Sites Unseen

The strange, half-free condition of Chinese Web surfers


A few months ago China Daily published a letter on its Web site from "D.H.," a reader who reported being both "extremely frustrated" and "pleasantly surprised" while surfing the Web in China. Although certain sites, such as Time magazine's, remained blocked, he said, others that seem at least as subversive, such as the online version of the pro-independence Taipei Times, were accessible.

"Overall," D.H. said, "the general trend has been clear—the list of websites blocked in China has been getting shorter and shorter." He concluded by offering "kudos to China for continuing to grant more and more freedom to the people within her borders!"

I'm not sure "kudos," let alone exclamation points, are in order when a repressive government decides to be a little less repressive. But my experience during two weeks in Beijing, Changsha, and Guangzhou jibes with D.H.'s impression in the sense that I encountered a puzzling mixture of sites that seemed to be blocked for political reasons and sites that were accessible even though they offered essentially the same information.

Internet connections are notoriously unreliable in China, and you never see a screen that announces "This Page Blocked by the Bureau of Censorship," so caution is appropriate when discussing the government's filtering. A page that does not come up the first nine times you try to connect may finally load after the 10th attempt.

But when you're unable to visit a site from different locations at different times on different days, even while other sites load with no problem, it's reasonable to surmise that the government is blocking it. Although D.H.'s letter claimed the government's BBC News block had been lifted, for instance, I was unable to open any pages from

Even when articles from that address showed up in Google searches, when I tried to read them all I got was "The page cannot be displayed." Likewise, as D.H. mentioned, Time was consistently inaccessible.

Yet many other news sources were available, including CNN, Newsweek, The Washington Post, and The New York Times. I suppose it's possible that the BBC and Time provide damning information about the Chinese regime you just can't get elsewhere, but it seems unlikely.

Trying to understand the source of Chinese censors' grudges against the BBC and Time may be a fruitless endeavor. But it does seem that the government's choices about which sites to block are more a matter of retaliating for perceived offenses than limiting the flow of information in any meaningful way.

Last year the Web site of Reporters Sans Frontieres was blocked shortly after the group issued a statement criticizing the imprisonment of Chinese dissident Liu Di. Yet while in China I was able to visit the sites of other organizations that support press freedom, including pages discussing the government's Internet censorship.

Similarly, the Web sites of Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Freedom House appeared to be blocked, although their pages were listed in Google results. At the same time, numerous less conspicuous critics, including blogs operated by people in China, were accessible.

Google itself was at one time blocked, but I used it extensively in China, where it's available in Chinese as well as English. Then again, I had trouble with certain searches. I could never get results for "Falun Gong," the banned religious group, even when searches on less sensitive topics worked fine.

This sort of censorship (assuming that's what it was) is more insidious than simply blocking a Web site. Even so, a Chinese Web surfer could still get information about Falun Gong from one of the many news and commentary sites that have not met the hazy criteria for blocking.

The strange, half-free condition of Chinese Internet users was reflected in the response to D.H.'s China Daily letter. The comments included several supporting greater freedom and one saying the BBC and Time sites should be blocked, given these news outlets' "extreme right wing views."

But the most interesting comment came from D.H. himself, who warned that his letter as published did not accurately reflect his views. "I wrote an article praising less censorship in China," he said, "and it got censored. I hereby retract my praise."

Whether because China's censors are sloppy or because they want to feign openness, D.H.'s complaint is still available online, even in China.