Ladders

It’s not new that China has plenty of things censored including websites – The Great Firewall of China.  Google is banned.  Why? The article below will tell you, but the more specific reason is from a professor in China (I worked for him) who told me that China wanted Google to allow the government to access its users’ inbox to facilitate China’s anti-terrorism operation.  But Google wouldn’t permit them to, so the government kept interrupting Google’s service every few minutes in retaliation, and eventually Google announced to move out of China, and now it is permanently blocked.  In the professor’s opinion (which I agree with), both sides acted childishly.

Despite what the author of the article below, Murong Xuecun, says, VPN (virtual private network) is used at least all over the big cities in China.  When I told the professor above that my computer was hacked, he suggested that I use VPN.  I didn’t know what it was and had to look it up.  Just the definition’s jargon left me puzzled, and I told him I didn’t know where to route this and that and I didn’t know where these things existed.  From the response I received I could picture a shadow laughing at me.

Murong (慕容) is correct that users have to scale China’s firewall with the use of VPNs, and I think his realization of having then not having access to other info. is why VPNs are vital in China.  The Chinese government doesn’t allow the teaching of certain events (or teaching very skewed perspectives of certain events) in history, but more importantly, he makes an excellent point that “It’s hard to imagine a government that opposes creativity can permanently have the upper hand.”

However, Murong also wrote this about China’s walled cities of the past, “If the firewall exists indefinitely, China will eventually revert to what it once was: a sealed off, narrow-minded, belligerent, rogue state.”  I disagree with this because in China back then, walled cities was the symbol of being civilized.  These walled cities are evidenced by their names – Xiamen (廈門), Yumen (玉門), and Shimen (石門) (men (門) means door or gate).  What Murong wrote is referenced to the European perspective of their feudal era, where feudal lords walled off their estates to keep peasants (or tenant farmers) from fleeing.  So they used cannons (with Chinese-invented gunpowder) to blow up all those walls and free those farmers.  Woo-hoo! So the European symbol of walled estates or cities is uncivilized.

I am finally getting to this article, which is an opinion piece from the NY Times, and the importance of these ladders.

Scaling China’s Great Firewall

In the fall of 2011, a friend and I got on to discussing Tibet. “Do you know,” he said, “that Tibetans are setting fire to themselves?”

I had spent from 2005 to 2008 in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, but I had never heard of acts of self-immolation. My friend filled me in on the ghastly details, and then added, “Everyone beyond the wall knows this. A writer who cares about China, but who doesn’t go over the wall, suffers from a moral deficiency. You shouldn’t let a wall decide what you know.”

When my friend said “beyond the wall,” he was referring to the notorious Great Firewall of China, which since around 1998 has been a government project to screen and block Internet content. Seventeen years on, the firewall is a frustrating feature of life that splinters the Chinese world into two.

One world stands for free information and the exchange of ideas, the other for censoring and monitoring. The wall fences in a Chinese information prison where ignorance fosters ideologies of hatred and aggression. If the firewall exists indefinitely, China will eventually revert to what it once was: a sealed off, narrow-minded, belligerent, rogue state.

That day back in 2011, my friend helped me install virtual private network software — what we refer to as a “ladder” — which allows users to get over the firewall. Once my ladder was set up, I could enter the web without restrictions. Thus, I started my life as a firewall refusenik.

Many Chinese people, perhaps most, know more about the country’s ancient history than about events of recent decades. Before I accessed the free web, I was one of them, the ignorant masses. Going over the wall for the first time opened a window onto a world of truth.

I had known that the Chinese Internet was subject to monitoring and control, but I had never grasped what that meant. On the few occasions that I had traveled abroad, I was usually too busy to spend significant time online. Only when I’d tasted freedom at the urging of my friend did I know the bitterness of its absence.

