Dispatches from behind the Chinese Firewall

My Google-free office for 5 days

My Google-free office for 5 days

How dependent are we on Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube? In the past five days, I had the dubious opportunity to find out, the hard way. I spent nearly a week at the Shanghai International Circuit to cover the FIA World Endurance Championship. I also had plenty occasion to watch Twitter-junkies go cold turkey.

China has famously blocked access to Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and many other sites. For many years, this wasn’t much of an impediment. In the beginning, simply switching the DNS provider did the trick. When that stopped, open (or paid) proxies became en vogue. Later through the past decade, the not so great Chinese firewall turned into a moneymaker for Virtual Private Network (VPN) providers. With a good VPN, access to social networks from socialist China was mei wen ti – no problem.

In the past years, China’s Internet police became more sophisticated and started hunting down VPNs. A VPN would last a day or so, then it stopped working: It was caught, and blocked. Change the server, port and protocol, and Facebook is yours again, for a few hours. Or minutes. Or not at all. I lived there. Eventually, I spent half of my time climbing up the firewall, and I moved to Tokyo.

On Thursday, I was back in China. As the media center in Shanghai slowly filled up with scribes, photographers and camera persons, it also filled with muttered (noobs, believing the police state propaganda,)  or vociferous (frequent China travelers) hate against the “f…ing firewall.” Old China hands started deploying their VPNs. Newcomers were flustered.

“I can get on Facebook and Twitter through my VPN, but suddenly I can’t access my own website” complained a distraught John Dagys, who was in Shanghai on behalf of his site sportscar365.com. He finally figured it out, as the number of Shanghai posts on his site attest.

A guy in a seat next to me had brought five VPNs. He held two in reserve and did not use them until race day Sunday. On Sunday evening, nothing really worked anymore.

YouTubers had it extra hard. While the Chinese Internet can be reasonably fast domestically, it often crawls when you access sites abroad. Why invest in international bandwidth if it’s blocked anyway, the going rationale seems to be. Once the block of YouTube is successfully circumvented, the upload of a short clip can take hours. It also can result in fits and rages when the connection dies after 90 percent of the clip is uploaded. After the 5th aborted upload, you start to believe that it’s done on purpose.

After a while of using VPNs, another problem comes up: Google sees you logging in – via VPN – from strange places around the world in quick succession, and decides that your Google password has been stolen. Your Gmail stops working.

The only ones who appeared to be blasé about the situation were the Chinese colleagues, the people the government aims to protect from the poisonous western media. The Chinese contingent came equipped with VPNs so good that they could watch the latest U.S. and Korean soaps on streaming video. They watched with abandon, making already scarce bandwidth a bit scarcer.

Our Morning News became an early victim of the internet blockade. I got one out (barely) on Thursday, by Friday, the intricate web of Google searches had completely collapsed. Once I was back in Tokyo, and on this side of the free Internet, all was well again.

“But aren’t VPNs illegal in China,” a scribe asked me while the 6 hours of Shanghai dragged on. Sure they are. When businesspeople complain that their encrypted data tunnels to the home office get blown up, the standard answer in China is that VPNs must be licensed, no license, no complaining.  However, no police will break down your door at 5am if you get caught in China’s anti-VPN dragnet. If you really want a SWAT team surround your house, I suggest googling “pressure cooker,” and “bomb.” In America. In China, they just wear you down with frequent drops of the line, until you use Weibo instead of Twitter, Youku instead of YouTube, and Microsoft’s Bing instead of Google’s search engine.