ESWN on Not Being Blocked

02 Jan 2006

I have heard China bloggers voice fears of their independent websites being blocked for writing on certain political topics, and I must admit I am not immune to such fears either. Still, logic dictates that if an outspoken blog like EastSouthWestNorth can remain unblocked for so long, the rest of us really should have nothing to worry about.

But then I had to wonder… are there special reasons that ESWN can blog with impunity that don’t apply to the rest of us? With this question in mind, I e-mailed Roland Soong of ESWN:


> Dear Mr. Soong,

> I have been reading your content for quite some time now, and have repeatedly been surprised that your site remains unblocked by the PRC, considering some of the sensitive issues you write about. I am tempted to take this as a sign that the government really doesn’t care very much about the vast majority of information published online *in English*.

> There is, however, another possibility that I should consider. You might have certain connections with influential people that keep your website unblocked in the PRC. I’d just like to straightforwardly ask you: do you?

> If your answer is “yes,” “no comment,” or no reply at all, then I can just drop this issue. If you answer is “no,” however, I think that this is important, and I’d like to publish that reply with your consent.

> I realize you are very busy, but I would really appreciate a reply, even if it is only a one word response.

> Sincerely,
John Pasden
Sinosplice.com

Mr. Soong was kind enough to give much more than a one-word response, and to allow me to publish it.

> Dear John:

> It was very good of you to write me.

> The answer to the question is flat out: No. I have no connections. My site is scrupulously money-free and connection-free.

> I made sure that I don’t get a cent from the site (either in cash or other goodies), because the second that I do even an Amazon.com affiliate book sale, it would be soiled.

> As for political connections, I have absolutely none for the reason that I don’t know anyone. I had previously lived in New York City for more than three decades, and I actually know little or nothing about China. I did not have a rolodex for people in China or Hong Kong. In China, I have spoken to some foreign correspondents about their stories, and that is it. The only people that I know here in Hong Kong are relatives, my sister’s classmates and the like. There is a political figure living in this building, but he has no idea that I write a blog (as if he would even know what a blog is). The blog is a way for me to learn China from scratch.

> Which leaves me the big question: Why is this site not banned already? The first time that this question popped up was a couple years ago, and the assumption was that the small traffic did not warrant any attention. By now, the traffic can no longer be considered trivial. Furthermore, there is now a brand awareness (for example, I was in the 21stcentury news interview with you). I don’t think that I can avoid notice by now. I mean, the nanny shut out Rebecca MacKinnon’s site, which links to my site often enough.

> I would like to think that there may be another reason, and that is a pure function of the philosophy of my site. Some people may not agree with my assessment, but I insist that my site is non-partisan. On one hand, the BBC interview began with whether I am afraid to be arrested by the secret police. On the other hand, there are other bloggers who accuse me of being a commie shill. I can’t be both, for those two roles are incompatible.

> Yes, I am carrying a lot of stuff that seems to be irritating and would be shut down instantaneously if this were in China. However, I am also carrying a lot of stuff that is immensely positive and sympathetic about China and the dilemmas of the government, and I never advocate overthrowing the government (as I see no viable alternative). China Daily certainly has no qualms about copy-and-paste jobs from my work.

> For example, when the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokespersons complained about the lies that overseas websites spread about the avian flu situation, I am the one who had already preceded them with the condemnation based upon the objective information and I reported on their comments afterwards. They do not have any such credible friends out there. Mind you, I do so not because of pay or connections, but because the objective circumstances led to that conclusion.

> So I leave you with a third option: (1) they don’t care about English-language blogs (because they cared about Rebecca MacKinnon); (2) I
have a guardian angel (which I don’t); and (3) a nonpartisan, objective and neutral site is actually useful to them sometimes (and the benefits outweigh the annoyance).

> I know (2) is wrong. I don’t know if the answer is (1) or (3). You will know that every option is wrong if and when the site gets banned.

