The internet these last few days in Beijing has been like molasses. Pages that take one minute or more to load. Many pages that time out, give up, and won't load at all. As I mention in my article on China's Great Firewall in the current issue of the Atlantic, one reason internet censorship is so effective in China is that you're never quite sure why you can't find the sites you're looking for:
Andrew Lih points out that other countries that also censor Internet content—Singapore, for instance, or the United Arab Emirates—provide explanations whenever they do so. Someone who clicks on a pornographic or “anti-Islamic” site in the U.A.E. gets the following message, in Arabic and English: “We apologize the site you are attempting to visit has been blocked due to its content being inconsistent with the religious, cultural, political, and moral values of the United Arab Emirates.” In China, the connection just times out. Is it your computer’s problem? The firewall? Or maybe your local Internet provider, which has decided to do some filtering on its own? You don’t know. “The unpredictability of the firewall actually makes it more effective,” another Chinese software engineer told me. “It becomes much harder to know what the system is looking for, and you always have to be on guard.”
And I haven't known what was going on.
Some problem with my apartment building's server? Some problem on the other end? The Atlantic's own site has been almost impossible for me to reach -- maybe I should make (more of) a nuisance of myself to our tech team? And virtally all Blogspot-hosted blogs have failed to load too. Maybe the GFW has figured out a new way to screen them, even though I'm trying to get them through my VPN? And I know that the VPN itself is introducing some new features. Maybe they're screwing me up?
This morning, I slapped my head and said "Of course." At a panel discussion Jeremy Goldkorn, head of the Beijing media company/blog Danwei, offhandedly mentioned that the internet had been reduced to a crawl because the National People's Congress opened today, and for the last few days the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference has been in town. Obviously! The exact logic and process through which huge political extravaganzas lead to extra-tight internet crackdowns is not entirely clear to me, but the fact is they do. Presumably people within the bureaucracy think, The bosses are paying attention, why take any risk? It was the same last fall during the 17th Communist Party Congress. Ah well. These meetings go on for another ten days. Just as a high wind is more exciting if you think it's part of a hurricane, weirdly my current internet delays are more tolerable if I think they're part of some big historic event.