Media problems in two countries: Part I, China

Two weeks ago I mentioned the difference that a VPN from had made in my internet life in China. (VPN details below.*)

A few days later, a Chinese blogger named Ruan Yifeng mentioned my report on his own blog, and went on to discuss other ways Chinese users could deal with the internet filters collectively known as the Great FireWall (GFW). The original Chinese version of his post is here; a translation by the indispensable Roland Soong** of Hong Kong, on his ZonaEuropa/ESWN blog, is here; just for the hell of it, an auto-translated version via Google's online translation tools is here. It's very interesting to compare this with Soong's native-speaker, hand-crafted version.

Two days ago, Ruan Yifeng said that he had been reported to the authorities for putting such subversive information on the internet. (Original Chinese version here; Roland Soong's translation here; Google auto-translate version here.) From the ESWN version:

I just found out today that someone had just reported my "Methods of bypassing the Great Firewall of China" to the China Internet Illegal and Harmful Information Reporting Center.
I cannot help but say: Fuck, what a stupid jerk! No wonder someone said: When there is a shameless, disgusting government, there will necessarily be shameless, disgusting people.

(The auto-translate version of the second sentence is: "I really could not contain himself: damn, really such a SB!")

Ruan Yifeng says that Baidu (China's leading search engine, with a huge lead here over Google) has already filtered out his site, and "it is a matter of time when government filtering occurs." His whole saga is very much worth reading at Soong's site, for what it says about control on expression in China -- and the spirit of those trying to work their way around it. For instance, Ruan Yifeng directs his real fury not at the censors who implement the GFW but at the Chinese fellow citizen who informed on him:

"It is the existence of people like you that makes people despair about this country."

Some implications for now:

1) Episodes like this help underscore something about modern China that is difficult to appreciate from outside. The aspects of daily life that aren't controlled -- and there are a lot of these aspects -- really aren't controlled. Minor example: During my recent quick trip in and out of Japan, Taiwan, and mainland China, the formalities of immigration and customs clearance were simplest and easiest in China -- and by far the most onerous and intrusive in Japan, as hinted at here and revealed in other ways, for later discussion. Larger example: most people I've met in China, most of the time, seem mainly to be going about their business and family activities without talking in hushed tones or glancing nervously over their shoulder at Big Brother.

But the aspects of Chinese life that are controlled, really are controlled. Anything resembling political expression obviously is one of these aspects. Whether the controls can in the long run extend to the internet is a complex, open, and important question. (More on this topic, from Rebecca MacKinnon in Hong Kong, here.)

2) The episode also illustrates a moral quandary of short-term foreign visitors in controlled societies. If a foreigner in China offends the government, realistically the worst he need fear is being kicked out. (Moreover, the Chinese government is obviously much less concerned about, and perhaps aware of, what's written in English for foreign consumption than what's written in Chinese and available to readers here.) Getting kicked out is bad, but it is not the worst that a Chinese citizen need fear. Therefore any sentient foreign observer is always trying to balance the responsibility to report things honestly, with the responsibility not to cause trouble for people who, unlike the foreigner, are subject to local retaliation. I am in no way responsible for whoever ratted out Ruan Yifeng, but the situation obviously makes me uncomfortable.

3) The role of the anonymous tipster makes me all the more regretful that the renowned film about the East German Stasi, The Lives of Others, still has not made its way to China's pirate-video stores in an English-language version. (My local pirate-video store in Shanghai, Even Better Than Movie World, warned me that its versions were German-only. The vendor here in Beijing said that its copy was in English, but when we tried to play it last night, of course it wasn't.) It is on the to-buy list for the next trip to the U.S.

Part II, about media problems in the United States, shortly.

* A VPN is a "virtual private network," which users anywhere can find valuable for security reasons. VPNs generally encrypt the information you are sending to and from your own computer, and conceal your actual location and identity, by making it seem as if your activity comes from the VPN's IP address rather than your own. In China they're all the more useful as a way of coping with the various problems created by the Great Firewall. They allow you to reach sites ordinarily off-limits to users in China -- for instance, any blog hosted by Blogger or BlogSpot -- and even for permitted sites, they usually make the internet seem much faster, by avoiding the delaying cycles that are imposed by GFW filters.

** Soong's EastSouthWestNorth blog is followed avidly by people interested in political and cultural developments in China, because of Soong's links to interesting Western and Chinese sources and his daily translations into English of important Chinese news and documents.