Trying to Peer through the Murky Mist of Great Fire Wall of China of the Chinese Internet and Media Censorship.
02.11.2012 13 °C
After a week of touring Beijing, I finally had a well earned rest. A break from holiday break.
Turned on the TV, and as I channel surfed, my eyes were caught by an episode of H5O (the old Jack Lord series of Hawaii-Five-O. The new series is written as H50, not H5O).
"Déjà vu!" I thought to myself.
I remembered vividly watching H5O (Season 2 or 3) in AXN in another hotel room in HK while I had a break just like today. And wrote a diary entry/post "HK Day 4 - Hawaii-Five-O, The Fed & China" after the viewing.
Here I'm, in another Fraser Suites hotel room in Beijing, resting, gracing by another episode of H5O Season 4. Once again, the H5O's arch-nemesis Mr. Wo Fat wearing his - supposedly the sinister Fu Manchu - moustache was at it again, up to his usual tricks of attempting to destroy the Free West, especially Uncle Sam. They don't make innocent (or silly depending on your viewpoint) enterainment like that any more.
Media Censorship in China
No, I'm not having another dig at the writer of H5O as I had done in the above linked post. What I'm thinking this time is TV - and media - censorship in PRC. Like many countries, Chinese authority censored films with moral values that they don't like. In addition, they also censored and ban films that paints a negative portrayal of PRC. A good example of this is Zhang Yimou's To Live (1994) because it dares to be critical of the Chinese Communist party. Or indeed any negative portrayal of China as a nation would be banned.
It was viewed in this light that I slightly surprise - not shocked - that H5O are allowed to be aired in Mainland China. Perhaps I had to rethink about PRC's censorship. And from that day onward, I begun to watch all TV programs in my hotel with an eye towards censorship.
First off, I also subscribe AXN in Singapore, and as far as I could tell, the programs that aired in Singapore and China are identical. Never mind the R rated movies on Cinemax (like “When Stranger Calls” that was shown when I was there). And having watched different TV channels with various programs since, my only conclusion was, there’s no censorship of what could be shown in the hotel I stayed in.
For example, during that time, I watched a BBC report that was quite critical of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) for concentrating too much on economic reforms, and too little on political reforms in the last 3 decades in order to keep their power grip firmly on the country. BBC is known for their independent voice.
The topic of China was coming up a bit because of the upcoming change of leadership in the CCP (only a week after Barrack Obama's re-election). Well, BBC was actually quite politically correct. In contrast, a Taiwanese channel showed even more juicy stuff like speculating on the next Chinese leader and the rather unflattering expose on the hidden face of the powerful elites behind the Politburo; the kind of personal stuff that any politician in the West wouldn’t want their public to find out. Yes, I've seen it on a TV in Beijing, China. The Taiwanese program is naturally spoke in Mandarin.
If I watched this program in, say Taiwan, I wouldn't give it another thought. After all, they made this program. I wouldn't want to jump to conclusion about PRC's censorship one way or another too quickly, so I asked James - a Singaporean who has been working in China for 18 years - about censorship on TV in China. He applied, "very little". I asked if he could remember a specific instance where he suspected censorship, and what did it look like. He couldn't recall. I got the impression that there was none.
I had previous experience that made me surprise to James' reply. I stayed in Etta's dad's place in Guangzhou earlier this year. His favourite channel was TVBJ that broadcast directly from HK into China. In one news report, in the middle of president Hu Jintao's sentence, it was abruptly cut to a TV commercial. And just as sudden, the TV commercial was cut before it finished, and returned to the previous news program, but at a slightly later time because President Hu had done talking.
I was confused what was going on, thinking it was some kind of technical glitches. In a dismal voice, Etta's dad explained that what I witnessed was censorship in action, Chinese style. The broadcast was censored live, I think, but with a delay. Let's say the program is delayed by an hour, so whenever the authority didn't like what was on the TV, they cut to a TV commercial and resumed after the censored section. Thus they have an hour - or whatever amount of time delay - to evaluate what was to be censored.
Under the "1 country, 2 systems" policy, HK is given the enviable position (in Mainlanders' eyes) to retain the political freedom that they enjoyed as British colony. This includes freedom of the press, which is more open than many Asian countries, including Japan, for example. Chinese authority isn't going to let this freedom of expression in TVBJ news reports to enter Mainland unfiltered.
