Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

Nailing Jello to the Wall: What’s Weibo Up To?

March 18, 2012 Leave a comment

The much vaunted Weibo real name registration kicked in today, leaving pretty much everyone confused as to what the bloody hell people at are playing at.

This morning, many users were reporting that even though they hadn’t actually filled out their info – giving their state issued ID number and real name – were greeted with a thank you message informing them that they had indeed given their state issued ID number and real name.

Since I hadn’t registered my ID number (I’m not Chinese, and don’t have an ID card) I was pretty much locked out of the web interface.  I’d bought my phone pre-pay SIM card from an anonymous vendor in Dazhalan (which causes its own problems because the SIM card is tied to Hebei province and not Beijing) and Weibo steadfastly refused to send a confirmation SMS to my phone.   Whenever I tried to post a message, an alert box popped up over the text box informing me that I had to register to post.

Fortunately, both the Android client and my iPad client were working fine, and I could quite easily reply to threads started on Weibo, I just couldn’t start any of my own.  For all its security theatre, the real-name registration hasn’t actually prevented those who want to post subversive stuff anonymously.  In fact, they’ve probably compounded the issue, since mobile devices and tablets that are much easier to carry around and photograph Chinese policemen beating the hell out of a disabled beggar on the street than a laptop.

It’s difficult to figure what’s going on.  Most of the whistleblowers, commentators and dissenters who currently use Weibo  are usually the relatively well off middle class, most of whom can quite easily afford a smartphone or even an iPad, which currently allows you to circumvent the registration process. The other group of users are those who are reliant on using smokey Internet cafes that are routinely checked by the police, and you need to present your ID card in order to buy time on the computers anyway.

And how did I eventually register?  I used a false name and corresponding number that I found on an MMORPG forum.


Chinese Internet to Be Turned Off?

January 2, 2011 Leave a comment
Image representing Skype as depicted in CrunchBase

Image via CrunchBase

Bao Zhong, top scientist, economist and China’s foremost Internet expert said at the opening ceremony that was held in a MacDonalds on Beijing’s famous Wang Fu Jing shopping street, “There comes a time when you’ve got to start thinking about saying ‘let’s just turn the bastard thing off it’s more trouble than it’s worth’. There’s no evidence to suggest that the Chinese people are any good at doing stuff on the ‘net – just look at Youku, Yupoo, Kaixin and all the other websites that we’ve ripped off from the US. We can’t sustain this level blatant plagiarism for much longer.”

The committee was convened after Skype was deemed illegal in China, forcing users to subscribe to only state owned companies for telecommunication services.

When pressed for comment, a Conservative party spokesman from the British Ministry of Facebook and Twittering said “we’re already making money from paying Chinese workers a pittance an hour to assemble a wide range of goods used by British companies. Why do they need to use Skype anyway? I can’t understand a bloody word anyone says over there, can you?”

Google Whacked

January 13, 2010 2 comments

There’s a myth that China needs saving from evil dictators, or that Chinese people need to be somehow civilized.  That’s simply not true.  The truth is that there’s little in the way of mass oppression as there once was, and most of the so-called political maneuvers are more than likely to be economically motivated than political – so much so that that when the Chinese government blocked the movie portal IMDB in China, I instantly commented that there must be a Chinese–backed version of the site to open in mainland China soon.

I don’t think that western countries have the best way of doing things, (in much the same way that I don’t think the Chinese way is the best way) as anyone who has been through an election year in the UK can testify.  No, it’s just that when I see a good idea rejected for no good reason, I don’t really see any reason to waste time, energy and money on getting the idea accepted.  I don’t think, for example that IMDB should be blocked in mainland China, I don’t think that “because of the Korean War” is a good excuse to give to me when I ask why can’t I exchange Won in Beijing and I don’t think that the answer to winter heating is to sling another block of coal on the Aga.

