Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Alice stirs up China's past

Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland launched in China last Friday, and already pirated DVDs of the blockbuster movie are on sale. So far this latest venture into 3D hasn't drawn in the same excitement seen after the release of Avatar. But it is early days yet. However, just as Avatar caused a stir amongst the Chinese, many believing there to be a strong connection to the plight of poor Chinese citizens being evicted from their homes, this latest Hollywood tale is sure to rattle a few sensitivities.

Burton's adaptation of Lewis Carrol's Alice in Wonderland deviates significantly from the book. But it is in the last minute of the film where things become curiouser and curiouser. For some bizarre reason there are apparent references to the Opium Wars as Alice, played by Mia Wasikowska, discusses with her father's old trading partner, her intention to expand into China. The Opium Wars are one of the most embarrassing events in Chinese history, for the Chinese, and this film might also prove embarrassing. 

After her adventures in 'Underland', Alice returns to the real world where she announces she wants to "do something" with her life and sets out to discuss her plans with her father's partner. "My father told me he intended to extend his trade routes to Sumatra and Borneo," Alice says. "But I don't think he was looking far enough."

Pawing over a map, she continues, "Why not go all the way to China? It's vast, the culture is rich and we have a foothold in Hong Kong." Alice looks at her potential partner and smiles, "To be the first to trade with China. Can you imagine it?"

To the casual observer in the West, this business proposition might seem innocuous enough. However, to many Chinese, and others that have studied history, this was seemingly a thinly veiled reference to the Opium Wars. In its trade with Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries, the Qing Dynasty would only take silver in exchange for the luxury goods, such as tea and silk. The huge accumulation of silver reserves in China frustrated governments in the West.

To rectify the imbalance, the British began exporting opium from India to China throughout the 18th century, successfully reversing the silver flow. Fearing the societal damage caused by masses of drug addicts, the Yongzheng Emperor prohibited opium sales in 1729. Despite this, British traders illicitly continued to increase the flow of opium into the Middle Kingdom.

Thus began the foreign domination of China, in which the Qing Dynasty would fight and lose two wars to the superior British military, resulting in multiple "unequal treaties," in which Britain and other foreign powers would charge the Chinese hefty reparation payments for the wars, gain access to Chinese ports and enjoy extraterritorial rights for their expats in Chinese cities. The Treaty of Nanjing which followed also ceded ownership of Hong Kong to the British Empire.

The Communist Party gained control of the Mainland in the 1940's, in part, because it was the party of resistance against foreign influence. Contemporary Chinese nationalism is also rooted in the lessons and embarrassment from the Opium Wars.

The decision by Alice at the end of the find is not so much a footnote but the culmination of her struggles in 'Underland'. It also seems to point to the fact that she might even play a significant part in the opium trade. The presence of the hookah smoking caterpillar at the end in his form as blue butterfly just might reasonably be interpreted as an ironic symbol of the coming opium trade. There are several things surprising about this. Why would Disney in particular, allow such blatant references? And how did this get past Chinese censors?

Given the recent furore over 2012 and Avatar, this film may well see many complaints from Chinese netizens in the coming days.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

Monday, March 29, 2010

40 dead in Moscow transit blasts

At least 40 people have died in two blasts on Moscow's subway system. The first blast happened at the city's central Lubyanka station killing 25. A spokesperson for the Russian Emergency Situations Ministry said, "Fourteen people were killed in the train and 11 on the platform." Irina Andrianova said the apparent attack hit the second carriage of a metro train that stopped at Lubyanka at 07:56 local time [03:56 GMT]. A second blast came about 40 minutes later at 08:38 (0438 GMT) on the same line at Park Kultury station killing at least 12 [BBC / Al Jazeera]. Russia Today was broadcasting pictures showing ambulances arriving at hospitals [RT Live]. An early photograph emerged on a German website showing people lying in a subway tunnel [Tages Anzeiger].

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Grass Mud Horse at Google HQ

Hundreds of Chinese have gathered throughout the week at Google's HQ in Beijing, laying flowers and singing songs following the search giant's decision to redirect users of Google.cn to it Hong Kong based server. But there has been no mention of the candle-lit vigils or tributes of flowers in the Chinese media. Leaked documents this week revealed that the government had stipulated that all media outlets were to strictly control the reporting of the events surrounding Google's departure and that bulletin boards be monitored. 

The China Digital Times, which is blocked in China managed to obtain a copy of the rules which informed chief editors and managers that Google's official withdrawal from the China market was a "high-impact incident" which had "triggered netizens’ discussions which are not limited to a commercial level." It was thus important, the statement went on to suggest, to "pay strict attention to ... content requirements during this period.”

Amongst the rules laid down was the stipulation that media may "only use Central Government main media content" and not to use content from other sources. In addition the rules said titles may not be changed and that "commentary posts under news items" must be "carefully managed." One of the most striking orders was that all websites should "clean up text, images and sound and videos which support Google, dedicate flowers to Google, ask Google to stay, cheer for Google and others have a different tune from government policy" [Mashable].

As such few would be aware of the full sequence events taking place in north-west Beijing, where Google's headquarters is based. As well as a constant stream of flowers some of those gathering sand an impromptu version of the "Grass Mud Horse" song [SMH]. The song is born out of an Internet meme as a protest against government censorship. In Chinese, Grass Mud Horse could be written as 草泥马 [Cǎo Ní Mǎ]. But depending upon its tonal pronunciation it could be easily misinterpreted as F*** your mother, �你妈 [Cào Nǐ Mā] [Wikipedia].

There is further profanity in the song and references to a river crab, a symbol of state censorship since the Chinese word for river crab is similar in sound to 'harmonious', a reference to Beijing's claim that Chinese society is harmonious.

Omissions from state media haven't stopped some from posting videos, photographs and audio online, though many items find themselves deleted after only a few hours [Global Voices]. One so-called netizen Gao Ming took to filming events at the search giant's home in Beijing and interviewed some of those who had turned up. "Despite the fact it's a bit chilly there's a lot of people gathered outside the Google office," Gao says on his introduction. 

Showing some of the sweets left on the sign, Gao says, "Don't take them, they're for Google." He shows off other items placed by people; an apple, flowers and a wind turbine toy saying that people would have different reasons for leaving them. 

One girl was asked why she was taking a picture. "Because Google is leaving," she said. Would it affect her life? "I don't think it will have any impact but it's just a pity, " she told Gao. Another girl said that although she often used Baidu, Google often proved better for research. There was also feelings of regret amongst some of those who spoke, some expressing the opinion that censorship was not that bad and that things might improve.

An audio recording posted to one website police can be heard trying to disperse those gathered. "Please leave here, don't gather here," the officers say before a small group of girls and boys launch into song. "There is a herd of Grass Mud Horses, in the wild and beautiful Gobi Desert, they are lively and intelligent, they are fun-loving and nimble, they live freely in the Gobi Desert, they are courageous, tenacious, and overcome the difficult environment. Oh lying down Grass Mud Horse. Oh running wild Grass Mud Horse..." The song ends with the Grass Mud Horse defeating the river crabs, the symbol of Internet censorship. Maybe another day.

Pinyin: zài nǎ huāng máng měilì mǎ lè lēi Gēbì yǒu, yī qún cǎo ní mǎ, tāmen huópo yòu cōngming, tāmen tiáopí yòu língmǐn, tāmen zìyóuzìzài shēnghuó zài nà cǎo ní mǎ Gēbì. tāmen wánqiáng  yǒnggǎn kèfú jiānkǔ huánjìng. Oh wò cáo de cǎo ní mǎ. Oh! kuáng de cǎo ní mǎ. wèile wò cǎo bù bèi chī jí diào dǎbài le héxiè, héxiè cóngcǐ xiāoshī cǎo ní mǎ Gēbì

Chinese: 在那荒茫美丽马勒戈壁, 有一群草泥马, 他们活泼又聪明, 他们调皮又灵敏, 他们自由自在生活在那草泥马戈壁, 他们顽强勇敢克服艰苦环境。噢,卧槽的草泥马!噢,狂槽的草泥马!他们为了卧草不被吃掉 打败了河蟹, 河蟹从此消失草泥马戈壁

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

China's firewall spreads overseas

A networking error has caused computers in Chile and the US to come under the control of the Great Firewall of China, redirecting Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube users to Chinese servers. Although security experts are not sure exactly how this happened, it appears that at least one ISP [Internet Service Supplier] recently began fetching high-level DNS [Domain Name Server] information from what is known as a root DNS server, based in China. That server, operated out of China by Swedish service provider Netnod, returned DNS information intended for Chinese users, effectively spreading China's network censorship overseas. 

