Archive

Posts Tagged ‘great firewall’

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 Google.cn.  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.

UPDATES

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.

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

Advertisements

Hot, Flat and Repressed

September 10, 2009 Leave a comment

China, in its present state of government will never be the global power that it wants to be.  The reign of the ruling Chinese Communist Party will only last so long as they have the energy for the Chinese people.

The unprecedented growth and industrialization of China is, by any measure, remarkable, and fuelling this growth is, well, fuel.  Specifically, oil.  China has little in the way of its own oil reserves – optimistic estimates say that there’s about 14 years of oil left given the trend of growth and consumption.  The government needs to import oil.  A lot of it.  The problem was that most developed countries that were willing to sell oil to the Chinese would always add the condition that one of the situations, be they the human rights situation, organ harvesting, censorship or any other of the distasteful activities that the CCP indulges in should stop.  The rather inventive solution to the problem was to invest in countries that didn’t have the money or the resources to drill for their own oil, and these are usually the countries that don’t have the best human rights situations themselves, so they’re in no place to pile criticism on the Chinese government.  The upshot is that the Chinese are ruffling more feathers in the human rights community, signing million dollar deals with countries that White House hawks would consider rogue states.

The big question that is asked by most young Chinese is: “When America and Europe were industrializing, they didn’t have anyone telling them they should use less coal or burn less oil, or pipe less gas.  They polluted with wild abandon and everyone in the west is rich and fat because of it.  Why can’t we do the same?”  The answer is: China can. Not only “China can”, but “China can and I want it to do so”.  Why?  Because the interest in renewable energy sources is gathering more and more momentum every day.  More tax dollars and more private companies are pouring money into solving the world’s energy crisis.  They’re not doing this in order to save the world, they’re spending money because they know that renewable energy will become, in the very near future, the next global market.  Holland exports its wind turbine technology, and Holland has 2% unemployment.  It’s no coincidence that they were one of the first countries to reduce their dependence on Middle Eastern oil to zero, while also becoming one of the first countries to seriously invest in renewable energy technology.  The more time that China wastes arguing with Japan about where it can drill for oil, the more time Europe, America and Japan (Japan, being the most energy efficient developed country, which will be able to exploit a market of 1.6billion people in China) have to be the first to make a product that everyone will be relying on.  Of course, I want this product to be designed and patented by a British firm, rather than a Chinese firm.

And if you think that this is all just prevarication, the bad news that this has already happened.  Pennsylvania train maker GE Transportation is selling energy efficient, eco-friendly train locomotives to Chinese rail and freight companies.  The American trains last longer, don’t use as much fuel (they have 10-cylinder engines instead of the Chinese 12-cylinder) and don’t break down as much as the older, more inefficient engines that China has been using for years.  Already an American company has a foothold in the Chinese economy.  All of this has been done while the Chinese are partying hard, singing Hu Jintao’s praises and raising a glass to Wen Jiabao.  While the officials are taking bribes and looking after their own, the Americans are starting to take over major Chinese industries, thanks to their clear regulation and inventive innovation.  Some money is going to the Chinese, it’s true, but the big money is going to the US.

How does innovation follow on from regulation?   When the auto industry in American was told that they must install all their cars with catalytic converters, only one company looked at how it could get around these rules that were, on average, adding $1300 to the production cost of every car.  The chairman of Honda told its engineers that they must look at how to reduce emissions before they got anywhere near the tailpipe.  The result was a new engine with a pre-burn chamber that reduced the toxicity of the gas/air mix before it went into the piston chamber to be ignited.  Honda not only created a solution that saved their company millions of dollars and helped to combat climate change, they also started licensing the technology to other automakers.

When the movie Kung-fu Panda was released worldwide, there were two camps in China that were critical.  The first crackpot camp claimed that the move exploited the memories of those who had died in the Sichuan earthquake.  The second group asked the rather more valid question of why hadn’t the Chinese movie makers themselves been able to produce a smash hit animated comedy set in ancient China?   Americans were selling Chinese to the Chinese.  With the government still in control of the TV and of movie production, this is the way that it’s always going to be.  China will always be the one picking up the crumbs, living off the pale imitations and pirate copies of things that other people produce.   Americans make movies that sell, the Chinese have to make movies that conform to a haphazardly enforced political and moral agenda.

There’s regulation in America, but there’s little in the way of censorship.  And look what has happened there – there are hundreds of companies now that actually sell people software that will censor the Internet for them.  Worried parents don’t want their kids to be able to access redhotanddutch.com, so they pay companies to give them software that will block pornographic websites or websites that can teach teenagers how to make pipebombs.  If the Great Firewall was removed, then it would free up a monopoly that Chinese companies would be able to take advantage of.  If there was an open list available and updated reguluarly by the government, then companies would be able to take that list and create filtering software around it.  Laws could be passed that made sure that whichever institutions the government wanted these filters to be installed at had the software properly set up.  It’s still censorship, but it’s honest censorship, the criteria would be in the open, and everyone would know where they stood.

