There seems to be no question: the New York Times web site is being firewalled right now all across China.

Exactly one person wrote me, from Shunde in Guangdong province, to say that he had no problem getting to www.nytimes.com and following links from the main page.

A second person wrote, from Beijing, to say that his connection was also working - and then wrote back a few minutes later to say, sorry, he forget he had the VPN turned on. Without the VPN, the site was blocked.

All the other replies (of slightly over 100) reported either that the home page wouldn't load at all, or that it loaded but that all of the links were blocked. As explained earlier, both of these are typical of the way the Great Firewall operates.

I got "blocked-connection" reports from people in the far west, in Urumqi; in the south, from  Zhuhai and Shenzhen and Dongguan and Guangzhou; from the north and northeast, in Shenyang and Dalian and Changchun; and from all the other big cities (Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, Wuhan, Chengdu, Xian, Qingdao, Nanjing, Changsha, Hangzhou, Suzhou) and a bunch of smaller ones like Baoding and Ya'an.

Hypotheses:

  • Is the site blocked because of this big story today by Jim Yardley, about the economic perils China faces after 30 years of growth? Maybe .... but I have heard far worse prospects routinely discussed here at conferences, on Chinese TV shows, and by Chinese government officials in recent weeks. So that doesn't seem to make sense.

  • Is it blocked because of this story, by Edward Wong, reporting on the death sentences issued for two Uighurs convicted of killing 17 people in an attack on a police/military station in the far nothwestern town of Kashgar just before the Olympics? This could well be the problem. The threat of separatism in the mainly-Muslim northwestern Xinjiang region is an extremely sensitive topic in China. As Wong points out, his story carries several details of the action that differ from official Chinese government accounts.

  • Or is it blocked because of this unbelievably fatuous passage in yesterday's column by David Brooks: "Chinese people work hard because they grew up in a culture built around rice farming. Tending a rice paddy required working up to 3,000 hours a year, and it left a cultural legacy that prizes industriousness." Yes, culture matters; and yes, the structure of Chinese education, family patterns, and still-dominant agricultural life makes a difference in how people behave (not to mention the legacy of the Cultural Revolution, the years under Mao, the one-child policy, and so on). But to write something like that with a straight face suggests that one has never seen actual Chinese people at work (or ostentatiously not working) or thought about how many factors account for the wild variations in work ethic, purposefulness, scholastic aptitude, basic honesty, devotion to duty, etc among people who all supposedly share the rice paddy legacy. I would give some credit to the Chinese firewall minders if exasperation with this sort of talk were the reason for the shutdown. In fairness to Brooks, in the column he might have just been paraphrasing an argument by Malcolm Gladwell.

  • Or is it being blocked for some other reason?

I don't know.  But this is a more heavy-handed step than I remember seeing in the past two and a half years.

Anyone who really wants to, can get around this barrier. Via proxy server or VPN; by going to the International Herald Tribune's site, which carries many of the same stories but is not blocked; through other news aggregators; by just waiting for the policy to change. But something is going on. (And, as also explained in the earlier Great Firewall article, the goal of interfering with the internet is not to make the barrier air-tight. It's simply to make finding unauthorized information enough of a nuisance that most Chinese people won't bother.)

I'm left with one other mystery: why my own connection in Beijing has been working just fine, even when I don't use the VPN. Hmmmm. 
UPDATE: Mystery solved. As of midnight Friday China time, now I can't reach NYTimes.com without a VPN either. The home page loads but all the links time out. I am one with the masses!

Thanks to all who answered.

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