Interviews March 2008

Penetrating the Great Firewall

James Fallows, author of "The Connection Has Been Reset," explains how he was able to probe the taboo subject of Chinese Internet censorship.

You mention early on that you didn’t go to the Chinese government for their side of the story because Internet controls are never discussed in public. What would have happened if you’d asked the government about this? Would have put yourself at risk in some way?

The worst risk I would have encountered—I think!—is just being ignored. Realistically there was zero probability of being granted an interview with an official of the relevant ministry, and a less-than-zero chance that he or she would have anything to say beyond the equivalent of “no comment.” In the story, I quote several observations by Andrew Lih, now of Hong Kong University. Something I didn’t quote from him was a view he obtained from a Chinese official on this very topic:

"In China, we don’t have software blocking Internet sites. Sometimes we have trouble accessing them. But that’s a different problem. I know that some colleagues listen to the BBC in their offices from the Webcast. And I’ve heard people say that the BBC is not available in China or that it’s blocked. I’m sure I don’t know why people say this kind of thing. We do not have restrictions at all.”

This was from Yang Xiaokun, First Secretary, Permanent Mission of China to the United Nations Office at Geneva. You see the problem.

The Western press is full of stories about civilians in China (and reporters in particular) being confronted for their inappropriate use of the Internet. Have you run into similar problems? Do you find yourself taking extra precautions when using the Internet?

When living in Shanghai, and now in Beijing, my wife and I have lived in “serviced apartments” where perhaps many of the residents are foreigners. In some ways, the Internet services there have been better than those enjoyed by typical Chinese people. For instance, after the Christmas earthquake, in 2006, that dramatically affected connections between most parts of Asia and the rest of the world, our apartment building in Shanghai was up and running comparatively quickly because it rented (expensive) satellite connections.

But when it comes to firewalls and other forms of interference, we’ve been subject to the same problems as other users within China. The precautions I’ve taken have been these: first, I operate through a VPN (in my case, WiTopia), which as I explain in the story encrypts transmissions through the Firewall. Second, I rely on Skype for online chats since those too are safely encrypted. And, although this probably isn’t necessary when I’m using a VPN, when using webmail I go to secure sites—for instance, https://gmail.com rather than normal http://, for an extra layer of encryption. As I say, this is probably overkill. I never use Internet cafés in China—I can use my Blackberry for e-mail in a pinch.

How does the Chinese search engine Baidu differ from Google.cn?

There is an important technical difference between the two operations. Baidu’s servers are physically inside China. This makes them very fast—queries don’t have to go overseas or be processed by the cumbersome Great Firewall filters. Moreover, Baidu pre-scrubs its search contents to meet the strictures of the Chinese government. So there is no question of some troublesome material—say, about Taiwan—showing up in Baidu’s results. Google, meanwhile, is using its “real” index from servers outside China. This means that Google’s searches are often slower than Baidu’s and more likely to run into problems because of touchy material.

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Abigail Cutler is a staff editor at The Atlantic.

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