishment in the PRC’s mind. I am uncertain about whether this is the product of behind-the-scenes lobbying, but would be unsurprised to hear that the change was a pleasant surprise to everyone at the BBC as well. This is the most perplexing thing about being the wrong side of the Great Firewall: it is totally erratic and uncertain. No-one really knows what is blocked and why; there is no apparent rationale to the blocks.

Internally, people tend to be quite exasperated about blockages to the net. One student told me during the troubles with Google earlier in the year that he liked Google because it was less censored and had less advertising. The Chinese equivalent, Baidu, he said, was useless as you had to skip about 10 pages of search results before you got beyond the advertising. However most people, when confronted with blocked pages, tend to operate on the assumption that the site in question was doing something illegal and that therefore they should not be surprised that it is blocked.

Recently released Wikileaks cables have given us some hints about how Chinese media censorship operates. One cable suggested that a Politboro member was behind the attack on Google earlier in the year. Others point to possible motivations. While internet censorship is a nuisance in China, it has had the effect of blocking the Chinese system to foreign companies allowing local ones to flourish.  It struck me as somewhat ironic that the BBC was blocked the same week that Youkou and Dangdang (Chinese versions of Youtube and Amazon) listed on the NYSE to spectacular openings. Youkou at least has profited from the fact that YouTube is blocked in China.

Oddly, the WikiLeaks site, which is usually blocked here, appears at the moment to be open to the public in China. I have had little difficulties for the last two weeks reading what is emerging, whereas before the cable dump the site was only accessible through virtual private networks or proxy servers. Maybe the Chinese government has decided that it actually rather enjoys the embarrassment that US diplomacy is undergoing at the moment and has decided to not shield its public from it, or maybe Wikileaks is now switching servers so rapidly that the PRC monitors are not able to keep up. I would venture, however, that no-one would really be able to answer this question.

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