All of these things and more hurt China and Chinese people, and they hurt China in the worst possible way, they are rules enforced for the good of the minority that will benefit only in the short term.  The foreigners sure as hell aren’t going to hang around if Beijing air starts to melt their fillings, but thanks to the shortsighted government policies, Chinese people have little choice but settle back in with a bottle of Tsigntao to watch The Happy Show while their face melts.  Sure, the laowai are going to uproot their families and they may never eat gong bao chicken ever again, but then again, who wants to drink milk that could land you in the emergency room?

The one reason why I like the Internet is that it’s a major pain in the ass for the Chinese government.  The Internet is a problem, not only because it allows the free flow of ideas, but because it allows people to easily compare their living standards.  At one time in China it was easy to tell people that they were doing good work and that they were beating the evil Americans when it comes to wheat production.  Nowadays, it’s not so easy.  The Internet is open and accessible to everyone.  Peer review has never been so easy – anyone can look at it, and anyone can poke holes in it, sniff it, lick and get up close and personal to it.  The only problem is that the Chinese are not really used to people being able to look at it and poke holes in it.  Only last week a large fraud was discovered by an obscure science journal in papers that were authored by Chinese scientists.  Acta Crystollographica Section E found that all that Chinese researchers had done was to alter certain, existing crystal structures by one or two atoms with the intention of making the structure seem entirely new.  The discovery led to the withdrawal of the papers by the two groups that submitted them in the first place – a total of 70 between them.

The big money in China these days is to be made in the online sector – after all, it’s the largest in the world.  The problem is, there isn’t one large Chinese dotcom that isn’t a copy of an existing western site – Facebook has Kaixin, Flickr has Yupoo, Google has Baidu and Youtube has Youku.  The sad truth is that the Chinese can’t do much on their own.  They can’t even make a good movie with a panda in it.  Nowhere is this more evident than in the Chinese cyberspace.  Chinese companies take and existing western idea, add various China-centric bells and whistles to it (for example, Kaixin has a hugely popular car-park based game that would only be successful in China) and then market it with the usual censorship and the all important Chinese character set.  Even the censorship software that was produced at the government’s behest used a blacklist and source code that was pirated from an American company.  It’s a game that been well played in the US movie industry – we suffer endless remakes of Mission:Impossible, Spiderman, The Incredible Hulk, ad nauseum – good ideas that worked in the past are much safer to invest in.

American companies have taken a lot of heat for even setting foot in China.  Yahoo!, Cisco and Google have all been hauled up in front of the US senate to explain just what the hell they’re up to in China.  Getting into bed with the commies still rattles some cages up on Capitol Hill.  Cisco has been suspiciously quiet about supplying hardware and software that runs the Great Firewall, Yahoo! handed over emails that got a human rights activist thrown in the slammer, and as for Google.  Well.

Google made a convincing argument when they started running  They pointed out that a limited search engine is much better than no search engine at all.  For a long time, they had me convinced.  They spouted at length the need to comply with local laws, as did Yahoo!  But that was before they felt the sharp end of Chinese business practices.  But that’s all changed for the time being.  For the time being, it’s Google vs. China.

It’s not the first time that big business has gone head-to-head with the Chinese government.  Green Dam/Youth Escort (remember that?) was effectively retired after a number of Chinese companies complained that the deadlines imposed by the Chinese government were impossible to abide by, and that the software itself was buggy beyond belief.  It was the first time that business had won out over the mandate of the Chinese government.  Now it looks like Google is trying to do the same thing.

There’s a lot riding on this.  Apart from the thousands of people that are employed at Google China – and it’s a good bet that a number of fine upstanding party members have sons and daughters working there – a growing number of businesses and individuals have become increasingly reliant on Google technology.  The grievances that Google has are pretty serious, it’s been well known that Chinese hackers have not been shy in recent years, to the point that they’re now posing a serious threat to the US.  The problem is that that Google has discovered that at least 20 other countries that have had major security breaches inflicted upon them that originated in the Chinese mainland.  While these companies haven’t yet been named, what should concern the Chinese is if Google has enough clout to convince the others that operating within Chinese law and getting your hand bitten for your trouble simply isn’t worth it.


