Saturday, March 19, 2016

China's Intranet becomes more a reality

Most people are perhaps aware that apart from North Korea, where there is no Internet at all, China is probably the worst place in the world if you want to get online - that is if you want to access Western websites and pretty much anything that isn't based in China.

And things aren't getting any better. In fact it's definitely worse than it's ever been.

It's been two years since I last visited China, and of course, like any seasoned traveller to the Middle Kingdom, one comes prepared with a paid for and reliable VPN.

Without a VPN, or Virtual Private Network, your phone, iPhone, tablet or PC may as well have no Internet capability at all.

No Google, no Internet

For iPhone and iPad users things are a little easier since at least the iTunes store is not blocked, though one may have the same problem using many of the apps as Android users. Android users from outside of China have the hardest time since Google is hardwired into almost everything. And if you weren't aware China and Google had a bit of a row - to put it mildly - back in 2010 and relations have not improved. Indeed they have worsened considerably to the point that almost every Google service is throttled by the Great Fire Wall.

Thus Android users are unlikely to get app updates since Google Play is inaccessible. Gmail too is off limits, as is Google's search engine, Google Drive and even Google Maps. YouTube has been blocked for some time, but Google's other entertainment platforms are also blocked or almost impossible to use. Google Movies doesn't work at all, though if you had the foresight to download content it will of course play fine. Google Music suffers from similar issues. Downloaded content plays OK but streaming continually brings up an error saying the app "Couldn't play the track you requested".

Books are also off limits and while downloaded content is accessible, any new bookmarks and notes will fail to sync across devices until you connect to an IP address outside of China.

Indeed it is the syncing, or lack thereof, that can prove to be very tiresome especially if you regularly use several devices.

Photos won't upload or sync to other devices. Bookmarks will not appear on your tablet soon after finishing with your smartphone. And Gmail can look very confused, should it work at all.

While Drive does not work Google Keep does, though it only works locally. In other words it won't sync to Google servers. Translate is also scuppered leaving travellers well and truly lost unless they downloaded the appropriate language packs for offline use.

So where does that leave you? According to Android devices it leaves you with a connection but no Internet as the device sees its inability to connect with Google servers as having an Internet connection.

VPNs and alternatives

There are alternatives. Bing search for example. And there are other map apps, though none as good as Google's offering. But should you rely heavily on many Western services you could find yourself on a network that is little more than an intranet.

Even with a VPN things can be be frustrating with slow speeds, disconnections and other issues. For example while a VPN may allow traffic to flow through a web browser the Google Drive for desktop may fail to connect.

The mounting censorship and control is all part of Xi Jinping's effort to control not only the flow of information, but also to maintain his position as one of China's most authoritarian leaders in recent years.


However, President Xi Jinping's administration has run into mounting resistance to its efforts to tighten its vice even more completely over the country's printed works, its airwaves and digital networks, while it strengthens the Great Firewall to keep out foreign content [WSJ / Johnib Wordpress].

But to be outspoken can bring its own problems. Western websites that push too far are simply blocked but Chinese websites and individuals can face harsher punishment. Recently, China's government stripped prominent and outspoken businessman Ren Zhiqiang of his social media accounts after he issued a rare direct challenge to President Xi Jinping over the loyalties of state-controlled news media.

The influential business publication Caixin ran into trouble too when it hit back after authorities forced it to take down an article posted on its Chinese-language website that quoted one of the government's own advisers, the Shanghai professor Jiang Hong, defending the right to free speech. In response, Caixin posted an account of the censorship on its English-language website, illustrated by a picture of a mouth taped shut. However, that article also disappeared.

Meanwhile, China's propaganda machine is revelling in what many see as the political circus currently ongoing in the United States as the controversial Republican hopeful Donald Trump battles towards the White House [Guardian].

"The rise of a racist in the US political area worries the whole world," the party-controlled Global Times crowed this week.

"He has even been called another Benito Mussolini or Adolf Hitler by some western media," the state-run paper continued adding that, "Mussolini and Hitler came to power through elections, a heavy lesson for western democracy."

However as many Guardian readers pointed out democracies tend to have checks and balances, unlike one party dictatorships.

"So the Chinese Communist Party reckon the ballot-box is a problem? Well, in the last hundred years, the bullet put Vladimir Lenin and Jozef Stalin in charge of Russia, Mao-Tse-Tung as chairman of China and Pol Pot as #1 in Cambodia. They only managed to murder or starve over 100 million of their own beloved people. What's not to like about dictators staring down the barrel of a gun?" one comment read.

Nonetheless, many readers conceded that Trump was a concern and that western democratic methods - as well as a lot of money - were helping him achieve success. That said there were few who proclaimed they would adopt China's political system.

Democracy vs a one party state

Winston Churchill once said this; "It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried." and indeed the West is far from perfect. There are economic problems - which it could be argued have resulted partly from globalisation and farming industry off to the Far East, including China. There has been an erosion of freedom in the US and many European countries, partly due to terror threats. But there is no comparison to the freedoms experienced by most in the West and the restrictions faced by those living in a one party states like China.

China is seeing human rights tightened and freedom is being eroded at a faster rate than at any time in the last 20 years. And the tightening censorship perhaps epitomises the way things are going in the Middle Kingdom.

UPDATE: In late March new regulations were announced which proposed even greater restrictions on the internet in China. Draft laws posted by one of China’s technology regulators said that websites in the country would have to register domain names with local service providers and with the authorities. Should the rules be applied to all websites, it could have major implications that would effectively cut China out of the global Internet [NYT / WSJ / BloombergDaily Mail / Quartz].

tvnewswatch, Yunnan, China

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