Archive for News

Google blocked in China

Perhaps it’s the approaching 17th anniversary of the massacre at Tiananmen Square (Sunday, June 4th) or the 40th anniversary of the start of the Cultural Revolution (Tuesday, June 6th), or maybe it’s just another attempt by the world’s rising second superpower to put the internet’s undisputed premiere force in its place, but at some point yesterday morning Google ceased to work in China–or at least here in Beijing.

For over 24 hours, Google, in all its manifestations and permutations, was absent from my life, limiting my ability to email, search, map, and track blogs. Blogspot has been blocked since August, Wikipedia joined the blacklist back in the fall, and Technorati has been offline here since April, but the first two sites were still reachable with an online anonymizer (I used, and I had Google Blogsearch to compensate for Technorati. The sidelining of the big G, however, was too much to handle–and I began to worry how I was ever going to make it in China until December. By now, and for me, Google is basically synonymous with the internet, and therefore with a great portion of my personal and working lives.

I’ve gotten around the censors by now with a hard-core proxy-server (I’m running FoxyProxy in Firefox alongside Tor.), but even I probably couldn’t have managed to figure that out without help from the awesome Brazilian super-tech guy, Lalo, from my office. Imagine the computing skills of the average Chinese person (for city residents, about the same as the typical American of the same age, with unsurprisingly less expertise in rural areas) and it’s easy to see what a huge demonstration of strength this was on the part of the Chinese government. If even I, a foreigner who could leave the country at any time she chose, who could still watch satellite TV, make international phone calls, and subvent the restrictions to reach most websites, felt besieged and cut off from the outside world, how must Chinese citizens feel?

One of the most surprising aspects of this whole censorship experience has been that I haven’t been able to find any information about it online. Part of that might be the inaccesibility of the best search engine available, but I searched all the usual alternatives (Yahoo, MSN, A9, even Whonu for “Google blocked China” and came up blank, or just about. I did find old articles and blog posts about prior instances of the government putting on a show of power for Google (for example in October 2002–part of a long history of the power struggle between these giants), but nothing relevant to what was actually happening here right now. It made me wonder if people here are afraid that the guardians of the Great Firewall of China might brand their blog with the mark of the barbarian hordes as well, and block their sites in China. I’m not too worried about what could happen to my site….I just really want to know what’s going on!

Update (6:16pm CST June 1st): I’ve found at least one other post about the block, at Matthew Stinson’s blog, which I read from time to time.

Update (12:29am CST June 4th): Looks like Richard over at The Peking Duck has caught up with the news as well, though from the comments it seems it might not be an issue everywhere in China.

Posted by on June 1st, 2006

The death of Cantonese in America

I’m sorry I haven’t posted in the last three weeks, but I was home in New York, having an uneventful but welcome vacation, seeing friends and family, and experiencing a lovely bout of bronchitis despite the unusually terrific weather there. Now that I’m back in Beijing (as of yesterday), I expect to be back to posting here as well, despite a looming deadline next week for my book! Of course, now that I’m in China, I came across an interesting article in the LA Times about the pressures on the American Cantonese community to learn Mandarin: business, politics, entertainment have all moved toward Mandarin as the dominant language since the onslaught of immigration from parts of China beyond Guangdong began twenty-five or thirty years ago. It’s an interesting look at the culture of chinatowns and the cultural differences contingent on this language divide.

Posted by on January 8th, 2006

The Tibet Express

As I read in this article from the People’s Daily, China announced yesterday that construction has finished on the Qinghai-Tibet Railway. The railway, having surpassed the railway between Cuzco and Machu Picchu in the Peruvian Andes (which I rode in 2002) to become the world’s highest, traverses 1,956 kilometers of mountains and frozen plateau between Xining and Lhasa. Still, test runs aren’t set to take place until July, which will probably mean a start date for regular service long after my hopeful trip to the region early next summer.