China tightly controls access to a number of websites, using its Golden Shield Project, known colloquially as the Great Firewall of China. The issue was reported Wednesday by Mauricio Ereche, a DNS admin with NIC Chile, who found that an unnamed local ISP reported that DNS queries for sites such as Facebook.com, Twitter.com and YouTube.com, all of which have been blocked in China for months, were being redirected to bogus addresses.

It is not known how widespread the problem is, but Ereche reported receiving the bogus information from three network access points in Chile, and one in California [DNS-OARC]. By Thursday he said that the problem was no longer occurring . "The traces show us that we're not hitting the server in China," he wrote in a discussion group post. This issue occurred because, for some reason, at least one outside ISP directed DNS requests to a root server based in China, networking experts say. This is something that service providers outside of China should not do because it allows China's censored network to "leak" outside of the country.

Researchers have long known that China has changed DNS routing information to redirect users of censored services to government-run servers instead of sites such as Facebook and Twitter. But this is the first public disclosure that those routes have leaked outside of China, according to Rodney Joffe, a senior technologist with DNS services company Neustar. "All of a sudden, the consequences are that people outside China may be subverted or redirected to servers inside China," he said.

By using a China-based root server, ISPs are essentially giving China a way to control all of their users' traffic over the network. That could mean big security problems for people whose network accepted the leaked routes, Joffe said. The ISP that used the bad routes probably misconfigured its BGP [Border Gateway Protocol] system, used to route information on the Internet, according to Danny McPherson, chief security officer with Arbor Networks. "I don't think it was done intentionally, " he said. "This is an example of how easy it is for this information to be contaminated or corrupted or leaked out beyond the boundaries of what it was supposed to be."

In February 2008, BGP information from Pakistan, which had just blocked YouTube, was shared internationally, effectively knocking Google's video site offline for millions of users [Renesys]. In an e-mail message, Netnod CEO Kurt Erik Lindqvist said his company is not hosting the bad routes on its server. They were most likely changed by machines somewhere on the Chinese network, McPherson said.

The incident shows that BGP remains a major weak link in the Internet, Joffe said. "It's really disconcerting form a security point of view and from a privacy point of view." This is the first time that this type of behaviour has been made public, but it has apparently been going on for some time. In a discussion group post on Wednesday, Nominet Researcher Roy Arends said that he has been studying this issue for a year. Arends has compiled a list of 20 domain names that will trigger the kind of bad results, reported by Ereche. Arends is keeping the names of those domains secret, but he did publish some of his data in his discussion post. "I wanted to keep this internal, however, the cat is out of the bag now," Arends wrote [goodgearguide / Slashdot].

On Thursday YouTube crashed in many countries around the world apparently due to a technical problem. In a statement Google said, "YouTube is up again following a technical issue which has now been resolved. We know how important YouTube is for people and apologize for any inconvenience the downtime may have caused."

However it wasn't the only site which crashed this week. On Wednesday Wikipedia went offline for several hours due to cooling problems with its servers according to a statement posted in the company's blog. "Due to an overheating problem in our European data centre many of our servers turned off to protect themselves," it said. Wikipedia's "failover switch", whereby traffic is diverted to another data centre, then broke, meaning users were unable to reach the site [FT].

Although there was no indication that YouTube's outage was caused by Chinese hackers, many will be suspicious of the timing of these recent outages and redirects. Attacks on Google's systems, believed to have originated in China, have been partly behind the company's decision to move it's search engine to Hong Kong earlier this week. Many feared that the move could prompt reprisals from Chinese officials, who denounced the decision as "totally wrong".

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Osama threatens Americans in new audio message

A new audio message purportedly from Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden has emerged in which he addresses U.S. citizens. The news channel al-Jazeera broadcast the tape in which bin Laden issued a threat to kill any Americans taken captive if the alleged 9/11mastermind Khaled Sheikh Mohammed is executed. The authenticity of the tape has yet to be established.

"The day America will take such decision [to execute Mohamed and any others] it would have taken a decision to execute whoever we capture," the voice on the tape said. The voice continued, saying that US president Barack Obama was "following the footsteps of his predecessor", a reference to George W. Bush, the former US president.

"The politicians in the White House were practicing injustice against us and still they are. Especially by supporting Israel in its continuous occupation of Palestine. They used to think that America across the oceans is protected from the rage of the oppressed until our reaction was loudly heard at your home on 9/11 with God's help," the voice says in the recording.

The last audio recording attributed to bin Laden was released on January 24, 2010. In that tape he claimed responsibility for the attempted attack on an airliner on Christmas Day and vowed there would be further attacks on the US unless President Obama took steps to resolve the Palestinian situation [AJE].

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

Dell may leave China too, reports

After Google's shutting down its Chinese search engine within China on Tuesday, the Internet has been alive with discussion and comment. Reams have been written about the search giant's decision. There have been vitriolic and nationalistic pieces emanating from the state media machine while western media has been debating the next move by the Chinese government or indeed other companies that have vested interests in China. Latest reports have even suggested leading PC maker Dell might quit the country for "safer environments".

China was getting too hot for Google, and for co-founder Sergey Brin who in his early years lived in communist Russia, the censorship and increasing controls were a stark reminder of the totalitarian regime he once experienced [AFP]. Google's decision to move its search engine to Hong Kong has been applauded by human rights groups. Bob Fu, a former leader of the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy movement and founder of the US-based rights body, ChinaAid, applauded Google's decision to defy Beijing's censors. "They are on the right path. Freedom of information is a basic human right defined by international conventions. I encourage other companies like Microsoft and Yahoo to stand up and not sell their consciences for more renminbi in their pockets," Fu said Wednesday [Guardian]. 

Google's move to China in 2006 had been a difficult one. It had been seen at the time as negating its much lauded 'do no evil' motto. Its shift of position has helped its image, at least in the West, and put the spotlight on other companies which continue to do business with the totalitarian regime. Of course Google has not entirely shifted its enterprise from China. Its offices are still in place, and it has said it wants to continue its R & D within the country. But the lines have been drawn.

China may force Google out altogether, retaliation for standing up to the might of Beijing. It may see other services blocked, on top of YouTube, Picasa web, Blogger and so on. But such moves by Chinese censors will only reinforce the view that doing business in China is too difficult.

The Financial Times has published a number of articles recently highlighting the difficulties tech companies, in particular, face in China. And a study published by AmCham [American Chamber of Commerce] suggests that this feeling is growing. There will be other considerations too for companies remaining in China. While Google may have soured relations with the Chinese government, and many so-called netizens, it has undoubtedly improved its image abroad. Those that continue to prop up a regime that abuses its citizens, denies them human rights and free access to information, will be seen as 'more evil'. 

In 2006 Cisco Systems, Microsoft, Yahoo and Google were hauled before a House subcommittee investigating their role in helping the Chinese government suppress free speech on the Internet, censor political content and even turn over data about suspected dissidents. Congressman, Tom Lantos, the ranking Democrat on the House International Relations Committee at the time and the only Holocaust survivor in Congress, had earlier been comparing the companies' activities in China to the odious work certain companies once did to aid the Nazis [NYT].

''Are you ashamed?'' he thundered. Was Cisco ashamed of selling networking equipment to the Chinese police? Was Microsoft ashamed of taking down a blog because the government disapproved of its content? Was Yahoo ashamed of turning over data that led to the arrest and imprisonment of Shi Tao, a journalist who had used an anonymous Yahoo e-mail account to leak a government memo to the foreign media? Was Google ashamed of setting up a Chinese search engine that filtered out Web sites that the government wanted blocked, sites that used such forbidden words as ''democracy?'' All the companies attempted to deliver the party line; that the Chinese people were better off by their presence than they not being there at all. Many also said that under the terms of their license, they had no choice but to comply with Chinese law. James A. Leach, Republican of Iowa, accused Google of serving as ''a functionary of the Chinese government.'' He added, ''If we want to learn how to censor, we'll go to you.''