> In the end, this website is for my own edification. It is about me learning as much and as quickly as possible about China after being gone for so long. Whether the site is blocked in China or not does not come into my consideration when I write about something. The site will go on regardless, and the traffic volume means nothing (i.e. no advertising revenue anyway).

> Roland

I have to admit I kind of doubted Mr. Soong’s theory that “a nonpartisan, objective and
neutral site is actually useful to them sometimes,” so the question of Rebecca MacKinnon’s blog was central. I responded:

> I’m still of the opinion that they don’t care about English language websites (barring certain super-sensitive topics), but I must admit I’m not very familiar with the Rebecca MacKinnon case. I have seen her blog before, because I added it to the China Blog List, and I remember that it was blocked at that time, but I just checked it again, and it’s not blocked now. I’m not sure what that means…

> In any case, I think it would be very useful to establish some “case studies” of blogs that we can be reasonably certain were [blocked] for specific content-related issues. If Rebecca MacKinnon is such a case, why is she unblocked now? Was she blocked only during a “critical
window” (such as a Party meeting) that has since passed?

Mr. Soong’s response:

> I don’t think Rebecca Mac’s issues were congress-related. It is more about
Cisco, specific mechanisms of the firewall, keyword censorship by MS and
Yahoo, etc.

> […]

> Of course, writing about this may have the perverse effect of shining the light on the blogs and actually lead to the exact action which that had not taken place but should have.

> Personally, as I have told you, the possible decision of some unknown bureaucrat does not affect what I write.

Based on Mr. Soong’s response and my own observations, English language blogs about China (even political ones that cast China in a very negative light) are very unlikely to be blocked unless they contain certain specific super-sensitive keywords, and then they will trigger an automatic filter. ESWN has an example of this.

What does all this mean? Well, it certainly doesn’t mean that we’re not being watched, but I think it’s at least reason to be optimistic about the situation. And, as long as the situation remains uncertain, ESWN can be our willing canary.

UPDATE: Rebecca MacKinnon has explained her situation, which strengthens the premise that English language bloggers are not singled out for blocking:

> Just to clarify: as far as I know, this blog was inacessible in China because since June all Typepad blogs appeared to have been blocked. When I visited China in November, this blog and all other Typepad blogs I tried to access were blocked. If it is now unblocked, it is because all of Typepad must be unblocked on at least some Chinese ISP’s. I am not aware that my blog has been specifically targeted for filtering up to this point.

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John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.

Comments

  1. Chinamanshuffle Says: January 2, 2006 at 3:01 pm

    Good work, John. With this post being a little bit different from a lot of posts here that are a little bit, let us say, “entertaining,” you have proven your self here to have a rather keen journalisic sense.

  2. Chinamanshuffle,

    I have no desire to be a journalist, or even to cover political matters on my blog. But this affects me, and it interests me too.

  3. I can access the Peking Duck from Jiangxi, which goes a long way in proving that the CCP simply doesn’t care about blogs in English for the most part. I do not think ESNW is not blocked because it is “neutral” or “objective” (which it is neither — sorry Roland). If ESNW were in Chinese, it would have been blocked long ago. It isn’t blocked (imho) because a) it is in English, b) it is generally favorable to the CCP and is read by a lot of Westerners.

    BTW, I am NOT saying Roland is a “shill” — his blog is the blog to read in English on China when it comes to politics and current events. However, he goes out of his way to go against the Western conventional wisdom on China, which makes him overly sympathetic to the government at times. I understand this tendancy given the state of conventional wisdom on China, but I think ESNW should guard against swining too far the other way.

    One minor point: it is possible to both be a shill and get blocked. Those kind of absurdities are what makes China China. 😉

  4. I think it actually is possibly a mixture of 1 and 3.

    The “street level bureaucrats” implementing cyber-censorship will be very patriotic, yes, but they will also be, well, young. Many of them will be taking the long view of things.

    Here is where 1 and 3 mix: Their supervisors, the deputy managers, will not be able to read English very well. The supervisor’s supervisors will be responsible for glad-handing and setting policy, not for implementation.