One tentative conclusion I could make out of all these observations was that there're double standards being applied to hotels and local residential TV program subscribers. After all, the hotel guests are foreigners, and they have been watching all these stuff all along. What's the point in censoring them? The censorship were aiming at Chinese, not foreigners. Mind you, any local, in this case Beijinger, could also check into any international hotel and watch these TV programs to their heart’s content. They could go overseas and watch these programs. Well, they could go overseas and never come back. And many do. I have more to say about this last few points later.
One has to be very careful in jumping to conclusion too quickly about anything in China. I had done so a number of times. Shame! Shame! Shame! When there's no transparency, the whole censorship - indeed many government policies - is like a black box. We couldn't do anything but to speculate what's inside the black box. Quite often, we got it wrong.
Another conclusion about the censorship is that the central government leaves it to the provincial government to do what they please with the censorship. There maybe other reasons that escape me too...
H5O was coming to the end while I busily brainstorming (that happened a lot), I quickly grabbed the laptop and launched my investigation on the censorship in the internet. One good idea leads to another...
Internet Censorship in China
While they may apply double standards on foreign TV channels in hotels and Chinese citizens, only 1 standard is applying to the internet. And not all the censorship is purely politically motivated. In fact, many censorship are economically based, and other are moral ones.
For example, I can't access some of the globally most visited commercial websites like Face Book, IMDB, Twitter or Blogger within China. Not that the government fear these products as they're dangerous politically if they're in the hands of the people. No. These are paranoid people (usually have never set foot in China) who think PRC is a totalitarian state. They're not as democratic as some countries, I agree. Totalitarian...nah...
Let's look at this list with US internet companies versus the Chinese counterparts.
USA Companies Chinese Companies
These very popular US' websites are being blocked in China so that the local private internet companies wouldn't be crushed by US' internet giants. And they're thriving under the state protection. Indeed, 4 out of the 15 top websites globally are Chinese. Russia has 1, and Japan has 1. This wouldn't have been possible if they didn't create barriers to protect them from the onslaught of foreign corporate titans.
There's little question that the products are copied along US' products' lines. Youku even sounds like youtube. I guess this is done on brand association basis.
All the smaller US websites like Tripadviser (I beg your pardon, I meant travellerspoint), however, would be able to get through the Chinese firewall unscathed. I tested it myself.
While I expect my personal blog would be blocked in China, I was surprise that by using following URL, it came up!
(I haven't checked out Wordpress, but I suspect they don't get preferential treatment. I could be wrong. If they aren't blocked in China, this suggests they don't pose a threat, as far as PRC goes).
I felt like I repeated David Copperfield's performance when he did his great publicity stunt by walking through the Great Wall of China.
The reason why I would even type this Singapore country domain site address is because in Singapore, google automatically redirected me to this country selective address, whether I like it or not.
Both of my .com and .sg blog sites contain identical content. I'm thinking, it's as if Chinese internet watchdog is saying, "If it passes the Singapore Censorship, it's good enuff for us!" I was thinking that, but I didn't really buy the idea.
Censorship in Singapore and Elsewhere
Sillypore - a nickname locals give Singapore - is well know for heavy censorship. The Sin City - another nickname for Singapore - is a straitlaced society with spotless streets and clean information superhighway. They tend to be more like Australian government where they’re hard on the moral issues like hardcore porn sites, but soft on political ones. At least in Singapore, if a website is censored, this MDA message would come up when you try to visit there. While in China, you get a blank 404 error page. You don't know if you have reached a blocked site, or the site is down, or some other technical isues. This is what I meant by being not transparent, or a black box.
And another thing, these 2 web pages about censorship in Singapore and Internet Censorship in Singapore aren't blocked in Singapore (don't laugh. And don't take things for granted). This shows that Singapore is more sensitive to moral issues than political ones. You can freely express your displeasure about government's blocking of certain porn sites in Singapore. I know for a fact that some Gulf States - Bahrain ad Dubai - would block many political websites like that. These are 2 of the most 'liberal' GCC states. I had been to both countries, and lived in Bahrain for nearly 3 months. I had nothing to do but surfed on the net, and ran into internet walls frequently. You could read my travel diaries for these 2 countries here. I'm not defending Singapore's censorship, but saying censorship, like governments, in many countries couldn't either classified as total autocracy or modelled democracy. They filled the whole spectrum in between the 2 extremes.
Actually. the appearance of http://ramberwithoutboders.blogspot.sg page shouldn't come as a total surprise. My blog's GA stats shown page views from China averaged once or twice a week before I went to Beijing.
The joy of accessing my blog was short-lived. In the next
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