Google has had enough of being "a functionary of the Chinese government." But will the likes of Juniper and Cisco, who helped build the so-called Great Firewall. Will Microsoft realize that many might see it as "doing evil" by complying to Chinese state censorship. Yahoo has already given up most of its stake in the Chinese portal after selling much of the company to Alibaba. There are others too. The well known 3 mobile network in Britain is owned by TOM online's Li Ka-shing, a Hong Kong tycoon. Soon after Google moved its search engine to the former British colony TOM announced it was to stop use of Google's search services after "the expiry of agreement." In a statement it said, "TOM reiterated that as a Chinese company, we adhere to rules and regulations in China where we operate our businesses." China Mobile and others may feel compelled to drop links with Google, in an attempt to appease Beijing or in an effort to avoid angering authorities.

Such moves may wall China off from the rest of the world. Microsoft may believe it has a future in China with its Bing search engine. But whether through restrictions and the favouring of homegrown companies, or otherwise, few western enterprises have managed to gain ground in China. Although Google's attempt to penetrate the Chinese market has been seen as a failure, to some extent it made more success than many others. There are few companies that can claim it to more than 30% of the Chinese market. 

However, the future does not look good for western companies trying to make profits in China's tech and Internet industry. But it may also be difficult for the likes of Baidu to expand beyond Chinese borders. "If the Chinese government continues to favour domestic companies, those companies that reach critical mass could become phenomenally profitable," said Gary Rieschel, founder of Qiming Ventures, an American venture capitalfirm with investments in China. "But it may be hard for those companies to become world class without outside competition."

"The biggest loser is Netizens," says Fang Xingdong, chief executive of Chinalabs.com, a research firm. "Google is a multilinguistic search engine, but Baidu is a Chinese-language one. Chinese information only occupies a small fraction of the Internet."

China may find foreign tech firms will leave for less hostile shores. And there are plenty of open doors. India has a growing tech Industry and may appear far more welcoming. William Pesek, a Bloomberg columnist writing in The Age, an Australian daily, says India may well gain advantage from the recent débarqué between China and the West. "India has a track record of innovation and a stable of internationally competitive companies that China doesn't," he says, "India also has far superior laws on intellectual property and corporate governance. And China's willingness to blow off Google plays to India's relative advantage in these areas."

And it appears that some may already thinking of shifting their operations to India. A small article in the Hindustan Times on Wednesday suggested that Dell might relocate to India and pull out from China. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is quoted as saying that Dell is considering taking its $25 billion's worth of business elsewhere. "This morning I met the chairman of Dell Corporation. He informed me that they are buying equipment and parts worth $25 billion from China. They would like to shift to safer environment with climate conducive to enterprise with security of legal system." [engadget]

While many companies may not come out as boldly as Google in condemning China's business practices, perhaps many are beginning to rethink their strategy. 

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Google.cn moves to Hong Kong!

Google.cn finally shut shop early Tuesday morning and was redirecting Chinese traffic to its uncensored search engine in Hong Kong. The surprise move is risky in that it may result in Google being frozen out altogether on the Chinese mainland. According to reports Google said it was closing its China-based website and switching traffic to Hong Kong and insisted  the strategy was 'entirely legal' [Daily Mail / Reuters].

But Chinese officials have said the move reneged on a written promise and was 'totally wrong'. David Drummond, Google's chief legal officer, said, "We want as many people in the world as possible to have access to our services, including users in mainland China." [Xinhua]

Meanwhile the White House voiced regret at the news. A spokesman for President Obama said, "We are disappointed that Google and the Chinese government were unable to reach an agreement."

Google's move to Hong Kong will be a blow for authorities in Beijing. Hong Kong has a separate government and economy, a legacy of its role as a British territory until 1997, though China has since exercised powers to reinterpret local statutes. At the handover of sovereignty, China promised to preserve Hong Kong's capitalist system and free press for a further 50 years. It may push Beijing to block Google's Hong Kong service, something which will anger many Internet users.

On Google's official blog, which is blocked in China, David Drummond put forward Google's case. "On January 12, we announced on this blog that Google and more than twenty other U.S. companies had been the victims of a sophisticated cyber attack originating from China, and that during our investigation into these attacks we had uncovered evidence to suggest that the Gmail accounts of dozens of human rights activists connected with China were being routinely accessed by third parties, most likely via phishing scams or malware placed on their computers," Drummond stated. "We also made clear that these attacks and the surveillance they uncovered—combined with attempts over the last year to further limit free speech on the web in China including the persistent blocking of websites such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google Docs and Blogger—had led us to conclude that we could no longer continue censoring our results on Google.cn."

"So earlier today [Tuesday] we stopped censoring our search services—Google Search, Google News, and Google Images—on Google.cn. Users visiting Google.cn are now being redirected to Google.com.hk, where we are offering uncensored search in simplified Chinese, specifically designed for users in mainland China and delivered via our servers in Hong Kong. Users in Hong Kong will continue to receive their existing uncensored, traditional Chinese service, also from Google.com.hk. Due to the increased load on our Hong Kong servers and the complicated nature of these changes, users may see some slowdown in service or find some products temporarily inaccessible as we switch everything over." 

Google's Corporate Development and Chief Legal Officer said the decision had "been hard" and that despite the company wanting to allow as many people in the world as possible to have access to Google's services, including users in mainland China, the "Chinese government has been crystal clear throughout our discussions that self-censorship is a non-negotiable legal requirement". 

Drummond insisted that the move to Hong Kong was a "sensible solution" and "entirely legal". However he recognised that the Chinese government could block access to Google's services at any time.

In terms of Google's wider business operations, Drummond said the company intended to continue R&D work in China and also to maintain a sales presence there. However, the size of the sales team would be partially dependent on the ability of mainland Chinese users to access Google.com.hk. The decision to move Google.cn was implemented by executives in the United States, Drummond said. "None of our employees in China can, or should, be held responsible," he added.

Google have made a special page to highlight what services are available within China and which are blocked. That site can be found here.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

Monday, March 22, 2010

Google silent as China rants

The editor's note read: "After four years' developing business in China, Google's revolt timing is likely pregnant with meaning." The meaning of the latest drivel to emanate from China's state propaganda mouth piece was not entirely clear. So, what 'meaning' do they draw from Google's probable withdrawing from the Chinese mainland? The rhetoric issued via the People's Daily, Xinhua and China Daily infers that Google is in league with the US government and are attempting to 'politicalize' [sic] events surrounding cyberattacks highlighted earlier this year, and which China deny any involvement.

Doing business

The latest installment in the war of words aimed at Google, and those who seek to defend her, insisted that there was a "convention for proper behaviour for companies conducting business in a foreign country". The article in the China Daily on Monday said that "Compliance with the country's laws and regulations is also standard practice for international businesses."

This is appropriate of course. But there is a difference between China and many other countries when it comes to doing business, especially those involved within the tech industry. An evolving regulatory regime, targeting information technology-related products, is the chief cause of this sentiment. "Once every bit of the organisational infrastructure falls into place and every rule is implemented, there will not be much of a China market left for us," the regional head of a foreign semiconductor company told the Financial Times recently.

A survey conducted by the American Chamber of Commerce in China also highlights disquiet. The proportion of US businesses that feel foreign companies are increasingly unwelcome to participate and compete in the Chinese market rose to 38% in February, up from 26% just two months earlier. 

The mood is not restricted to American companies. Businesses from all over the world and across a wide range of sectors are becoming increasingly disenchanted about operating in China, according to Joerg Wuttke, president of the European Chamber of Commerce in China. "The mood has obviously soured in several areas," Wuttke told the Financial Times on Monday. "Businesses feel the market is growing but the access is getting narrower." In particular some 57% of US high-tech and information technology companies said they expect to lose business in China as a result of new rules laid down by Beijing. 

The writing was clearly on the wall when Hu Stern and several colleagues were arrested last year accused of bribery and of stealing state secrets. It was widely seen as 'sour grapes' by China after losing a lucrative business deal. The charges of bribery were particularly galling especially in a country which has a thin line between 'bribery' and 'honoring' a potential business transaction with a gift. That trial started on Monday but in what has been dubbed an 'open trial' western media were excluded, yet another fine example of censorship. Further details have yet to emerge, however it appears Stern Hu, Rio Tinto's executive iron ore salesman in China, has pleaded guilty to bribery charges in a Shanghai court. The surprise development appears to vindicate the decision by the Chinese authorities to prosecute the Australian citizen and his three associates [FT]. It may only deepen widely held beliefs the executive was coerced or threatened.