    So the patriotic nerd-bureaucrats at the street level have a relatively free hand in the English blogspace, and choose to hold a free reign.

    One of Roland’s contribution’s is that he is able to (and has time) to see certain issues through Chinese eyes in to fluent English (though I disagree strongly with the above poster that this is all he does). It stands to reason that he wouldn’t be the first target for a crackdown on English blogs, if it ever comes.

  5. ESWN and Sinosplice together! What a crossover! Next round: Anti vs. Talk Talk China.

    My blog (in Spanish) couldn’t be seen today for several hours, one day after I wrote a post critical against censorship in China (using ESWN information). I really though that me, and all the blogs of my blog server (Acelblog) had been banned in China. I really felt very very bad. But now I can enter again, I feel relieved! I even think in not writin on “sensible issues” again.

    Anyway, if ESWN thinks that Nanny doesn’t care about English blogs, let alone in Spanish. But, what about blogspot in Wikipedia? English is their main language.

  6. Or leaving English blogs alone is a policy to maintain China’s image with foreigners.

  7. 99.9% of Chinese don’t read English blogs. I would even say that 99% of Chinese grad students in the US never read English blogs — nor almost any news in English for that matter. At least of all the ones I know. Do you think the government is going to put much effort in to stop the .1% out there? I think the blogs in English that are blocked are usually the victim of automated keyword systems. When they block Wikipedia or blogspot or blogsome, etc., it has zero to do with the English content. They are concerned with the Chinese content. Period. All three of those sites had content (blogs or Wikipedia entries) in Chinese that they wanted blocked. The easiest way technically to do that was just to block those domains completely.

  8. jim,

    Although I know what you say is more or less true, as a webmaster, it’s still easy to be paranoid. My site is periodically inaccessible to me. About once a month (and twice last month), I can’t access my e-mail for about a day at a time. Every time that happens, I’m always thinking, Oh no! Am I blocked?!

    So it’s nice to have a little extra assurance.

  9. I was blocked from the moment I registered my domain and got a host. It must not just be based on key-words. I think there must be some entire blocks of IP adresses that are blocked.

    BTW, can anybody tell me if I’m still blocked? I think I managed to get unblocked.

  10. John, great great great great post. Did I mentiion that it was great?

    I’m sure that you’ll get some responses from some folks that their blog has been blocked due to the sensitive nature of their content. After reading some of those sites, I’d have to agree. However, for each of those blocked blogs there are many equally critical blogs that are not blocked. Isaka makes some good points. It’s probably an inefficient process of determining what is and what is not “sensitive” and there is likely also a bit of change management for the government in this modern “cyber” age. I’m sure that China would like to be as transparent as possible but defining that fine line between generally comments and excessiveness still needs working out.

  11. What a strange question to ask Roland. And how nice of him to provide a civil, honest clear cut answer. I’m a journalist who has interviewed him as well as occasionally used material from his site for story ideas. The idea that he might have some pull or secret connections with the Central Committee or whomever is just bizarre. But nice of you to give him a plug.

  12. Justin,

    It isn’t a bizarre question at all if you understand how things work in China.

  13. The only time I remember them specifically blocking English content was after the party congross in 2003 when the blocked specific stories about China in major news sources like the New York times. Their needs to be more outrage in the states against corporations like Microsoft, Cisco and even Yahoo for the shit they do to help keep the great firewall alive.

    I once met a guy who said he was an internet Censor and I could have asked him all these questions, he was a cool guy. But i was too drunk and I just told him to not block porn.

  14. You made a good job, alf.

  15. The first time I was here in China in ’98, I think I remember everything being blocked. You couldn’t go to any maintstream Western media. I remember learning about proxies from a Chinese friend.

    Some of the people who have been here longer could maybe give us a chronology the China’s cyber-relaxation…

  16. Justin– it sounds to me as though John thinks the censors more or less ignore English content. He was writing to Roland to confirm his theory. Without getting into nit-picking, you can see the point right?

