I’m often asked about the COVID situation in Shanghai. The truth is, things are almost normal now. We do have to wear face masks on the subway and in places like hospitals. But other than that, things are pretty normal.
There is one notable exception, though. English Church services for foreigners have still not been allowed to resume, even though church services in Chinese resumed months ago. (I assume it’s the same for Catholics as for other Christians, but I’ll correct this if I’m wrong.)
I hear a lot of foreigners assuming that this is the government taking the opportunity to “tighten its grip” on religion, and that’s certainly possible, but I’m not so quick to assume malicious intent. I think it’s just way easier for the government to control the situation when there are no foreigners or foreign languages involved, and it just doesn’t want the hassle. (Nor does it place great value or priority on any kind of freedom of religion, however.)
Anyway, I took some photos last Sunday at the Xujiahui cathedral, St. Ignatius. You have to sign in at the gate, fill out a form, and display your health QR code to get in. (The “pass” they give you is good for a month, so you don’t have to fill out the form every week.)
There’s also social distancing going on, marked with smiley face stickers instead of X’s:
Somewhat surprisingly, Communion is distributed at mass.
I keep reading about how Pokémon Go is so wildly popular everywhere, and I tried to play it in China, but it just doesn’t work. I managed to use a VPN to create an account using my Google login, and I even caught one little creature (I think it was just part of a beginner tutorial), but then the virtual world (in China) was a vast wasteland… nothing to play. Later, I couldn’t get the app to connect to the server over 4G while I was out and about. Still later, the app acted like I didn’t have an account anymore.
I see now that there is already a Chinese Pokémon Go clone. This is one of the things that disturbs me so much about using the internet in China. It’s not just that we’re so often forced to use cloned apps instead of the real deal (although that, too, is annoying). It’s that we’re cut off from the rest of the world’s users, isolated.
Which is, of course, exactly the point. Even for Pokémon Go.
What especially caught my eye was the mention of this use of Chinese characters:
The characters involved are 自由 and 目田. The former is a real word meaning “freedom,” the letter is a nonsensical combination of two characters (“eye” + “field”), chosen for their appearance only.
I really love how creativity with characters (something I call characterplay) allows for circumvention of censorship. This case is particularly ironic, because in order to avoid automated detection you’re literally removing the top part of both characters, a nice parallel to the content removal activities going on behind the scenes at Weibo.
> Beijing has made the landmark decision to lift a ban on internet access within the Shanghai Free-trade Zone to foreign websites considered politically sensitive by the Chinese government, including Facebook, Twitter and newspaper website The New York Times.
An unfiltered Internet? In Shanghai? Seriously?! For some of us, this is a total dream come true. I often say that filtered (and slow, as a result) Internet access in China is one of the most frustrating downsides to living in China as a foreigner. Maybe we should be more concerned about food safety, pollution, and social issues, but the truth is that Internet censorship directly affects us (and our businesses) every single day.
OK, but first, let’s be clear about what this so-called “Shanghai FTZ” really is:
> Shanghai Free-trade Zone is the first Hong Kong-like free trade area in mainland China. The plan was first announced by the government in July and it was personally endorsed by Premier Li Keqiang who said he wanted to make the zone a snapshot of how China can upgrade its economic structure. Other mainland cities and provinces including Tianjin and Guangdong have also lobbied Beijing for such approvals. The Shanghai FTZ will first span 28.78 square kilometres in the city’s Pudong New Area, including the Waigaoqiao duty-free zone and Yangshan port and it is believed it may eventually expand to cover the entire Pudong district which covers 1,210.4 sq km of land.
OK, so it’s not all of Shanghai, it’s just a corner of Pudong. Bummer. But one could hope that such a haven of free internet access right in Shanghai could be expanded over time… or at least exploited by the entire city. It does give one hope.
ChinesePod Jenny was telling me that she read about a story told by the CEO of C-trip (携程). C-trip was trying to make a Weibo post about “independent travel” (i.e. not travel with a tour group). In China, this kind of travel is called 自由行. 自由 means “free” (as in freedom), and 行 is an abbreviation of 旅行, which means “travel.”
Well the word for “freedom” tripped the censorship filter, and the post was rejected.
So they figured that they could alter the word 自由 by using the character 游 instead of 由. 游 is a part of 旅游, another word for “travel.” That way you get 自游行 instead of 自由行. Identical pronunciation, and the meaning still comes across pretty clearly.
The post was rejected again, for having tripped the filter.
The reason is that they had unintentionally created the word 游行, which is the Chinese word for “demonstration” (as in the protest kind).
Whether or not the facts are 100% accurate, Chinese people find this kind of story quite amusing. There’s not much you can do about the current situation but grin and bear it. One does wonder how much longer this particular charade will carry on, though…
[I don’t have a link to the original article; please share it if you have it!]
I’ve gotten quite a few questions about VPNs lately. I also opined in a recent comment that, “There was a time when you could reasonably get by without a VPN in China. That time is over.”
For this post I’d like to return to the basic question which so many of my readers seem to have: do I need a VPN for China? Since each person’s situation is different, rather than just flat-out answering that question, I made up a little quiz to help you figure it out yourself.