Since the above was put together while I was waiting to make phone calls to some of the good folk of Beijing, much has beeen written in the last 8 hours, so here is a short collection of links that didn’t exist at the time of writing.

James Fallows (The Atlantic)
Global Voices Online
The Peking Duck
China Hearsay

Unflat Japan: Living in the Shadow of the Dragon

August 22, 2009 1 comment

There are many things that a trip to your old stomping ground can do to you. Some people lose themselves in remiscences, others realize why they left in the first place, and others just give up and acknowledge that nothing is going to change much no matter how much they hope they will. I belong to the latter group, with a little dash of the second. Over the Japanese Obon holiday I got the chance to return to the Beijing after nearly a year hiatus.

With my ex-girlfriend badgering me on MSN to check her university paper, and adverts for the 2008 Olympics playing constantly on the subway lines, I could’ve been forgiven for thinking that the plane had inadvertently shot itself through a worm hole over the South China Sea. Given that the plane appeared to be piloted by a drunken eight-year-old, the worm hole and the ground were probably the only two things that we did manage to avoid on the Air China flight.

Due, in part, to the fact that I’m close to finishing Thomas Freidman’s excellent The World is Flat, and mostly due to the astonishing sense of complacent insulation that a lot of Japanese people seem to be hardwired with, it seems clear that something bad is going to happen to Japan and it’s people sometime soon. The problem is, as Friedman would put it, Japan is not flat.

Flattening of the world, for the uninitiated, comes about when technology enables people to communicate and do business with other people in other countries. When call centre jobs are outsourced to India, there is flatness – cheap fiber optic cabling allows someone to be routed from their home in New York to a call centre halfway across the world in Bangalore. Software engineers in China are writing applications for Dell, IBM and Google – three programmers in China can be paid twice the national average wage and still be three times cheaper than. Flattening, and therefore increased globalization (and thus increased interaction and competition with a global ecosystem) comes about through one thing: cheap tech. In Japan, there’s no such thing as cheap tech.

Yes, Japan has one of the world’s highest penetrations of broadband internet in the world. Yes, Japan’s Internet access is both cheaper and faster than anywhere else in the world, and yes, I know that Japan is one of the first countries to completely move to a 3G mobile phone network. I know these things, but, the problem comes about when you realize that innovation in Japan is not encouraged from the bottom up. In Japan, gadgets, gizmos and toys are doled out by closed companies that only conform to their own, closed, proprietary network or format. A Docomo phone works on the Docomo 3G networks with which you can only access the Docomo website, i-mode. To get onto the Docomo network, you can’t just use your cheap Softbank phone, you have to go out and get a Docomo phone with a new Docomo SIM card. Everything is branded, stamped, sealed and walled up.

You might think that this is all well and good, that this is nothing new, and why should Docomo allow free roaming Internet access on its mobile phones, anyway? No one else does. The problem isn’t the mobile phones or the business model, it’s the Japanese population, which is shrinking, and it’s shrinking fast. The over 65’s now account for nearly 45% of the entire populous, and if there’s one thing that over-65’s do not do, it’s play around on i-mode hoping trying to get a dancing panda dance in time with the music. The people who spend the most money on mobile phones are the teenagers, the ones who desperately need a mobile phone to stay in touch with the people they see every day, and have a large disposable income. This pool of rich kids is rapidly diminishing, and so are the profits of Japanese fun-providers everywhere.

There are two important factors that will contribute to Japan’s economic downfall. The first is that the Confucianist culture that promotes the second: top-down innovation. This essentially means that instead of people going out and grabbing tools – be they lathes, scythes or laptops – the companies and government tell people what they can use and then make available a series of models to choose from. Giving people the widest possible choice of how to do their business – or bottom-up innovation – is what has driven economies since the first industrial revolution. When I went to buy a mobile phone, I was told that there were only 4 models that were available with my pre-pay SIM deal. Two of the models were out of stock and the two remaining choices were a black Samsung and a white Samsung.