Just as interesting as the news itself, however, was this editorial also published in the People’s Daily, which, after praising the efforts of the government planners, engineers, and construction crews, goes on to preemptively defend their creation from the many international detractors worried about cultural imperialism in Tibet and the strong cultural and environmental impact that increased traffic and lower travel costs will have on the remote region, which even now is still difficult and expensive to reach. Amidst all this, the editorial makes a fair point, which many so-called activists neglect to consider:

Only when one sees with his or her own eyes a Tibetan who struggled his way on rugged roads on foot on a bare mountain can he realize what a modern traffic tool means for Tibet. They, who are enjoying all the conveniences and luxuries of modern civilization, are disqualified to make any remarks to defame China’s efforts in developing Tibet. And those who think the snow land should be kept as a medieval museum to satisfy their bizarre personal curiosity should feel ashamed for their selfishness and nearsightedness.

Despite the validity of this argument, however, the editorial takes it one step too far, reasoning that:

Such tub-thumpers neglected a basic truth of human history: Development is a common choice of the human race, and no one should, or can, slam on a brake on a train to modern civilization.

If I believed that the Tibetan people had been at all consulted about their desires regarding a rail link to the rest of China, or that the impact increased tourism by both Chinese and foreigners will have on the fragile cultural balance left in the wake of persecution and on the incredible and not-yet-spoiled landscape of the “roof of the world” had received due consideration on the part of the Chinese government planners, I might agree that this development was “a common choice of the human race.” As it more likely stands, however, it seems yet another dictate imposed on the Tibetans by their conquerors, one that might make the transportation of supplies, goods, and people into and out of the region more easily achieved, but one that will certainly have negative consequences as well.


Posted by on October 16th, 2005

Getting an early start

I’m amazed by some of the statistics reported in this article in today’s Times:

  • Twenty public schools in Chicago are now offering instruction in Mandarin.
  • “After 2,400 schools expressed interest, Advanced Placement Chinese classes will be offered in high schools around the country starting next year. Beijing is paying for half the $1.35 million to develop the classes, including Chinese teachers’ scholarships and developing curriculums and examinations.”
  • “Last month, the Defense Department gave a $700,000 grant to public schools in Portland, Ore., to double the number of students studying Chinese in an immersion program.”
  • “In May, Senators Joseph I. Lieberman, Democrat of Connecticut, and Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee, introduced a bill to spend $1.3 billon over five years on Chinese language programs in schools and on cultural exchanges to improve ties between the United States and China.”
  • Chinese language programs in the US have more than tripled in number in the last ten years.
  • And, up to 50,000 American students are studying Chinese in elementary and secondary schools alone!

    These numbers seem incredible to me, despite the fact that the other high school in my district has offered a 4-year Mandarin sequence for close to a decade now. (Our school had classes in Hebrew and Farsi, which better represented the demographics of our side of town, in addition to the French, Spanish, Latin, and (a conversational course in) Italian available throughout the district.) The amazingness of some of these programs speaks for itself, as in this description of the nascent endeavor in Chicago’s public schools:

    One recent morning, a class of third graders bowed to one another and introduced themselves in Chinese, and a class of fourth graders practiced writing numbers in Chinese characters on marker boards. Chinese classes began at Alcott in February, but more students are already choosing it over Spanish.

    Even more surprising is the fact that these classes are not just being implemented in the richest and whitest of neighborhoods (or in affluent suburbs like my own hometown)–in Chicago at least, a number of the participating schools are predominantly black or Hispanic. This diversity in the cultural and economic backgrounds of the students involved, and the varying education levels of their parents, may contribute to some concerns about the difficulty of teaching Chinese to little kids from the inner city, but lack of knowledge isn’t the only reason behind that wariness. Even if they know something about what it takes to learn Chinese (as I do), they’d still have rationale for their worries:

    Some parents here worry at first about how relevant the Chinese classes are and whether they will be too difficult. The Foreign Service Institute, which trains American diplomats, ranks Chinese as one of the four most time-intensive languages to learn. An average English speaker takes 1,320 hours to become proficient in Chinese, compared with 480 hours in French, Spanish or Italian, the institute says.