"When in Rome..."

The China Daily article uses one phrase to support its argument that foreign companies should abide by Chinese laws. "When in Rome, do as the Romans do," it says. Should we infer from this that we might all go around spitting, ignore no- smoking signs, speak loudly on mobile phones, push in bus-queues and infringe copyright with complete disregard? Well, perhaps not.

The article goes on to say the cyberattack controversy surrounding Google and its developments are "increasingly challenging our common sense and knowledge about the world." Given the information concerning the rest of the world is so highly filtered, it is perhaps not surprising that awareness and knowledge about the world is lacking. More laughably it says "the US company will be the biggest loser in all of this". Doubtful, given Google wasn't getting very far by staying.

In another article published by the China Daily it asked if China could live without the Internet giant. It referred to a report in The Washington Post published Friday with the headline, "For Chinese people, loss of Google would mean 'nothing but darkness'", but dismissed the comments as the current "China Threat" theory which is being discussed in the Western media.

Companies like KFC, McDonalds and CocaCola had managed to create business in China, so why was Google unable to? China daily called Google "arrogant" and added that it was behaving like the imperialists who "cracked open China's door by warships and cannons in the 19th century".

The information flow

There is a vast difference between food and drinks manufacturers and tech companies. A Big Mac is not censored nor a diet Coke restricted. But the free flow of information on the Internet is. Xinhua in its most recent rant insisted, "In fact, no country allows unrestricted flow on the Internet of pornographic, violent, gambling or superstitious content, or content on government subversion, ethnic separatism, religious extremism, racialism, terrorism and anti-foreign feelings."

Maybe no country is proud of such websites existing, but the flow of information is not blocked in many western nations. While child pornography is quite rightly blocked, many adult sites operate freely in the West. Live Leak with its often violent imagery is not affected by government censors. gambling sites are plentiful. Superstitious sites are widespread whether that be those purporting bizarre religious beliefs or those foisting ideas about alien abduction. Government subversion and political discourse has a large presence on the net. Class War is not blocked in the UK despite its obvious and clear motive to build for a revolution against the ruling elite. Even racist, extremist and what might be deemed as terrorist sites exist. While many find content on some or all the above objectionable, a relatively small amount is blocked. 

There is also a vast difference between what China says it filters and blocks and what is actually blocked. Nowhere in any of the articles published on state media does it list these, nor explain why they are blocked. As of March this year the following Google services remained blocked: Blogger, YouTube, Picasa web, Google Sites, the Google Dev site and Chromium.org. Google Health has been blocked in the past year as has GMail. Google docs is constantly affected. Sometimes it is only available in http mode [insecure] while at other times it is entirely inaccessible. The Chrome Extensions site was blocked for a time but became available again in early February. The Google Wave invite link remains blocked as does the Wave extensions site.

Facebook and Twitter are among the more well known sites blocked by Chinese censors. But Typepad, Wordpress, Friendfeed, Tumblr, technorati, imageshack, Scribd, Dailymotion, Liveleak, Vimeo, bit.ly URLs, Twitpic, Pirate Bay, the Python programming software download link and Livejournal are amongst the dozens of other western sites affected. Even the IMDB was blocked for a short while this year. Sites deemed too political include BBC Chinese, China Digital Times, Danwei, dw-world.de, Amnesty, RSF and Wikileaks.

No word from Google

By late Monday Google still had not issued a much anticipated statement as to its possible withdrawal plans. The Chinese have called Google unfriendly and irresponsible, arrogant and of 'politicalizing itself'. Google have mostly kept quiet since its original statement in January. However China for its part has been loud and vociferous. It has appeared far more unfriendly in its criticism. It has politicized more than most. And it appears arrogant in failing to accept the widespread curbs of censorship which go far beyond the protection of its citizens fro dubious Internet content. It is also irresponsible in failing to create a better business environment for foreign companies to operate. This not only thwarts those foreign companies, it may create the feeling among those companies that doing business with or in China is not worth the struggle. It will not be Google that will lose, in the long term it will be China that loses.


If any good has come from this long drawn-out affair it is that the "Google China incident" has greatly heightened awareness among normally apolitical Chinese Internet users about the extent of Internet censorship in their country. It has sparked a lot of debate and soul searching about the extent to which ... [they're] isolated from the rest of the world [rconversation]. Some have even drafted an open letter to Google and the Chinese government. Interestingly the letter is posted on Google docs [Chinese]. Others aware of the censorship tested to see if filters had yet been removed from Google.cn as some reports suggested. The results were posted on various Internet forums [digicha].

Twitter has also bee alive with activity concerning Google's possible exit. One user by the name "Natural2012″ joked on Twitter the morning after an all-night vigil on March 15th, "If Google doesn't obey Chinese law … it should go back to the U.S.; if the Chinese government doesn't comply with WTO rules, it should get out; if the Party doesn't respect the rules of human rights, [it should] go back to Mars." Isaac Mao, a China-Internet researcher and blogging pioneer, counted more than 4,000 posts about Google.cn on micro-blogging service Twitter over the course of the night [some people obviously have too much time on their hands!].

But there is also much ill-feeling, stirred up in the main by the state media which have, as one might expect, been far from truthful in their reporting of the issues. The Google row is also coming to a head at a time when US-China relations are deeply strained by calls from US politicians to confront China over its undervalued currency, as well as rows over trade and arms sales to Taiwan and Tibet. 

[other commentary Computerworld / Telegraph blog / WSJ blog]

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Sandstorm hits Beijing

Tonnes of sand from deserts in China's interior blew into Beijing Saturday, shrouding the capital in a yellow-orange haze that even authorities warned made the air quality "hazardous." Few people took to the streets but many of those that did were wearing facemasks. The dust settled on rooftops and on Beijing's streets and footprints could be seen where people had walked. 

Beijing's weather forecasting bureau gave the air quality a rare "5" or hazardous rating and said it was "not suitable for morning exercises." The US Embassy's air monitoring station also registered the air quality as hazardous. At 07:00the PM2.5 was measured at 473.0; 482; Hazardous. By midday this had reduced to a reading of 156.0; 206; Very Unhealthy. 

High winds swept through the city for much of the day. In the northern Changping district, the wind reached speeds of up to 100 km/h but by late afternoon speeds had dropped to around 55 km/h.

The sandstorms underline the environmental degradation in many parts of the country. However the government has spent millions of dollars on projects to rein in the spread of deserts, planting trees and trying to protect what plant cover remains in marginal areas.

The sandstorm was the biggest this year in China. Such events used to be common in the capital. However, government efforts to combat the problem in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics appear to have paid off in recent years, with residents noting a marked drop-off in incidents.

Nonetheless, many were shocked and surprised by the yellow skies. "Oh the golden glowing sky of a sandstorm in the morning is not how I like to start my day," @sarahplusone posted on Twitter. Another Twitter user, @charlieflint exlaimed, "Gah. I'm inside and my lungs burn. Sandstorm..."

Jo Kent, associate producer for CNN in Beijing, tweeted, "It looks like the end of the world outside. Yellow haze and no visibility." That haze was captured by some and posted on various Twitter related websites such as Twitpic and Tweetphoto.

By late afternoon the skies had cleared, but the ground and many rooftops were still covered in a fine layer of orange dust.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

Friday, March 19, 2010

"Ugly modern society must retreat"

A taxi driver was given a rude awakening while driving through the streets of Hefei, in Anhui province, east China, on Sunday [March 14th] after a naked man stopped his car and tried to lift it off the ground. The portly individual stood his ground as the bemused taxi driver exited the vehicle and remonstrated with the man. "Evil and ugly modern society, retreat!" the man exclaimed while attempting to lift the car. As a crowd of bystanders gathered a security guard attempted to persuade the man to give up his protest. But there was no placating this crusader who has been dubbed 'Brother Power' on some websites. "Ugly modern society must retreat!! By 2012, my power will be enough, and I will thoroughly destroy this ugly modern society!" the man shouted.

Police eventually arrived, reportedly after more than 30 minutes, and a doctor also tried to talk to him. Police suggested that exposing his naked body to the world was 'ugly', but the naked protester responded indignantly. "Me ugly? You running dog of modern society! It is you who is the most ugly, modern society that is the most ugly."