Do I need a VPN for China? (a simple quiz)
1. Do you need to use Facebook at all? (This includes services like Quora that require Facebook connect, and also every little “Like” button on the internet.)
2. Do you need to be able to see YouTube (or Vimeo) videos? (Remember, it’s not just going to the YouTube site. YouTube videos are embedded in sites all over the internet.)
3. Do you need reliable access to non-YouTube Google services such as Gmail, Google Docs, Google Calendar, or even Google image search?
4. Do you need to use Twitter? (Remember, whether it’s through the site or a third party app, you’re still going to need a VPN or proxy of some kind to access Twitter.)
5. Did you find yourself uncomfortable with at least two uses of the word “need” above, telling yourself, “well, I don’t really need it…”?
How many times did you answer “yes” to the questions in the above quiz? If the total is 1 or higher, you will likely be much happier in China if you just shelled out the cash for a decent VPN.
Note: I don’t usually publicly share which VPN I use, but if you send me a nice email, I will probably tell you.
How do we foreigners live in China when YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter are all blocked here? We use VPNs to get around the blocks. Five years ago, it seemed like only a few foreigners I knew in Shanghai found it really necessary to pay money to circumvent the blocks. Now, almost all foreigners I know find it necessary. Tools like Facebook have become too important of a means of communication to just give up.
For a while, it felt like there was a truce. Lots of sites will get blocked, but the blocks are easily worked around through VPNs. Those who “need” VPNs just had to pay for them. Now the situation is different. Recently many VPNs have stopped working, and even those of us that prefer to stay apolitical need to use the internet (unfettered).
Some recent articles about the status of VPNs in China:
A friend of mine works at Google headquarters in Shanghai. He said Google Shanghai has been working on a new type of firewall software for a long time, uncertain of the correct time to release it. He shared with me this screenshot from Google, however:
Apparently the software has two forms: a Gmail plugin to keep your account secure from Chinese hackers (AKA the “human rights activist version”), and a desktop application which filters out requests to or from Chinese IP addresses (especially Shaoxing).
It will be interesting to see if Google actually releases this “GFW” software. (I’m guessing if they do, they’ll redesign that ugly logo…)
I’ve closed comments for this post because I promised to protect my Google friend’s anonymity and the comments are a bit of a risk.
April 2 Update: OK, the joke is over and comments are now open. This was my April Fool’s Day hoax. It was fairly obvious if you looked at the full size image (or compare to this page), but it appears most people did not. Anyway, now I will return to being fully serious about the Google issue, because I seriously don’t want Google to be completely cut off from China!
If you’re not in China, it may be hard to imagine the extent of the worry caused by Google’s recent announcement that it may just pack up and leave China. Sure, you can analyze the political and financial angles, but for most of us, this recent news forces our minds to leap straight to the worst-case scenario that will affect us personally: what if all Google services get blocked in China?
Many (including this Chinese language summary of the situation) are concluding that using a VPN might just have to become an essential “always-on” part of using the Internet in China. My fear is that if that day comes and VPN usage becomes so widespread, it might not be long before that method too is struck down by new GFW technology. I’m really afraid of being stuck in that information void.
It’s not just about one big company operating in China. It’s about how in recent years, various internet services have made us feel much more connected to our loved ones half a world away. It’s about how the internet is becoming such an integral part of our lives, through email, through IM, through social services, through smartphones… and wanting to be a part of that progress. No company is more key to that progress than Google.
A Chinese friend of mine recently admitted to me what I didn’t want to say myself: “if they go so far as to block all Google services in China, I don’t even want to stay here anymore.”
This is how deep the worry runs for many of us.
If you’re not up on the situation, I recommend these articles:
I was pretty excited when I first got my Android phone. Yeah, the Hero a bit sluggish, but that’s been fixed, and the Sense UI is even being updated to support the latest version of Android. So far, so good.
Starting about a month ago, however, I could no longer download anything from the Android Market (Google’s version of the iPhone app store). I figured it was a network glitch that would clear up soon. No, it’s not going to clear up soon. China has blocked all downloads from the Android market.
To be perfectly clear, then, this is what I lose out on, simply because I’m in China:
– No native Facebook integration (Facebook is blocked in China)
– No native Twitter integration (Twitter is blocked in China)
– No new apps of any kind (all downloads from the market are blocked in China)
I bought a phone that does some amazing things. But it depends on the internet working correctly in order to do them. By “working correctly,” of course, I mean not being blocked.
If I want to get around this, I have to pay for a VPN service, and I have to learn how to set it up on my Android phone (potentially complicated). Oh, and the Android phones have just hit the China market. (Not a coincidence.)
On a related note, I was once excited about Google Voice, hoping it could bring me closer to family and friends back home. Now I realize, though, that the idea of Google Voice’s revolutionary services extending to China are simply naive.
I still love living in China, but I have to say, the single most frustrating part of living here for me is watching this government shoot down every single new way the internet is connecting the world.
So yeah, I have a VPN. And yeah, it’s time to get geekier.