But much of what I found was disturbing. One of the first things I looked up were reports and shocking photos of the Tibetans’ self-immolations. I then sought information about China’s recent history: the Anti-Rightist Campaign of 1957-1959, in which hundreds of thousands of intellectuals were persecuted, the Great Famine of 1958-1962, the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976, and the Tiananmen killings of June 1989.

Many Chinese Internet users know they are not free online, but they accept this. Online games and myriad social media platforms keep everyone busy. We can make restaurant reservations and shop all we want. Only a small number of people sense what they are lacking.

My first V.P.N. was shut down by the authorities after three months. But back in 2011 and 2012, it was easy to find a new ladder. I could ask on Weibo for help: People would send anti-firewall software solutions to me directly. If I got in a real bind, friends would help me install new software. By 2014, I had set up six different ladders.

 

By my count, of the world’s 30 most visited websites, 16 are inaccessible in China, including Facebook and Google (Yahoo and Bing are available). In some cases, such as with Google, the web companies are not willing to cooperate with the government’s surveillance program. Many web services are blocked, it seems, for no other reason than that they are foreign.

Blocked websites nearly all have Chinese counterparts. For search, instead of Google, there’s Baidu. If we can’t get on Twitter, we can use Weibo. There are plenty of domestic platforms to share personal photos and videos. The government hopes to foster an Internet society that doesn’t concern itself with politics or current affairs. It has been largely successful, but the firewall and its architects still infuriate a large part of China’s online population.

Everyone — young, old, southern, northern — hates the “404 Not Found” error message. When it appears, many curse the father of the Great Firewall, the former chief of the Beijing Post and Telecommunications University, Fang Binxing.

In recent years, the word “wall” has been used creatively. If your Internet account is canceled, it has been “walled.” If you are arrested, your freedom curtailed, your posts deleted, these can also all be cases of being “walled.”

Plastered all across China this summer are propaganda posters with the slogan “Why is China strong? Only because of the party.” The Chinese word “strong” (qiang) is a homonym of “wall,” which inspires subversive people to render the slogan as “Why is China walled? Only because of the party.”

I have now gone through eight V.P.N.s. No one seems to know why or how a V.P.N. is shut down. It might be working normally one day, and the next, it’s down. You might think it is just another temporary stoppage, but after many attempts to get back online, you realize that your V.P.N. was blocked.

The government’s firewall technology has become ever more sophisticated, and the cracks in the firewall have gotten smaller. Nearly every day a new V.P.N. provider is shuttered, and it is harder and harder to find a reliable long-term option.

This is one aspect of a diminishing space for dissent. In the past one-and-a-half years, 12 of my friends have been arrested, including scholars, lawyers and journalists. The Internet was their main channel of communication.

This situation can’t continue. In the end, this is a war between surveillance technology and Internet technology. It’s hard to imagine a government that opposes creativity can permanently have the upper hand.

In recent years, I have seen millions of Internet users express new indignation toward surveillance, screening and blocking. More Chinese people are realizing the value of freedom of expression and of access to all information.

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Published by

Leanne

I began writing Elle's Adventure in China (EACh) in June 2014 as a fun summer project, but as obstacles kept interfering with my plans, I forked and forked more options. I took writing this novel much more seriously in mid-July, and want to have it officially published someday in my lifetime. As many artists put their hearts into their projects, so do I. I did not start out liking to read, but a professor suggested a book for me for homework a few years ago, and it was an amazing book. Since then, I read for pleasure, and I hope my novel, Elle's Adventure in China, does the same for as many of you as possible. The same thing goes to writing. I did not like to write until I took a course where the professor and papers made me love to write. I hope every one of you find what makes you happy and dedicated to work. In May 2015, I started my other blog, Read and Write Here (R&WH), as a place to post other things that aren't China- and Chinese culture-related and not EACh. I share some of my memories and experiences from student teaching, irregular participation in Daily Prompts, etc. I'd like to have regular people and bloggers to write book reviews and post it on R&WH someday. Keep reading and writing!

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