    Also Roland’s biography is not exactly printed on the front page of his blog. You have the benefit of having interviewed him.

    But having said that, it seems to me that using connections to keep a blog open would be, well, too political. If there was a profit motive behing the website, maybe your old buddy would pull some strings for you and you could buy him a Rolex. But if it’s purely for enlightenment…politics is poison… Just my take.

  17. I have run into a few situations where Chinese almost flat out tell me that they believe that Western news sources have just as much bias as Chinese news, so of course they say bad things about China, and good things about the respective country where things are reported. This is certainly not with out a grain of truth, especially for those of you who have watched Fox news.

    My point is that if a lot of Chinese are actually under this impression, not blocking some of these sites might just add proof to thoughts of Western biases, true or not, and inact that mechanism of defend China at all costs.
    Leaving a few site going might just serve a purpose, as long as the vast majority of sites stay too nervous to say what is really on there minds.

  18. John, Thanks for bringing up the topic. I was wondering about this too, given in recent moths, the Peking Duck blog has been reportedly been blocked on and off whenever his post carries one or two sensitive words. But in general, I tend to agree with you that “English language blogs about China (even political ones that cast China in a very negative light) are very unlikely to be blocked unless they contain certain specific super-sensitive keywords”. Otherwise, it’d be difficult to theorize why my blog, except the one hosted on blogspot, has never been blocked.

  19. Internet Censorship in China

    Bloggers all over the world are up in arms over Microsoft’s alleged censorship of a popular Chinese language blog on their free and widely used MSN spaces website builder. Some blogs in China get blocked for mentioning certain highly specific keywords…

  20. I got over to RConversation via Google News – then I got to a part that read. Hopefully this isn’t a repost:

    A slight postscript: John over at Sinosplice has posted an exchange with Roland of ESWN about why ESWN isn’t blocked, and they speculate as to why my blog has been blocked in China for the past several months. John says it is currently not being blocked, or at least not from his ISP (internet service provider). Just to clarify: as far as I know, this blog was inacessible in China because since June all Typepad blogs appeared to have been blocked. When I visited China in November, this blog and all other Typepad blogs I tried to access were blocked. If it is now unblocked, it is because all of Typepad must be unblocked on at least some Chinese ISP’s. I am not aware that my blog has been specifically targeted for filtering up to this point.

    http://rconversation.blogs.com/rconversation/

  21. Regarding the blocking of Rebecca’s site, it was because all typepad sites were blocked in China early November. Typepad was suddenly unblocked the last week of December, so her site is once again accessible, as are other typepad sites.

  22. I was blocked from the moment I registered my domain and got a host.

    My website has nothing that could offend China, but has always been blocked.
    I found that what was being blocked wasn’t my website, but the redirection service I was using.

    The redirectors provided by both GoDaddy and ZoneEdit seem to be blocked.

    Once I got broadband with a static IP I was able to do my own redirection and now people from China can see my website.

    Yay!

  23. It’s The Will, Not The Wall, That Matters…

    Some Chinese readers note that this blog is no longer accessible on the mainland. Typepad, the blog host, was blocked by China’s Great Firewall last year and the blockage was hardly surprising, so I told myself. Yet it now occurs…

  24. I agree with the keyword theory. No less than two months had passed when my Xinjiang themed blog got blocked in China – odd, considering most of the content was summaries of Chinese language news sources based in Xinjiang. I’m guessing that it’s an English-language blog about Xinjiang was enough.

  25. Hi, 企鹅

    My website, EnglishExec.com, is blocked by the Chinese firewall and I have no idea why. I run an editing business, there is nothing remotely political or offensive on there.

    I’m guessing I have the same problem that you did. I live in Shanghai and I have a broadband connection. How do you do your own redirection?

  26. Just stumbled across this.

    So – has anyone actually ever come across a ‘shill’, secretly government-controlled English-language China blog?

    Just interested.

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