Compare this with an American going to Starbucks, where the customer is able to create his or her own coffee, mixing and matching from various items on the menu – regular milk or soy milk, low fat or high fat milk, sugar or sugar free, caffeinated or decaffeinated. You can argue that a mobile phone is not a cup of coffee, but the principle of giving choice to the customers is exactly the same. In China, mobile phones are cups of coffee: you can go to a China Mobile showroom and buy the handset of your choosing, then go to the shop on the corner and buy a SIM card (all Chinese phones are unlocked by default) for the network of your choosing. There’s a wealth of choice and payment plans. In Japan, people tell you “these are what we’ve got” and you have to make do with that.

The best example, however, of a flat world (or an unflat Japan) is the actual booking of the flight (for an expat) in Japan to…well, anywhere else in the world but Japan. A local travel agent, No. 1 Travel, takes out adverts in the local press almost every week (every day in the daily English language newspapers). Obviously, they plaster their lowest theoretical ticket prices all over the adverts, and usually the actual price you pay can be double or triple that. The main problem with this particular travel agent was that they add a 5000 Yen fuel surcharge to all their tickets. Thus, a ticket that costs 74,000 Yen can end up costing nearly 80,000 Yen.

So, over Obon, I wanted to fly out to Beijing on the 9th and return on the 16th of August. I was duly informed that because of the busy holiday period, there were no inbound Japanese flights available on the 16th August, and that a ticket on a two and a half hour flight would cost somewhere in the region of 85,000 Yen. I wasn’t particularly happy with this, and spend about an hour scouring the local expat web forums for any website that might be able to give me a cheaper deal. I came across the ANA website, and found that not only were there flights to and from Beijing on the dates that I wanted; there was also no fuel surcharge. In addition, I was able to pay for the ticket at my local convenience store using the same technology that allows me to top up my pre-pay phone credit.

That’s flatness – someone somewhere was offering a cheaper deal that I had to use my laptop to get. Not only did I give my hard earned to the flatter operating business, I took my hard earned away from another, unflat business. If everyone did what I did, sooner or later, the unflat business will be in trouble. And that’s just what’s happening in Japan everyday – unflat, traditionally run companies are being run out of town by flatter companies that are doing Japanese work, but might not be actually located on Japanese soil. If you don’t believe me, take a trip to Dalian and see how many Japanese businesses are outsourcing to Chinese workers.

All this boils down to one simple point: The Japanese economy is in trouble and is going to continue to be in trouble because the tools that people need to compete in a global economy are held in an iron grip by companies that are failing because they won’t give the people the tools they need to compete in a global economy. There are people hungrier than they are who are studying ten times as hard in an effort to race them to the top. In China, there’s evidence that this is happening already, with Japanese companies outsourcing huge tracts of business to Dalian – so much so that the local universities are offering degree courses in Japanese. Of course, the Chinese people in Dalian are also learning English faster and to a higher degree of competence than their Japanese counterparts, so now there’s a labor pool in Dalian of Chinese skilled workers, who speak Chinese, Japanese and English.

These students came from families who worked on farms 60 years ago, and today, they’re leaving behind their contemporaries in developed countries at light speed.

Like many English teachers who work in Japan, I’ve come to both hate the Japanese school system and pity the student drones that it produces. Typically, the average Japanese child goes through about 10 years of English study. This is half the number of years that I studied Spanish at high school, and I could probably get by in Spain on that, some 15 years later. After ten years of English study, Japanese people still have problems asking the time in English (for the record, I can ask the time in Spanish, Japanese, Chinese and English). This lack of decent, effective second langauge education is disempowering every child in every developed country, but not all have a country like China on it’s doorstep. The demand for international English speakers wasn’t created by native English speakers, it was created by domestic and international economic forces – those who spoke English suddenly found themselves in the international market, able to make pots of money, and others wanted to do the same. For the vast majority of Japanese, they’ve been tragically let down by the Japanese education system when it comes to learning English. An Asian school and university system that produces adults who have to think about starting to study English when they’re 22 years old when their counterparts have been studying since they were 12 years old is a school and university system that is falling way short of what is needed in the 21st century.