Initial attempts to apprehend the man failed as he slipped under a car and refused to come out. But after an hour he was eventually hauled away while shouting, "Modern society will retreat! I will be back!" Some of the comments left on Internet forums suggested he had drunk too much baijiu, a strong Chinese liquor, or was having a psychotic episode. Maybe it was just the stress of living in an "ugly modern society" [Beijinger/ ChinaSmack / Mop.com].

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

Man arrested after eating child's brains

It has often been joked that the Chinese will eat anything that has four legs, except perhaps the table and chairs, everything that flies except airplanes, and anything in the water, except of course boats. But one man in the south-western Chinese province of Yunnan has taken things too far, even for the Chinese.

A village near Baoshan is in shock after the arrest of a man who now stands accused of murdering two children and eating their brains. Wang Zhaoxu (王朝旭), 29, a resident of the village of Xianqi, is awaiting trial in a local detention center for the grisly murders of a three-year-old girl and an 11-year-old boy earlier this year.

According to media reports, Wang took to eating children's brain after becoming convinced it would help cure his epilepsy. One villager reportedly discovered the man crouching over a boy's corpse in a field [pictured] on January 23rd. Zhang Huansheng told local media that when he approached, Wang began shaking the child's body and said, "My child has passed out and I'm trying to wake him up. Baby, wake up, wake up."

Wang Zhaoxu was arrested later that day and soon after a girl's body was found in another part of the village. Both children's skulls were opened, their brains missing, reports say. According to the local media Wang was attempting to cure his severe epilepsy by eating a mixture of children's brains and earthworms, which is reportedly a local folk treatment for epilepsy.

The names of both victims were not immediatly released, although some western media named the boy as Li Xuetang [pictured]. His mother Yu Chaohu, said she had become anxious after her son did not return home. 

"It was getting dark, but I couldn't find my son anywhere in the village. I even asked the village head to broadcast on the radio to ask my son to come back home for dinner," she told reporters After the discovery of her dead son she said, "I can't bear to think about what happened to him. I have nightmares thinking about it." One report said the girl had been found in a public toilet with "knife wounds" to the head and that police were still trying to establish if the two deaths are connected [The Sun / Herald Sun / China News (Chinese)/ Danwei / GoKunming].

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

Letter pleading Google probably fake

A letter sent to Google earlier this week and posted on the website of state broadcaster CCTV, is likely to be a fake. The letter allegedly from some 27 advertising partners in China, had demanded that Google compensate them if it withdrew from the country. 

But in what appears to be an orchestrated attempt to embarrass Google, the letter claimed that the signatories had watched their business decline and were worried that they faced bankruptcy if Google withdrew.

Gao Min, who is in charge of Google ad sales at Beijing Zoom Interactive Media, said the letter was "likely a fake". His claim appeared to be backed by the fact that many of the supposed signatories denied being a party to the letter. 

Shenzhen Winkee Networking, also included among the 27 partners, denied signing it. Feng Mingming, the sales representative in charge of Google ads at Shenzhen Winkee, said, "I have checked with the head of the company and other relevant officials and found out we haven't sent or signed any such letter." According to Bloomberg News, 22 companies denied any involvement.

"The fact that somebody has organized such a large group of independent companies together into an alliance seems quite implausible," said Isaac Mao, a former fellow at Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society [NYT].

It can only be speculated as to who drafted the letter. But given the rhetoric coming through government sources and the fact it was posted on the website of the state-broadcaster, places suspicion on the authorities.

As to whether Google will leave China, is still not entirely clear. Latest reports suggest they did not renew their licence with the MIIT [Ministry of Industry and Information Technology] leading to the conclusion by many that Google.cn will shutdown soon. It is believed they will shut their Chinese search engine but try to negotiate the continuing of its research and development enterprises. However the disputes between Google and the Chinese government will not make things easy for the search giant.

As for a time frame, this too is unclear. Rumours coming through various Twitter sources have pointed to April 12th. One report suggested Google employees would be paid bonuses and given severance pay as the company shed its staff. 

citing an unidentified Chinese sales agent for the company, Chinese Business News said Google may pull out of China on April 10th. the Shanghai-based newspaper reported that the company would probably reveal its plans on Monday, March 22nd [Business Week / Marketwatch].

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

When Google departs China...

Google's likely departure may create a technological desert within China, reinforcing the belief that doing business in the country is too difficult and precipitate further Internet restrictions on its citizens. If Google leaves China the government may retaliate by blocking Google services, in whole or in part. It could mean that a lot of technological advancements such as maps on mobile phones could be in jeopardy. Free music services that the company helped set up to fight piracy could also flounder. In addition many Chinese websites may be forced to look for other mapping services and Internet search engine providers while companies and individuals may find themselves looking for other cloud-based services to replace Google Docs and GMail should they be blocked.

"If Google leaves, it's a lose-lose scenario, instead of Google loses and others gain," said Edward Yu, president of Analysis International, a Beijing research firm. While Google's leaving might deliver a windfall to local rival Baidu, China's major search engine, with 60% of the market, other technological companies could well suffer. Many rely on Google for search, maps and other services and might be forced to find alternatives. China Mobile Ltd, the world's biggest phone company by subscribers, with 527 million accounts, uses Google for mobile search and maps.

Baidu offers mobile search but China Mobile passed up a partnership with it earlier after they failed to agree on terms, according to industry analysts. Government blocks on Google might leave millions of mobile customers without access to Google's Chinese-language map service [PA].

"If Google leaves China, I think the impact of that is China gets a black eye," Stanford's Haim Mendelson, a professor of electronic business at the Stanford Graduate School of Business told the San Francisco Chronicle. "People will remember what happened to Google." Indeed, many start-up companies may think twice about setting up operations in China. If the world's largest Internet company couldn't make it, what hope would there be for others? [CBS]

With the writing on the wall, some of Google's partners in China have sent an impassioned plea to the Internet giant, saying their businesses are at risk if Google closes its Chinese search engine and demanding to know how they will be compensated. A letter, viewed by The Wall Street Journal, states Google hasn't given its advertising resellers in China guidance since its announcement in January that it may pull out of China. The letter says the companies, some 27 Google advertising resellers, have watched their business decline and worry they face bankruptcy if Google withdraws.

In fact there have already been strong signals sent from the government. According to a New York Times report on Sunday, the Chinese authorities warned Google business partners to prepare for a day when they can't use Google services such as a search bar on their Web sites. If Google did shut down those services or they were blocked by censors, business partners such as Sina.com.cn and Ganji.com that offer a Google-powered search box would have to either direct searchers to the main Google.com search page instead of the Chinese-specific Google.cn page; find a different partner; or filter the search results themselves to comply with Chinese regulations.

As well as warnings to Chinese web portals, there were clear messages sent across Google's bows. On Friday, Li Yizhong, China's minister of industry and information technology, warned Google, "If you want to do something that disobeys Chinese law and regulations, you are unfriendly, you are irresponsible and you will have to bear the consequences." [Xinhua]

But he insisted Google's leaving would have little impact on China's Internet. "If it decides to quit, we will follow our procedures," he said, adding that their departure would have no major influence on China's Internet market, which will continue its fast expansion momentum. His statement was echoed by Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang who said, "As to the impact of Google's possible retreat, it is only an individual business's action which will not affect the investment environment in China." He also warned others that they should follow China's laws. "We emphasize that any businesses operating in China, whether they are domestic ones or from overseas, shall abide by Chinese laws," Qin said [Xinhua].

Google's licence to operate in China is due for renewal in March, and as such a firm decision on whether Google will leave is expected soon. All Internet service providers in China, including Google, need to have their licenses reviewed by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology. The disagreements between the two parties are unlikely to help matters. 

The uncertainty is not helping Google's stocks. Google shares fell $16.36, or 2.8%, to $563.18 Tuesday in New York on the Nasdaq Stock Market. The stock has lost 9.2% this year. Meanwhile Baidu's stock rose $26.60 to $576.84. This may only be a short term glitch. Confidence in the company may grow in the long term. Its stance is not just about censorship but also security, especially with regards its cloud-based services like GMail and Docs. China has been clearly cited in being responsible for attacks on such services. Google's attempts to shore up security and remove themselves from such threats may bring greater trust in the West [Business Week].

