As I write this, I am listening to Radio Free Asia, a podcast which I subscribed to on iTunes with no hassle. After I finish writing this, I plan, just for shits and grins, to run a Google search on Liu Xiaobo and proclaim my love for a free Tibet on Twitter.
When I first came to China, all the hysteria I’d heard about going to live under a Communist regime turned out to be unfounded. Chief among them: the internet censorship, or as I wondered in that post-Olympics China-is-reforming-LOL, September 2008 world, a world in which I was able to upload photos of my fallacious narrative to Facebook and watch old WWF videos on Youtube, what internet censorship? Aside from researching certain topics, I had little trouble doing what I wanted.
A similar sentiment was expressed by the makers of the China Channel Firefox add-on, which lets people outside the mainland surf the internet as a Chinese user. The description said you might not notice anything too different, unless you went searching for a free autonomous region or that odd mishap in that well-known square on the fourth day of the month of June at the conclusion of the eighties.
I don’t know if the makers of the add-on ever updated it, and if not, they have a lot to catch up on. No longer is a timeout error in Google the only way to experience the internet with Chinese characteristics. From my initial month in China, I had the chance to witness the metamorphosis of Fang Binxing‘s brainchild from a minor inconvenience to damning evidence of the monstrous insecurity plaguing Zhongnanhai’s top brass.
Right after Youtube was first harmonized, some other expats and I were on our way back from a bar. As we sat in the taxi drunkenly bitching about Youtube’s banishment from the Heavenly Kingdom, one teacher sought to soothe our feelings.
“It’s not for you,” he said. “Anytime they block a website, it’s not for you.”
Well of course it’s not for me. Or any other laowai, both the dancing and that rare non-dancing variety. It’s not even for the students, both the ones I taught at a good university and the unfortunate kids in one of Wuhan’s diploma mills, their futures hostage to whatever favorable outcome guanxi can manage.
I think it’s just a sense of reassurance. So that those on top can make themselves feel better about the cracks in their shell.
A student once told me that China has an “inner-net”, a nice variation on the old “intranet” joke, and when discussing the China-wide-web, you cannot avoid the question: will it get worse? Will we live to one day see all disharmonious websites eaten alive by venomous river crabs? Well, we’re not too far from it. In fact, we’re waiting right outside the door.
Whether it opens or not, it’s best to keep those VPNs handy.
I’ll conclude with an admission, which I am a little ashamed to tell you about. I remember where I was when Facebook was blocked: a first floor hotel room in Beijing. I remember deciding to piss away a couple hours staring at strangers’ lives, only to get a timeout error. Facebook’s down. I try to load my Blogger account to whine about it. Timeout. WordPress? Timeout too. And so it goes.
But I will say one thing about such panic censorship: it does offer you an opportunity to get out of the apartment, breath in that industrial air and hopefully see the beauty China has to offer.
There’s more to it than just river crabs.