As the undisputed leader of the great tigers of the Asian economy, Japan is probably in the most dangerous, not the most comfortable, position because China is starting to catch them up, and they’re three times hungrier and three times more likely to study harder in order to become Japan. Pretty soon, products that have “Made in China” stamped on them will be designed in China too. As Thomas Friedman points out several times in his book, developing countries are not racing developed countries to the bottom, they’re competing on the most level playing field that’s ever been available to race us all to the top. Whether you’re untouchable in terms of a skillset when the time comes, is up to you.

Cyber Spies and Heinous Lies

April 23, 2009 Leave a comment

“I could hardly stop It was so exciting,” the boy mumbled. “I went to the Internet cafe almost every day, and was dreaming of making girlfriends.” Half drunk one night, Xiao Yi sneaked into the student dormitory and raped a 15-year-old girl. “If I had not seen the porn websites, I would not have done such a thing,” the teenager says wistfully. Sadly, Xiao Yi is not an exception. Jin Hua, deputy director of the Beijing juvenile facility, said about 20 percent of the offenders last year committed rape, and almost all of them said porn websites were to blame.

In 2006, an article appeared in the China Daily (and subsequently on the China Daily website) that told the story of Xiao Yi, a seventeen year old who had been jailed for 10 years for raping a fifteen year old girl. “If I had not seen the porn websites, I would not have done such a thing,” he told a reporter.

The CCP began its campaign to “purify the internet environment” with a crackdown on porn sites in April 2007. As AP reported, Zhang Xinfeng, deputy public security minister, was under no allusions as to where the roots of the darker side of the Internet reside. “The boom of pornographic content on the internet has contaminated cyberspace and perverted China’s young minds. The inflow of pornographic materials from abroad and lax domestic control are to blame for the existing problems in China’s cyberspace.” What followed were a few arrests for hosting “cyber strip shows” and a major clampdown on the myriad blogs and search engines hosting in China. Cai Wu, director of the Information Office of China’s Cabinet, told Xinhua that as more and more illegal and unhealthy information spreads through the blog and search engine, we will take effective measures to put the BBS, blog and search engine under control.”

Throughout the year, the government produces a list of guidelines for ISPs and Internet companies to follow. China Digital Times publishes translations of the latest set of rules, which says that posts the criticize the Chinese political system should be “absolutely blocked or deleted” – information about the tiger being skinned and beheaded should be deleted, and all sorts of other rather distasteful stuff, including the rather chilling “Strengthen positive guidance. Web sites should proactively guide public opinion in a positive way, highlight positive voices and create a pro-NPC online environment.”

The technological savvy of the CCP is its strength. While the Soviet Politburo aged into a distant and disconnected leadership, the CCP has not only seen how technology can be of benefit to the country’s economy, but they are also very aware of how a technology could be subverted into a tool that, in a worst case scenario, could lead to them losing power. The Party has long since acknowledged that controlling the Internet is crucial to maintaining their political supremacy. Western investments and web companies therefore face something of a dilemma – they must fall in line with the draconian censorship laws that exist in mainland China in order to capitalize on the largest market in the world. Fortunately, the American companies that supply hardware to the Chinese government to facilitate censoring have already made their decision, as well as Yahoo, and now, Google – the company that once prided itself on not being evil – is now under the thumb of a totalitarian dictatorship.

The initial motivations of preventing the perversion of political ideals have been the basis of the argument in favor of policing and restricting activities on the Internet. That’s what some people would argue. Other people make a slightly more convincing argument, and it has nothing to do with keeping the people pure of thought. The pervasive theory is that while media websites such as Youtube and Flickr have captured a large portion of worldwide users, Chinese copycat start ups have been having a hard time establishing a user base. The answer was fairly obvious – block access to the foreign sites which would force users to use the Chinese sites, and essentially poach business from existing companies.