There are major risks for Google in remaining in China. The cyberattacks which targeted Google and more than 30 other western companies amounted to Intellectual Property theft. Some reports have suggested that even some of Google China's own employees may have been involved. Google's foundation is built on its technology. And China's meteoric rise in economic power, especially in the last 20 years, has been built on foreign technology and expertise that has been either bought or stolen from the West.

In addition there are huge bureaucratic hurdles to overcome in order to do business in China. Tech businesses have already raised particular concerns in recent weeks. And some, including Google have also suggested there are clear violations of WTO rules [RedTech].

China is supposedly a member of the WTO. As a member of the WTO, China has an obligation not to discriminate against foreign competition. According to a recent slashdot article "Google is asking the US government to petition the World Trade Organization to recognize China's censorship as an unfair barrier to trade. The US Trade Representative is reviewing their petition to see if they can prove that China's rules discriminate against foreign competition. At least it's something worthwhile for the US Trade Reps to do, rather than secretly negotiating ACTA" [Business Week].

In an uncomfortable irony for Beijing, Google might suffer little commercial loss from a pullout while China's own companies are hurt. The bulk of Google's estimated $300 million in 2009 revenues in China came from export-oriented companies that would need to keep advertising on its sites abroad even if Google.cn closes, according to Edward Yu. At this month's National People's Congress, Premier Wen predicted that while "last year was the most difficult year for China's economic development…this year will be the most complicated." Indeed it will Mr Wen.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Chinese officials talk out of their hat

On Friday this week Xinhua published a story in which it quoted an official as saying the Internet in China was "open". Li Yizhong, minister of industry and information technology, said that China's Internet environment was "open and administered in line with the country's laws". Seemingly Mr Li has little comprehension of the English language, or maybe even his own. An open Internet is one where access to websites such as Facebook would be unimpeded, where Google Docs could be opened without hindrance and a video on YouTube could be viewed quite easily. But this is not the case. 

He says that sites should be in-line with the country's laws, but it is difficult to grasp how Wikipedia is contravening the Chinese legal system resulting in all its images being blocked in recent months. Though it returned after few weeks, even the innocuous International Movie Data Base was blocked for a time. And Google Health, along with many other Google services, have been intermittently scuppered by the Great Firewall. So in a word Mr Li seems to be talking out his proverbial.

Of course Mr Li isn't the only one. In January China's Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi also insisted the Internet was "open and active" in China. His comments were apparently made during a meeting with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, according to a spokesman from China's Foreign Ministry [Xinhua].

China's officials particularly point to "online information which incites subversion of state power, violence and terrorism or includes pornographic content". Such material, they say, is "explicitly prohibited in the laws and regulations". How the IMDB, Wikipedia, and Spreadsheets fit in with this is unclear. In fact any Web 2.0 product or wiki could be used for the things cited. A blog could be a terror manual or include pornography or might be a political rant. It might be, as many are, a simple online diary. Information on Wikipedia could be utilized for nefarious activities, but most just access the online encyclopaedia to gain simple knowledge. While Flickr, Picasa web and other online photo resources could, and sometimes are, used to display lude content, most pictures are simply holiday snaps and are posted with little motivation to shock. 

But because of the possibilities that Web 2.0 offer, down comes the CCP sledgehammer. "China has full justification to deal with these illegal and harmful online contents," [sic] a spokesperson is quoted as saying. "It has nothing to do with the claims of restrictions on Internet freedom".

OK, so what about the real pornography sites. Are they blocked. Bizarrely enough many are not. Playboy.com was still accessible at the time of writing this as was Barely Legal. It is also interesting to note there are many Playboy stores dotted around the capital Beijing, as well as other cities across China. Even sex shops are common. And yet pornography is the number one reason cited for the all pervasive Internet controls. So, quite who they are trying to fool with this propaganda and sometimes outright lies is beyond anyone's guess. 

In another recent article Xinhua claims that the Internet has become a platform for Chinese people to vent their social and political opinions. To some extent it has. But as soon as such debates take place they are often swiftly shut down, something it fails to mention. By the end of 2009, the number of Chinese Internet users reached 384 million, or 28.9% of the total population, according to the China Internet Network Information Center [CNNIC]. 

Anonymous spokesmen often repeat the same old rhetoric that "Chinese netizens' right to express opinions within the law is well protected, and their opinions are given full consideration by the government in policy making processes". But this does not ring true when so many bloggers are jailed, often for years on end. Liu Xiaobo was detained and eventually jailed for "subversion" after he called for greater human rights and freedom through his Charter 08 campaign. Those calling for justice following the milk scandal and for victims of the Sichuan earthquake have also found themselves on the wrong side of the law.

The spate of articles in Xinhua and in other Chinese media talking up the country's Internet comes on the back of criticism from Google and the US government over alleged cyberattacks and increased censorship. Google said in January it had been the subject of such attacks and that some 30 other companies had also been hacked. The company said it was no longer willing to censor its search results and that this decision may force it to shut its doors in China. Secret talks have been conducted been Google and the Chinese authorities but little concrete information has emerged as to where the negotiations are heading.

This week Li Yizhong said Google was free to stay or leave China, but also said there would be "severe consequences" if it failed to censor its search results. This has increased speculation that talks have failed and that Google may well leave China. Google CEO Eric Schmidt said this week that "something will happen soon" but nothing has yet been confirmed by either side. Chinese journalists outside Google's Beijing offices on Friday said they had heard the company was planning to close its doors, but this was denied by the company in a statement published in the China Daily on Thursday [NYT].

Google's China businesses "are still at normal," and rumours that the company had ordered its Chinese advertising agencies to cease work were not true, the spokeswoman, Marsha Wang, told the newspaper. The issue of advertising is particularly interesting. On one blog published this week, it has been suggested that Google's decision might be something to do with Adwords, through which it makes much of its money. According to the article Google might be experiencing click fraud on a massive scale. There was, the author suggests a campaign in China which has seen clicks on advertisements despite people staying on a particular site for less than 0.0 seconds. Google earns money from an advertiser every time someone clicks an Adwords link. If the report is to be believed then Google could potentially lose millions of dollars should it be made public, since it might be forced to reimburse advertisers. In addition, revealling that it was suffering click fraud on a massive scale in China might undermine confidence in other markets. Recent CNNIC certificate approvals which might allow the Chinese government to pry into secure browsing sessions has added to concerns of companies and individuals operating in China. 

The Internet might well be "open" in China, but in a different way than one might think. It is open to attacks from hackers, frauders and government snoopers.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Cyberwar declared as China's attacks increase

The tense situation between the West and China has increased a notch if recent reports in a number of newspapers are to be taken seriously. One of the more concerning reports came from the Times which said that urgent warnings were circulating around intelligence communities as China continues to initiate cyberattacks on western interests.

The paper said that Nato and the European Union are becoming increasingly concerned and may even retaliate. "Everyone has been made aware that the Chinese have become very active with cyber-attacks and we're now getting regular warnings from the office for internal security," a Nato diplomatic source told the Times. Sources at the Office for Cyber Security at the Cabinet Office in London said there were two forms of attack: those focusing on disrupting computer systems and others involving "fishing trips" for sensitive information. A special team has been set up at GCHQ, the British government communications headquarters in Gloucestershire, to counter the growing cyber-threat affecting intelligence material. 

According to a report released Friday in the US the number of attacks on Congress and other government agencies has risen exponentially in the past year to an estimated 1.6 billion every month. The attacks are not confined to the US however. James Lewis, of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said, "The porousness of the European institutions makes them a good target for penetration. They are of interest to the Chinese on issues from arms sales and nuclear non-proliferation to Tibet and energy."

Jonathan Evans, the Director-General of MI5, warned in 2007 that several states were actively involved in large-scale cyber-attacks. Although he did not specify which states were involved, many security officials have indicated that China now poses the gravest threat. Dr Lewis says that neither the US nor any of its Western allies had formed an effective response to the Chinese threat, which has its origins in a massive boost to Chinese technology ordered by Deng Xiaoping, the late Chinese leader, in 1986. The West's own cyber offensives have so far been directed largely at terrorists rather than nation states. This, Lewis argues, has given China virtually free rein to penetrate Western systems with its own world-class hackers and increasingly popular Chinese-made components.