    Programs like this are terrific, and not just because they expose children that might otherwise grow up with a somewhat limited perspective of the world around them with a sense of its true expansiveness and manifold cultural differences. It’s also just plain awesome that these 10-year-olds are able to start learning any language, and especially one that both takes many years to learn well and is much easier to acquire at a young age. Even though I attended one of the best public schools in the country, the only foreign language instruction I was able to receive before the sixth grade was a month-long before school Spanish program in fourth grade in which we met for a half-hour two or three times a week and learned how to count and say hello (and perhaps a few other words that I forgot long before I again had a chance to take up studying the language). This kid, Raul Freire, the 9-year-old son of an Ecuadorian immigrant, has had the opportunity of a lifetime to miss a few minutes of gym, art, and music and gain the world instead:

    “Mostly everybody in the school wants to take Chinese,” Raul said. “I think about being a traveler when I grow up, so I have to learn as many languages as I can.”

    I can’t help but be jealous of kids able to participate in programs like these–and to be inspired to work even harder on my own studies here, so some little kid who’s never left the South Side can’t speak Chinese better than I can!

  • Posted by on October 16th, 2005

    Feeding the spirits

    The news of the latest terrorist attacks in Bali shook me up a bit, when I heard of them upon my arrival in Singapore. Originally, I had thought of joining my friends R. and M. there for this holiday, since they had already decided to head to the famed island. I had this nagging sense that I should listen to the travel warnings, though, especially since it wasn’t just the US Department of State that had one up: Australia, Canada, and the UK had them too. I guess this is more proof that I should always follow my instincts when traveling.

    I was really struck by the way the Times concluded its most recent story about the attacks:

    On Sunday afternoon, 60 Hindu monks, dressed in flowing white, performed a ceremony in front of Raja’s, which is wedged between a McDonald’s and a Kentucky Fried Chicken. They offered food to the spirits of the dead.

    From this, at least, Indonesia doesn’t seem too different from the parts of Asia I’ve experienced as of yet. And on those, more to follow shortly.

    Posted by on October 3rd, 2005

    Even being smart won’t keep you alive forever

    I was surprised to read in the Times last night that Don Adams, the actor who so memorably played the bumbling secret agent Maxwell Smart on the classic TV show, “Get Smart,” has died. Mostly, I was surprised to find out that he wasn’t already dead–until I read his obituary, I would have assumed he died long ago. I mean, I watched that show relentlessly in reruns when I was only five or six, and it seemed even then like it belonged to such a distant past that he couldn’t possibly still be around.

    There was one bright spot in the standard recap of his life, however: apparently he starred on TV not only as my favorite character, Smart, who communicated via shoe phone and crushed hard on the beautiful Agent 99, but also as another loveable but incompetent crime-fighting, technology-embracing type–doo doo doo dah doo–Inspector Gadget! It makes perfect sense, I’m just sorry I didn’t realize that when I was a kid. At the time, I guess I was too preoccupied with the details of all those intricate plots, but I would have loved to know that these two foolhardy lawmen were one and the same.

    Posted by on September 28th, 2005

    Why not to get arrested in China

    This expose by Joseph Kahn in the Times on China’s legal system makes it seem like the Cultural Revolution never ended. Stories of suspects under interrogation being forced to do the “airplane”–a form of torture from that bloody era of grassroots denunciation, public humiliation, and indiscriminate violence that entails tying a person’s arms together behind and above their head and leaving them that way for days, often resulting in dislocations or fractures–in this day and age are truly shocking, especially when China has been so good at pretending to the world that true change has taken place. Still, this analysis, run through with the narrative of a man who was forced to confess to a murder he did not commit, and who was later cleared through the discovery of definitive evidence that he was not the perpetrator, proves all the diplomatic hype on the part of the communists to be dead wrong, and shows us that the kid gloves with which the leaderships of real democratic states treats China are exactly that, a means of protecting their pockets and wallets from the wrath of a country that could leave their citizens naked if it so desired. The man whose story this article foregrounds, Qin Yanhong, had a far more personal taste of the gangrene gnawing at China’s legal system than I ever hope to get:

    “Our public security system is the product of a dictatorship,” Mr. Qin wrote his family when he was on death row. “Police use dictatorial measures on anyone who resists them. Ordinary people have no way to defend themselves.”