The motivation for blocking access are therefore little to do with politics and more to do with commercial concerns, after all, Yahoo has helped to track down and jail online dissidents by handing over emails that were held on their servers in mainland China. Since Flickr is owned by Yahoo, it seems unlikely that the Chinese authorities would block a site that is owned by a long time collaborator of the Chinese regime. Flickr had plans to establish version of it’s photo hosting site specifically for Chinese users, but this would be based in Taipei, something of a smart move to evade the CCP’s demands for Internet censorship in the mainland. In the case of Victor Koo’s Youku service, a copy of Youtube’s video hosting site with the added advantage that due to China’s lax enforcement of copyright laws it hosts full length movies and TV shows.

Far from being terrified into not using the Internet, Chinese internet users have taken over the medium. Today, there are more Internet users in China than in any other country. How Chinese people use the Internet is much different from the way that westerners use the Internet. Instant messaging and streaming online music and video are the most popular pastimes for Chinese netizens.

Cyberspace is also where you can find the worst side of Chinese mob mentality. Incensed by the poor design of the Chinese Olympic Team’s official uniform, Internet users swore to hunt down the designer and ruin his career, and the online reports of Chinabounder, who wrote about his casual sexual encounters with Chinese girls, most of whom where his students, caused a national outrage – the protest was led through an article posted on a weblog. The online voices are the most extreme, and sadly, the ones that always seem to make the headlines, it appears that while no one seems to put much stock in the online opinions of Americans or British ‘net users, people are quite ready to accept the online comments of Chinese people to be something of a barometer of public feeling in China. The Chinese press has certainly leapt on the helpfully nationalistic outrage that seems to stream constantly from Chinese netizens.

Stories of Chinese hackers breaking into US computer systems are nothing new. The Chinese have taken the blame for everything from stealing World of Warcraft passwords to the numerous zero-day vulnerabilities in Windows Vista and Office 2007. A recent CNN story detailed one particular hacker team that claimed to have gained access to the Pentagon’s internal networks, more tellingly, they said that they were hired by the Chinese government to penetrate secure networks in America. Rather than being hired electronic terrorists, the Chinese government might just be protected its own networks – if the security at the Pentagon can be breached, then surely the software that runs the Great Firewall of China wouldn’t present much of a challenge – by giving encouraging overseas targets, attention is deflected from Chinese Internet infrastructure.

So what of the discovery of Ghost Net? The covert network was discovered by a Canadian research team called InfoWar that was asked to investigate suspected breaches in the security of the Tibetan government-in-exile.

Over a period of 10 months, InfoWar uncovered a large-scale cyber-spying organization based on the worm Gh0st Rat. The Gh0st Rat Trojan enables, amongst other things, a hacker to control the sound and webcams of a remote computer. Although the network was mostly based in Hainan, China, there was no conclusive proof that the Chinese government was directly involved, independent research has shown that the Chinese government made decisions that could only have been influenced by information gathered by the network.

Using unique IP addresses, information was traced back to government servers that were owned and operated by the People’s Liberation Army intelligence arm. The Chinese embassy in London countered the cyber-spying allegations, saying that “China is opposed to and would seriously deter hacking activities, and had enacted clear laws against hacking. Rumors about Chinese cyber-espionage are completely unfounded, and those attempting to smear China in this way would not succeed.” This comment was made despite 300 businesses being alerted to Chinese infiltration by the Director-General of MI5, Jonathon Evans.

According to the results of the investigation, published in the InfoWar Monitor, embassies of India, South Korea, Indonesia, Romania, Cyprus, Malta, Thailand, Taiwan, Portugal, Germany and Pakistan and the office of the Prime Minister of Laos had been penetrated and the foreign ministries of Iran, Bangladesh, Latvia, Indonesia, Philippines, Brunei, Barbados and Bhutan were also targeted.

