A crack in the firewall?

The Chinese firewall seems to be acting up. On Saturday, authors of the New York Times, Washington Post, CBS and other newspapers I’m sure noted that the Times have once again been blocked by the Great Firewall. Some posited guesses as to why, perhaps it was a “controversial” article published in the International Herald Tribune about China’s impending economic problems. Perhaps it was the Chinese government reasserting control after they loosened up for the Olympics. No one knew. Ironically, this happened at the 30 year anniversary of the gaige kaifang, which editorial writer Nicholas Kristof pointed out

For some reason, now, it is unblocked, which the Times celebrated today. The article claims that no one in China knew why it was blocked for a few days. I know that China makes mistakes, but this seems a bit too sloppy for the government and their firewall. I admit, I don’t know a whole lot about the firewall, but this seems like a pretty big goof up to just “happen” for nearly 4 days. Not that a whole lot of people in China read the New York Times, but a lot of expats do, and I assume that the government knows how much it would irritate the Western powers who want to see more human rights in China, not fewer. Maybe it was all these Western papers getting upset about it that caused them to reverse their decision. Or maybe it really was a mistake. I’m not sure.


  1. Gina,

    Nice post – I’d just like to add a bit of historical perspective.

    The so-called Great Firewall, and all other forms of electronic censorship, were preceded by postal censorship, which works almost exactly the same by placing some form of control over the distribution, not the publication, of a specific publication. The Qing government used the modern Post Office, founded in 1896, to place postal bans on “seditious” newspapers and magazines – the first postal ban was against the China National Gazette (國民日日報), a successor to the Subao (蘇報), founded during the latter’s famous Mixed Court trial in the International Settlement. After 1903, the Qing, warlord, and Nationalist governments all used postal bans against seditious publications – both printed in Chinese and foreign languages. Some of these postal bans, especially against Communist publications, were permanent while others against commercial and foreign-language newspapers were usually temporary. Starting in 1927, during the Northern Expedition, the Nationalist Party convinced the foreign-controlled Chinese Post Office (the most powerful postal official was French), to start placing postal bans on settler newspapers (e.g. North China Daily, North China Star, Shanghai Evening Post and Mercury, Central China Post, Shanghai Nichi Nichi Shimbun, etc.). In accordance with Chinese censorship laws and regulations there was no need to notify the publishers of the reasons they were banned. The editors of these foreign-language newspapers, once they figured out they were being banned, continued to publish in the International Settlement and mobilized discourses against the Nationalist authorities emphasizing the Nationalists’ personalist and corrupt censorship practices, especially their “failure” to publically disclose why a specific publication was banned. There certainly seem to be echoes of these discourses in the way that many people talk about the Great Firewall.

    Among the various purposes of temporary postal bans, the two most important were a form of economic punishment attempting to deprive the newspapers of subscription and advertising revenues and, secondly, as an attempt to forcefully persuade the editors to alter their editorial lines. For example, the National Government banned the magazine Oriental Affairs in 1934 for advocating the recognition of Manzhouguo. If the editor, H. G. W. Woodhead, wanted his postal privileges reinstated, he would have to refrain from writing such “seditious” editorials.

    Suffice it to say, the Great Firewall seems to serve many of the same functions as postal bans. While it is possible the New York Times was mistakenly blocked for four days, the more likely explanation is that the Chinese government was sending the editor of the Times a message about the content of their stories on China. If the Times wants access to the China media marketplace, then they’ll have to refrain from certain forms of expression, especially criticisms of the government and Party. What seems especially confusing to foreigners is the so-called “unevenness” of Chinese censorship – some critical articles are restricted while others circulate unmolested. As in the Republican era, the purpose of Chinese censorship is not to prohibit the circulation of all criticisms, but only those at particularly sensitive moments for specific reasons, which we probably won’t understand until the archives of SARFT are opened in the distant future. It is probable that some official within the government deemed the International Herald Tribune article on China’s impeding economic problems to be cause enough for the ban. Precisely because China is having economic problems, and everyone knows it, is why the government would prefer it not be discussed within the public sphere.

    As for the idea that the government makes “mistakes” in its censorship…this is a common theme in Republican era censorship as well. Foreign editors in the 1920s and 1930s, after being banned, constantly reiterated their “objectively” and “fairness” assuming that some “mistake” must have occured within the government to cause a ban against their “blameless” publications. Generally speaking, from the government’s perspective there are few such mistakes while from the editor’s perspective all bans are a mistake.

  2. China firewall is lame, use water to put out the fire of the wall but how do you get over the wall? – use Freedur.com to bypass it. You can bypass China Great Firewall and access youtube, facebook, blogger and all other sites which are blocked.

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