We live in a world of fascinating, interactive web services, but unfortunately, those of us in China are cut off from some of the leading websites. Most conspicuous among these are YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook. None of these websites are currently accessible in China, cut off by the Great Firewall (GFW) of China. Twitter and Facebook, most notably, have APIs, which enable other software, web services, and mobile phone apps to connect to and interact with them. But since all of these uses of the API make direct calls to Twitter or Facebook’s servers, none of these work in China either.
Working with Reign Design recently on OpenLanguage, I happened to browse Reign Design’s blog and came across this entry: Posting to Twitter via SMS in China. This interested me because I used to enjoy the convenience of posting to Twitter via SMS, and it’s a way to circumvent the GFW. I stopped because Twitter quit offering local numbers, and international SMSes are a bit expensive just for a tweet.
Anyway, I read the article, and the PHP script looked simple enough, so I headed over to Fanfou, where I already had a seldom-used account. I was surprised to discover, though, that Fanfou is gone. Nothing but a smoking crater where there used to be a lively community. Considering some recent events in China and the immediate, individual-empowering nature of microblogging, it’s not hard to imagine what happened.
With that option closed to me, I decided to check out the other big Chinese microblogging service I was familiar with, Zuosa (做啥). I really liked Zuosa, where I found a lot of advanced features that even Twitter has held back on. Then I went into settings, where I saw the familiar Twitter “t” next to the 同步到微博客 (“Sync to microblogs”) section.
When I clicked on that section, and then on the Twitter “t,” I got this message:
The message says:
> 抱歉，该服务不可用；你可以通过 zuosa->buboo.tw->twitter 实现同步！
> We’re sorry, this service is not available. You can go through zuosa -> buboo.tw -> twitter to accomplish the sync!
So I set up an account on Buboo.tw (ah, traditional characters!), easily synced that with Twitter, then synced my Zuosa account with Buboo. And hey… it works (1, 2, 3)! A tweet on Zuosa appears on Twitter in seconds. And since I synced my Twitter account to Facebook long ago, Facebook is actually at the end of the tweetchain: Zuosa -> Buboo.tw -> Twitter -> Facebook.
I haven’t tested SMS tweeting yet. One of the disadvantages of this method is that you can’t not post “downstream.” So for now, I can’t post only to Zuosa without posting to the other three, or post to Buboo without posting to Twitter and Facebook, unless I turn off the sync.
Anyway, I thought this was pretty cool… all made possible through international open APIs.
> The Firefox add-on China Channel offers internet users outside of China the ability to surf the web as if they were inside mainland China. Take an unforgetable virtual trip to China and experience the technical expertise of the Chinese Ministry of Information Industry (supported by western companies). It’s open source, free and easy.
> Access to Apple’s online iTunes Store has been blocked in China after it emerged that Olympic athletes have been downloading and possibly listening to a pro-Tibetan music album in a subtle act of protest against China’s rule over the province.
Wow, I sure have bad timing. I just bought an iPhone. I just wanted to download free apps from the iTunes store, but since Sunday evening I can’t connect at all. (I wonder how much business Apple USA gets from China, though?)
1. Gladder: an auto-proxy addon for Firefox. Very convenient! Unlike TOR, it’s not either “always on” or “always off.” Just works for the sites you need it to work on. How did I not find out about this sooner?? (Via JP)
2. Olympic Game Piracy. Shameless. The best thing to do about this is to spread the word when it happens and turn up the scorn. (Via Dave)
3. The Deadly Huashan Hiking Trail: a photo journey. Don’t let the use of Comic Sans fool you; this is one hardcore mountain climb. Make sure you see the pictures toward the end…
So you may have heard that YouTube is blocked in the PRC. Those of us who live here have come to depend on YouTube for little 2-minute clips of entertainment which keep us smiling throughout the workday. So now what do we do?
Well, I was all set to recommend Divx’s Stage6 as a substitute. It worked on Friday. I’ve been getting into it because it has such superior video quality and also hosts long videos. However, as of yesterday, it, too seems to be blocked. I turned to a TechCrunch article on YouTube alternatives and found that many of them are not loading for me. Here are my results (Oct. 21, 10pm in Shanghai).
The Great FireWall of China (GFW) is quite a nuisance, but I haven’t been thinking about it much lately. That’s because all Flickr pictures display fine for me when I have the Access Flickr! Firefox plugin installed, and Wikipedia, Blogspot, and others display fine for me since I started using an automatic proxy trick for Firefox which I first discovered on Lost Laowai. The combination of these two tricks satisfies most of my regular browsing needs. They most likely won’t work forever, but they work for now.
This attitude is a little self-centered, though. A lot of visitors may not have these tricks at their disposal, and if they’re in China, they can’t see the Flickr-hosted images I use regularly on my blog.
I contacted Yee of Ya I Yee, the blog which tipped off Lost Laowai about the proxy trick. Yee seems to be quite the knowledgeable guy, and he pointed me to:
– a WordPress plugin which makes substitutions in Flickr image URLs, rendering them visible in the PRC (I am now using this plugin on this blog)
– a site which discusses the Flickr block in some detail (in Chinese), including a manual workaround
– a site which shows how the Access Flickr! Firefox plugin works