What’s happened is that people are scared to develop and innovate, because there are no clear guidelines telling people what they can and can’t do.  Copies of existing works are being made because they’ve been around for a while and haven’t caused trouble in other countries.  What the Chinese Internet needs isn’t censorship and prison terms, it’s stable, reliable, open regulation.  With the regulation will come innovation, Chinese software engineers will be able to clearly see what they can’t and can do, and soon they’ll start creating rather than copying.  Copying is only a short-term stop-gap solution, sooner or later, foreign companies will get tired of having their products pirated, and they’ll start coming down hard on the Chinese manufacturers by imposing hefty taxes on Chinese imports.

So, let’s assume that there’s a rising middle class in China, and that incomes, on average, are going up too.  The money that’s generated from taxes collected from the wealthy middle class give the government a huge pool of money with which to effect massive social improvement.  There’s more money to get the best doctors in better hospitals which now have the best equipment.  The parks are clean, as is the water that’s piped into the apartments.  On sunny days, lovers may stroll in the many clean, quiet parks dotted around the city.  The public transport system is being overhauled with new subway lines and cleaner buses being introduced.  In short, there’s enough money going spare to pour into big, flashy projects that do two important things: they keep people happy, and they keep people from asking questions.  If you’re happy and you know it, then you’re less likely to demand accountability and transparency from your government. The CCP is still able to bank on the growing economy to keep people happy because the famines and the hardships that were endured during the Chinese civil war are remembered by people who are still alive, so it’s easy now to sing the praises of the CCP and the apparent economic wonder that they’ve orchestrated.   The trick of politics isn’t to make people happy, it’s to keep people happy.  In order to keep the Chinese people happy, and to keep the lucrative manufacturing contracts China now finds itself reliant on an unsteady foreign oil supply, and oil is a resource that is definitely close to extinction.

The fact that the CCP can so effectively crush opposition shows that the government has enough money to not only to keep the people happy on a superficial level, but they’re also able to spend large amounts of cash developing sophisticated internal intelligence services, and preventing groups that have an agenda different to that of the ruling political party from forming.  The rise of China’s middle class and the migration of ethnically Han Chinese to remote areas of the country has made it easier than ever for people to compare their economic status with that of others.  Needless to say, these people at the losing end of the equation are not happy.  Thousands found solace in the sword verses of the Koran, not because they found Allah, but because they were sick and tired of being the losers all the time.  The Muslim men that were unemployed and destitute in their home countries are the ones that migrated to the terror training camps, and they turned that dissatisfaction into a hatred so directed and so pure that they were willing to commit acts of mass murder.  There’s no billionaire oil sheik on the planet who feels he needs to sacrifice his life and kill countless others in order to enter paradise.  Wherever there are have and have-nots, there’s always terrorism.

The creation of a Chinese middle class has given the Chinese government access to a money pot deeper than it could possibly fantasize of, and so long as people are getting richer and are paying their bills, the more money the government has to strengthen its grip on dissidents.  The problem that comes is when the energy that is needed to finance the business ventures that enables the rich to get richer runs out, there’s going to be a problem.  More than likely, the CCP will be forced to do as Bahrain had to do – reform its basic, fundamental ideas of how society is supposed to be run.  People are not likely to give it all up and go through another North Korea-style great struggle; they aren’t going to trek for miles on the second Long March and dig for coal with their bare hands.  They’re much more likely to riot in the streets, and demand that the government fulfill their half of the bargain.

The balancing act that Beijing is faced with in unenviable.  While their yearly 8%/9% growth is spectacular, and the effect that this has on the nation’s millions that live on $1 a day has been a phenomenal achievement for a country that started its days 60 years ago bankrupt with no gold supplies, there is no question that this growth has to be sustained.  Or else.   What has been created now is a strange economic cycle where the economy grows, and must keep growing to satisfy the general population (and to help secure to continued governance from the CCP), in order to keep the economy growing, the country needs oil.  The country doesn’t have oil so it has to import from rogue states and at some point, that’s definitely going to come up at the next WTO meeting.  If you think this is a big problem, I haven’t even mentioned that America is going after the same oil supplies in order to sustain its own addiction to the black stuff.

After all the fear-mongering and doomsaying, for the first time in a long time, I have hope for China.  To put it more accurately, I have a little more hope than I did.  The hope comes in the form of the members of the very same middle class that are, according to one economic theory, helping the CCP stay in power, the ones who own the massive Chinese companies, and the ones who protested so vehemently about the absurd idea to install the Green Dam/Youth Escort software on all the computers that were to be sold in China this year.  It’s the biggest victory that the Chinese people have scored over their government in a long time.  One thing that is apparent after spending so much time in China is that people are able to tell you how great the country is, but the list of achievements is always in the past tense. China and it’s people must look to the longer term, they’ve got to turn their “did”s into “will”s, and the one thing that they can’t afford to do is to wait till later to clean up the mess, once they’ve become rich; they’ve got to clean up to become rich.

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.