While the vehement denials of any involvement with any kind of cyber-espionage have poured forth from both Beijing and Chinese embassies, the truth is that the Chinese government is probably as involved with country-to-country hacking as any other government is. The report from the investigative team itself says “Attributing all Chinese malware to deliberate or targeted intelligence gathering operations by the Chinese state is wrong and misleading… The most significant actors in cyberspace are not states…. In China, the authorities most likely perceive individual attackers [ie, teenagers in internet cafes] as convenient instruments of national power.” It’s just fashionable to accuse the Chinese of secretly and stealthily taking over the world one computer at a time, and the delicious irony that a country synonymous with Internet censorship should be famous for using it as a tool for world domination is just too hard for western hacks to ignore.

The Golden Shield

April 5, 2009 Leave a comment

The CCP began it’s campaign to “purify the internet environment” with a crackdown on porn sites in April 2007.  As AP reported, Zhang Xinfeng, deputy public security minister, was under no allusions as to where the roots of the darker side of the Internet reside, “The boom of pornographic content on the internet has contaminated cyberspace and perverted China’s young minds. The inflow of pornographic materials from abroad and lax domestic control are to blame for the existing problems in China’s cyberspace.”.  What followed was a few arrests for hosting “cyber strip shows” and a major clampdown on the myriad blogs and search engines hosting in China.  Cai Wu, director of the Information Office of China’s Cabinet, told Xinhua that “As more and more illegal and unhealthy information spreads through the blog and search engine, we will take effective measures to put the BBS, blog and search engine under control.”

Throughout the year, the government produces a list of guidelines for ISPs and Internet companies to follow.  Most recently, China Digital Times published a translation of the latest set of rules, which said that posts the criticise the Chinese political system should be “absolutely blocked or deleted”, information about the tiger being skinned and beheaded should be deleted, and all sorts of other rather distasteful stuff, including the rather chilling “Strengthen positive guidance. Web sites should proactively guide public opinion in a positive way, highlight positive voices and create a pro-NPC online environment.”.

Blogging is huge in China, it’s a problem for the government which has blocked most overseas weblog hosting sites, but now it’s cracking down on Chinese blogs, especially those who don’t have nice things to say about China.  For example, take the story of AIDS-activist Hu Jia, his wife Zeng Jinyan and her 2-month old baby Hu Qianci, all of whom are currently under house arrest.  What’s interesting about this guy is that while under the eyes of the police and other public security officials, he’s managed to blog, post photos, make podcasts and even make a documentary film about his family’s life in “Bo Bo Freedom City”.

Their story is intertwined with the internet, Hu was actually arrested while in the middle of a Skype conversation, and the film he made is distributed (albeit without his permission) on Youtube, and the last of his podcasts have been uploaded to the internet.  His blog was blocked, but another websites (subsequently blocked) appeared, his wife’s website was filtered, and then another fansite appeared.  Since Hu’s arrest on subversion charges, although it’s blocked, Zeng’s blog somehow, magically keeps updating itself.

All of this to-ing and fro-ing has managed to catch the attention, not only of English language bloggers and journalists in China, but a writer at the New York Times who has written a two page article about the housebound couple.  Interestingly, the reaction has been one of (natural) condemnation and, well, quite honestly, bemusement.  The charges against Hu are vague – the subversion of state power – and we’ll probably never really know why he’s been arrested.  All we do know is that anyone who causes trouble – and any parent will tell you the amount of political turmoil a 2 month old baby can wreak on your life – is being silenced before the Olympic Games.  When he was dragged away on the 27th December, hu joined the 51 other online dissidents that have been slung into the slammer, and his website joins the 2500 other websites that have also apparently been subverting state power, or criticising, or disagreeing or something.