Britain and the US have begun to liaise with each other to counter the threat. The Office of Cyber Security, set up last year as part of the British government's national security strategy, regularly discuss the situation with America's so-called cyber czar, Howard Schmidt, who was appointed by President Obama to protect government computers.

Lord West of Spithead, who is parliamentary under-secretary for security and counter-terrorism, has even hinted at possible retaliation. "If some state sponsor keeps trying to get into your systems, probably for industrial espionage, are you going to go back into their system and bugger it up? We're all capable of doing these things. At the moment we wouldn't do that, but maybe this is where we need to have discussions." While the number of attacks on British interests were less than those seen in the United States, they nonetheless posed a serious threat. There had been "300 significant attacks" on the government's core computer networks in the last year, West said. "There is no doubt some state actors have sucked out huge amounts of intellectual copyright, designs to whole aero engines, things that have taken years and years of development," West told the Guardian newspaper. 

The difficulty for the security agencies is finding the absolute proof a particular state was behind such attacks. "The moment you mention a particular state, they will deny it," West said. "The problem with cyberspace is that attribution is extremely difficult. It's almost impossible to do it in terms of evidence that would be necessary in a court of law." This aside, the use of the Internet as a weapon is posing new questions. "If I went and bombed a power station in France, that would be an act of war," he said. "If I went on to the net and took out a power station, is that an act of war? One could argue that it was."

While China is probably behind many such cyberattacks, the threat could come from other quarters. Robert Mueller, FBI Director, has warned that, in addition to the danger of foreign states making cyberattacks, al-Qaeda could in the future pose a similar threat. In a speech to a security conference last week, Mueller said terrorist groups had used the Internet to recruit members and to plan attacks, but added: "Terrorists have... shown a clear interest in pursuing hacking skills and they will either train their own recruits or hire outsiders with an eye towards combining physical attacks with cyber-attacks." Lord West also warns of terror related cyberattacks. "I'm very worried they [terrorists] may start becoming cuter and try to use our connectivity to have a go at our critical infrastructure, things [that control] our services, our food [distribution] and water supply," he said. Terrorists were currently "not brilliant" at attempting this sort of attack on infrastructure, West added, but they would learn fast and "we've got to be ahead of them".

Today barely a week passes without the phrase "cyberattack" being mentioned in the news. It is a loose term, incorporating everything from criminal hacking and commercial espionage to attempts to seize control of weapon systems or sabotage national infrastructures. Britain is now treating the surge of hostile computer activity seriously enough to have established two organisations to co-ordinate, assess and expand its cyber strategy. The Office for Cyber Security (OCS), established by the Cabinet Office, was created in the autumn after a warning by intelligence chiefs that China may have acquired the ability to cripple key points of infrastructure such as telecommunications.

Whitehall departments were allegedly first targeted by Chinese hackers in 2007. Later that year Jonathan Evans, director-general of MI5, wrote to 300 chief executives warning of potential Chinese hacking attacks and data theft. In the year up to November 2009 Britain suffered 300 cyber intrusions, defined as a sophisticated attempt, successful or not, to steal data or sabotage systems, on government and military networks [Times].

Britain has joined forces with America to counter such attacks, but Europe also needs to be more assertive band join the effort. From a Chinese perspective, Europe is regarded as an increasingly divided and enfeebled entity, unable to negotiate with one voice and rapidly being overshadowed by a deepening US-China relationship. The China threat also spreads into areas other than cyberattacks. National governments, led by Britain and France, are concerned that European Commission attempts to seize control of the EU foreign service will delay its creation and allow China to continue to "divide and rule" Europe's 27 member states. The Commission is fighting hard to keep its control over EU-China negotiations on trade, economy, energy or climate change but this would jeopardise the national demands that new EEAS [European External Action Service] embassy be "much more substantial, political and joined up than now". On Brussels official warned, "If they try and take away some out our competence in these areas, we will tie the EEAS up in legal knots and delay." [Telegraph].

The economic war and the cyberwar are posing increased threats to western interests. And without concerted efforts to counter these threats, the West has much to lose. Security analysts say 20 countries, in addition to China, are actively engaged in so-called asymmetrical warfare, a term that originated with counterterrorism experts that now commonly refers to cyberattacks designed to destabilize governments. Countries engaged in this activity range from so-called friendly nations, such as the United Kingdom and Israel, to less friendly governments like North Korea, Russia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan.

"There are least 100 countries with cyber espionage capabilities," warns Alan Paller, director of research at the SANS Institute, an information security and training firm. Today there are thousands of hackers working on such programs around the world, "including al Qaeda cells that are acting as training centers for hackers," he said. 

"It's been a widespread problem for some time," says University of Texas at San Antonio professor and cyber security researcher Ravinderpal Sandhu. Paller and others agree, adding that the recent Google incident, in which the Internet giant discovered e-mail and corporate sites had been extensively hacked by programmers on the Chinese mainland, represents just the tip of the iceberg. "The Chinese air force has an asymmetrical warfare division" charged with developing cyberwarfare techniques to disable governments' command and control systems, says Tom Patterson, chief security officer of security device manufacturer MagTek Inc. "They are fully staffed, fully operational and fully active. And when you aim a governmental agency that size against any company, even the size of Google, well, it's an overwhelming force," Patterson says. "It's been going on in China since at least at least May 2002, with workstations running 24 hours a day, 7 days a week," Peller says [Fox News].

On CNN last month a special programme looked at the possible repercussions of a concerted cyberattack aimed at disrupting US infrastructure. Wolf Blitzer presented the hypothetical scenario We Were Warned, Cyber Shockwave and discussed the issues with several former administration and national security officials. In the discussion that followed retired USAF General Charles F Wald said, "I think the scenario we saw today is believable." But he added, "I think we're preparing for it. I don't think we are prepared as much as we should be." As for who might initiate such an attack the panel pointed the fingers at terrorists and at certain countries. "Well, you heard it in the context of the scenario -- the Chinese and the Russians have this capability," said Francis Townsend, a White House Homeland Security Adviser from 2004 to 2008. [CNN Transcript].

Not every one is so ready to claim such an attack is either possible or imminent. Howard Schmidt, the new cybersecurity czar for the Obama administration, says "there is no cyberwar." Talking to Wired.com, Schmidt said, "I think that is a terrible metaphor and I think that is a terrible concept... there are no winners in that environment." Schmidt was speaking while attending  the RSA Security Conference in San Francisco. His stance contradicts Michael McConnell, the former director of national intelligence who made headlines last week when he testified to Congress that the country was already in the midst of a cyberwar. But within the intelligence community, Schmidt's views are in the minority. Maybe he is just keeping his cards close to his chest.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Risks of tech business in China

It is nearly two months since Google threatened to pull out of China but there are few signs that either side, the Chinese government nor the Internet search giant, have made any progress in secret talks aimed at solving issues the raised. Google has issued few statements and the state propaganda machine has quietened in its vociferous rhetoric. But problems still remain.

Google declared in January that it had been the subject of a "highly sophisticated and targeted attack" on its network, and some reports suggest that the Chinese military had some involvement, though this has been strongly denied by the Chinese [FT]. Even some western reports have claimed the attacks on Google and other western interests were amateurish, exploiting holes that were old and well known. Atlanta based cybersecurity firm Damballa described the techniques as "old school" and "amateur" in a report released this week [Forbes]. Google have said they stand by their original statement and added that Damballa has "no firsthand knowledge of the investigation." The Damballa report may well be highly speculative. Google have after all kept the details of the attacks very vague and only cooperated with the National Security Agency in the US.

Whatever is happening behind the scenes, the attacks have been taken seriously enough to raise questions in the US senate. In the last few days it has even been suggested that the Obama administration might take the issue of China's censorship of Google to the World Trade Organization since it represents an unfair barrier to trade [Business Week]. This may well raise diplomatic tensions, but given China's belligerence when it comes to technological companies, the US may have few cards to play.

It is not the first time the idea of raising the issue with the WTO has been discussed. Last November the the European Centre for International Political Economy (ECIPE) released a report saying that censorship was a inhibitor of trade. "Censorship is the most important non-tariff barrier to the provision of online services, and a case might clarify the circumstances in which different forms of censorship are WTO-consistent," said the study by Brian Hindley and Hosuk Lee-Makiyama [Australian].

