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.
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).
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
> 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.