The one thing that is more annoying that anything else, and which drew me to my previous story about Lou Ye and Fang Li’s entanglements with the government film, TV and radio censor is that no one from the government tells people why they are being arrested.  There’s an assumption by the CCP that everyone on China – all 1.3 billion of them – knows how to behave and what they need to do to toe the government line.  With Hu Jia, it’s got to the point where people don’t believe the authorities anymore, his supporters have asked after his health (his condition is reportedly “normal”), but they want a lawyer to go in a see him to make sure that they are telling the truth.  The situation has been exacerbated by the fact that the police have refused to take Hu any of his prescription drugs to him, wherever he’s being held.

The video mobile phone is a big problem for the Chinese government.  As Beijing blogger Imagetheif remarked “no matter how China tries to control Olympic related news and imagery, anyone with a cell-phone will be a journalist come August.”.  The now legendary video of Hu Ziwei splitting up with her husband Zhang Bin at a CCTV5 press conference prompted a rushed law that means any video hosting site in China has to have a special license.  Licensing and blocking can only go so far, however, Frustratingly for the mandarins at The Great Firewall of China, a lot of websites aren’t actually hosted in the country, and are therefore outside the Chinese sphere of influence.  All they can do is block, and even that system looks like it isn’t all it’s cracked up to be either.

The whole point of the Great Firewall, or the Golden Shield as it’s known on the mainland, is to protect citizens from objectionable international online content.  The project, is of course, shrouded in secrecy, but due to the nature of the internet infrastructure, it’s possible to learn about it through empirical analysis, which basically means poking it with a stick.

ConceptDoppler is a project established by computer scientists at the University of New Mexico, which is essentially looking for what keywords are being blocked by the Golden Shield, using an algorithm called Latent Semantic Analysis, which uses words and related words to test a firewall or filtering system.  The idea is that understanding the how the ideas and the words related to the
ideas are filtered, then there will be a better understanding of how a government filters the Internet for it’s citizens – and let’s face it, the Chinese government isn’t exactly offering white papers on it’s filtering technology.

The initial findings of ConceptDoppler are surprising to say the least.  Along with the normal words that you would expect to find blocked (democracy, massacre, etc) there are some quite unusual ones too.  A search for Hitler’s Mein Kampf is blocked, another search term for “conversion rate” is also blocked.  The other surprise was that the firewall isn’t like a wall, it’s more of a chain-link fence.  A lot of the words managed to get through to the mainland, although these rogue words were trapped by routers deeper in the Chinese Internet.  It seems that bombarding the Shield with terms, especially at time when Internet traffic is at it’s peak allows some search terms to get through, in fact, banned words get through 28% of the time.
The conclusions that the team has come to is that the Chinese government rattles is sabre to keep the masses in line.  The firewall doesn’t need to catch all the search terms entered into Google, just some of them.  Just enough of them need to be caught before people learn that there’s no point searching for them anymore, and stop searching.

Another strategy that researchers discovered was that it’s possible to circumvent the net censor altogether, simply by telling the two computers that want to talk to each other to ignore the messages that they are receiving from the Chinese filters.

When a search term or a page is loaded from a server to your computer, and it passes through the GFW, if there is questionable content in the page, then both your computer and the computer you are connected to will receive “reset packets”, which effectively close your connection for you.  If the two computers are set up to ignore reset packets, then the information will get through, say, from Wikipedia’s server in California to my laptop here in Beijing.  Richard Clayton and his team at the University of Cambridge has done experiments using this theory, and apparently things work pretty well.

For the first time in a long time, Chinese people have a chance to have their voices heard.  Blogging is big in China, well-wishers and supporters gather outside Bo Bo Freedom City, trying to take baby formula into the house, and they wonder what will become of the man who once took part in an EU hearing about human rights.

The Golden Shield is regarded by the CPP as it’s most effective tool in maintaining political power, and repeatedly, it has been shown that it doesn’t work.  When the firewall doesn’t work, they arrest the subversives and tarnish their international image even further.  Given that the CCP has spent an estimated $800 million just to get the thing up and running, and the costs of upgrading and maintaining new hardware and software means that the cost of the biggest white elephant in China will continue to rise, and it’s usefulness will plummet.