In respect to possible US involvement the Trade Representative's office is consulting with industry groups about China's Internet policies, spokeswoman Carol Guthrie said. Two groups with links to Google, the Computer & Communications Industry Association and the First Amendment Coalition, have told the trade office that China's restrictions on Internet access and content discriminate against US Internet companies and online commerce.

"There is a little bit of a Cold War going on here," said Michael DeGolyer, a professor of government and international studies at Hong Kong Baptist University. "This is a way of putting pressure on China in a way that is going to be popular with many countries."

But it isn't just the Internet which is restricted in China. Technology companies are "feeling less welcome and finding it increasingly difficult to do business in China", according to John Neuffer, vice-president for global policy at the Information Technology Industry Council, a lobby group. An evolving regulatory regime, targeting information technology-related products, is the chief cause of this sentiment. "Once every bit of the organisational infrastructure falls into place and every rule is implemented, there will not be much of a China market left for us," says the regional head of a foreign semiconductor company.

It started in 1999 when Beijing declared that all providers of encryption-related software would be required to disclose their source code. But fears were allayed the next year when the government issued a "clarification", saying the rule would only apply to products whose "core function" was encryption. Since 2006 Beijing has put in place the Office of Security Commercial Code Administration (OSCCA), responsible for supervising and certifying encryption-related products and their suppliers. This has placed Chinese institutions and companies under pressure to buy information security products only if they have domestic certification. It is a requirement that foreign suppliers often cannot satisfy.

"The stuff the Chinese government is asking for is stuff we don't give to governments," says a US executive. "If we were to comply and it became known that we disclosed our source codes to Chinese labs, it would damage our standing in other markets" [FT].

In a country which routinely ignores copyright and intellectual property rights, the risks are clear. Western companies have been lured by the apparently open and lucrative market China offers, but many well may have ignored the risks doing business here might lead to.

As for talks between Google and the Chinese authorities, they appear to be ongoing, but so far little has been revealed publicly. In its most recent statement Google said they were still seeking to bring about changes which would allow the company to operate without censoring its search engine. "We are firm in our decision that we will not censor our search results in China and we are working towards that end," Google vice president and deputy general counsel Nicole Wong told a congressional hearing on "Global Internet Freedom and the Rule of Law" recently. She said, "We are reviewing our business operations (in China) now," but added that the seriousness and sensitivity of the issue made the negotiations difficult. "We want to get to that end -- of stopping censoring our search results -- in a way that is appropriate and responsible," Wong said. "We are working on that as hard as we can but it's a very human issue for us." [SMH].

It is not just China which has sought to inhibit Google services however. Wong said YouTube had been blocked in at least 13 countries since 2007; China, Thailand, Turkey, Pakistan, Morocco, Brazil, Syria, Indonesia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Turkmenistan. The Google blogging platforms Blogger and BlogSpot had been blocked in at least seven countries in the last two years; China, Spain, India, Pakistan, Iran, Myanmar and Ethiopia. And the social networking site Orkut has been blocked recently in Saudi Arabia, Iran and the United Arab Emirates. But China's censorship is far more extreme and as a major part of the global economy its constriction of the Internet and technology can have far wider implications.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Confusing rules over lighters & planes

Confused rules over what may or may not be carried by airline passengers is leading to anger and disputes amongst travellers. This is especially true of lighters and matches. While devices that might pose a terror risk should be vetted, the rules applied are not standard with some airlines applying different restrictions to others. It all leads to confusion for travellers. Travelling from London Heathrow in 2008 security staff were informing travellers that one lighter per passenger was allowed within the cabin. Previously such objects had to be deposited or placed within checked-in luggage. 

A traveller from New Zealand was recently told his lighter could not be placed in the hold, but that he could carry it on his person. But for passengers travelling from some airports the restrictions go further. Travellers have specifically referred to German airports and those in China where they have been told lighters and matches may not be carried either in the cabin nor placed within their checked-in baggage. For those with a cheap disposable lighter or a box of matches it is not perhaps a major issue, but for those travelling with their favourite Zippo or similar item this is of greater concern. Zippo lighter cost around $20, but a solid gold Zippo may exceed $1,600. 

Prior to 2001 no such restrictions existed. However following the terror attacks in New York and the attempted attack by so-called shoe-bomber Richard Reid, passengers have seen increased restrictions on what they may or may not bring aboard aircraft. Knives were the first items to go along with other sharp objects such as nail-files, scissors and razors. After Reid's attempt to detonate explosives in his shoes matches and lighters were also banned. When the liquid-bomb plot was uncovered the restrictions stretched to drinks, toothpaste, creams and make-up. But while these items were banned within the cabin, passengers could at least place them inside their checked-in baggage. But lighters pose a different problem.

A search on Google will highlight dozens of travellers who have had their trusty Zippo confiscated. Ian Scattergood writing on his blog, describes how German security had "stolen" his Zippo. He states that this policy was not implemented at other European airports. In China airport security is particularly strict. In 2008 tvnewswatch had a Zippo confiscated after it was identified inside checked-in baggage. The empty shell was returned but security retained the inside part. This seemed incongruous, given the very same lighter had been carried to China from Britain a month earlier. After writing to the American company, Zippo were very gracious in sending a new inside replacement without charge. But the rules have not relaxed one year on and signs at airports state that lighters and matches may not be carried on board aircraft. 

At Beijing International airport passengers will be asked to remove any lighters from their bags. They are only given a choice of disposing of them or depositing them with security such that they might be picked up later. This is fine for those returning to the airport, but for those passengers who are not there is no option other than to dispose of an expensive lighter. On arrival back at Beijing the passenger may also find themselves a long way from where they should collect their offending item. Some return flights arrive at terminal 3 and one is forced to make an arduous journey by a free (fortunately) shuttle bus to terminal 1 to retrieve the belongings. After handing over the receipt [pictured above] and passport the item is finally returned. The catch is that items must be claimed within 30 days.

In 2005 the US Transportation Security Administration banned all lighters from being brought onto planes. According to CNN the ban of such items was already in place as regards checked-in baggage. However, rules were relaxed in 2007 and the TSA website states lighters may be checked into baggage if drained of fuel, and 'common' lighters may be taken in person. 

In a PDF document posted on the TSA website it states "lighters without fuel are permitted in checked baggage" but that "lighters with fuel are prohibited in checked baggage, unless they adhere to the Department of Transportation (DOT) exemption, which allows up to two fueled lighters if properly enclosed in a DOT approved case." In addition it advises passenger uncertain as to whether a lighter is prohibited to "please leave it at home." Nonetheless the document, updated in March 2009, says that common lighters (though it's unclear if Zippos fall into this category), but not torch lighters, are allowed to be carried on board. The BAA website states that "passengers may carry a single lighter about their person" but may not place further lighters in baggage, either checked-in or carry-on.

Several companies sell DOT approved cases which would allow a Zippo to be placed in checked-in baggage [link / link], however it is probable such containers would not meet approval from all airlines and airport authorities outside the US. In fact China and India a particularly strict with regards the carrying of lighters. The Civil Aviation Administration of China prohibits both matches and lighters in the aircraft cabin and in checked baggage for the flights departing from the mainland China, except Hong Kong. Similar restrictions also apply in India as laid down in rules set by the Bureau of Civil Aviation Security (Ministry of Civil Aviation).

It is the variance in rules and the inconsistencies applied that have made air travel fraught for many passengers. Although inconvenient it may be best to mail the offending lighter home by a courier firm such as UPS, though given the costs involved, many may just take the risk of smuggling the lighter home in their suitcase.

While many restrictions put in place since 9/11 are warranted, there needs to be consistency across all airlines and all airport authorities. There have been few terrorist attacks since 9/11 and whenever the goalposts are changed as to what may be brought on board, terrorists simply change their tactics. After screening for guns and bombs, they moved to knives. After knives and sharp objects were barred terrorists attempted to smuggle bombs in shoes. As passengers' footwear was scrutinised would-be bombers placed explosives in their underwear. 

So-called naked scanners being rolled out will just change the methodology of the terrorist, or indeed shift the focus of attack. But for millions of passengers, travel by air is a stressful security nightmare with the uncertainty of whether valuable items are to be confiscated. If it wasn't so far from Beijing to London, the train might be a preferable method of transport, though seeing the x-ray scanners now installed at Beijing's subway stations since 2008, rail travel may soon go the same way as the airlines.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China