    Still, it is hard to remember that this is what the legal infrastructure of the country in which I now reside looks like, when all I see on a daily basis are high-rise construction sites that grow by stories every day, ads for “Intel Inside” computers and Dream satellite television, and websites for ordering international takeout with SMS order confirmation (see this earlier entry).

    Posted by on September 21st, 2005

    China, this is the internet

    So, this article may not be the most recent news, but I certainly didn’t know about its contents until recently, and I live here:

    A year-long campaign by the Hu Jintao government to silence unofficial voices in China and to assert control over independent expression continues with an order…for all Chinese websites and bloggers to register their real names with authorities, or be closed by June 30.

    Tens of thousands of Chinese use cyberspace to publish views on subjects ranging from politics to relationships, and have been able to avoid official censure by writing anonymously. But now Internet activity will be monitored in real time by Information Ministry computers. Sites and users not registered may be arrested.

    From what I’ve seen and heard, no one has been arrested yet, and sites and blogs without the requisite registration information at the bottom of each page have not yet been taken offline, but the fact that this policy even exists is emblematic of the political climate here. The Chinese government tends to fall at least one step behind on regulating most things, but when it comes to the tools of oppression, they throw massive regulation at those who would have their individual freedoms long before most people have even said anything.

    Posted by on September 17th, 2005

    How exactly do they plan to do this?

    Apparently (according to this article in the Times) the Vatican is sending review teams to every Catholic seminary in the States to check that none of the priests or seminarians are gay, which by their instructions will mean “anyone who has engaged in homosexual activity or has strong homosexual inclinations,” even if they haven’t been sexually active for over a decade. I’m just wondering how they plan to root out the sodomites–strip, bend over, and see which priests wind up with mud on their faces? The Vatican’s concern, of course, stems from the sexual abuse scandals that swept the nation in 2002, and from a more recent study the results of which understandably enraged many homophobes:

    The issue of gay seminarians and priests has been in the spotlight because a study commissioned by the church found last year that about 80 percent of the young people victimized by priests were boys.

    Experts in human sexuality have cautioned that homosexuality and attraction to children are different, and that a disproportionate percentage of boys may have been abused because priests were more likely to have access to male targets – like altar boys or junior seminarians – than to girls.

    So they’re not gay, they’re just equal-opportunity pedophiles. Shouldn’t the Church look to rid the priesthood of them? I recommend youthful undercover agents posing as altar boys.

    Posted by on September 16th, 2005

    Ask the pilot

    I’ve always been an irrationally anxious flyer, despite lots of intercontinental and transoceanic airplane experience. Whenever there’s a plane crash in the news, my anxiety heightens, and I’m even afraid on the ground when someone I know is in the air. The recent spate of spectacular crashes hasn’t done much to help, especially when that Caribbean flight went down in Venezuela a week before my dad and his girlfriend were headed there on vacation, and when the Mandala Airways flight out of Medan burnt up on take-off–I had looked into flying from Malaysia to Sumatra (and landing at Medan) for my October vacation, an idea which never panned out, but one that made the horrific footage on CNN seem a lot closer to home. Still, one thing that has always helped to assuage my flying fears a bit has been reading Salon‘s “Ask the Pilot” column. I let my subscription to that website expire almost two years ago now, when they were really struggling to survive to the point that they published almost no articles. (I had originally joined in order to show my support–it was even in the days before they resorted to limiting non-subscriber access and installing the electronic sentries of mandatory advertisements–but by then it seemed hopeless and a waste of money.) So I hadn’t read Patrick Smith’s oddly compelling column in a year at least when I stumbled across it again yesterday. His discussion of the recent streak of bad luck in the air is, as always, rational and calming:

    Many people are more anxious about flying than ever. What they need at a time like this is rational and useful information, not rumor mongering, cavalier accusations and hyperbole. Recommending the avoidance of an entire league of airlines is a drastic and wrong course. In the end, the realities of air safety are no more indebted to maintenance budgets or corporate culture than to luck and human nature.

    I think I might take up reading him more regularly.

    Posted by on September 10th, 2005