Living Behind the Firewall



BEIJING - I woke up at 6am this morning to discover that my main Gmail account was sending out emails to all of my contacts. I quickly tried to change the password, and discovered that I couldn’t because Gmail takes you first to a domain, and all “plus” sites in China are blocked. I did an SSH tunnel just to change my password, something usually reserved for the times when I want to sneak a peak at Facebook or Twitter.


This was the second time I’ve had hacker, virus, phishing or whatever you want to call it problems living in Beijing. The first time was on my birthday in 2010 as I wrote about in an earlier bi-lingual blog. After the first hacking attack I lost almost twelve years of my life, losing emails and contacts. This more recent time, one Gmail account was sending out emails to all my contacts, but other than that it seems that nothing was harmed.


A former roommate of mine, a computer programmer, suggested the following: use a different account in China than you do here (US); use very strong passwords; don't use public computers and unprotected WiFi networks; use Tor; use a VPN. These were all things I was already familiar with and/or guilty of as I recently used public computers and unprotected WiFi in a few hostels. I’ve unsuccessfully used Tor and I use SSH tunneling as a free alternative to VPN. It was the note that I should have different accounts, essentially different digital lives for each country and the fact that all websites outside China including my email was inaccessible for two hours on April 13th (Beijing time) (see article), that put into stark relief the obstacles to freely engaging in the digital conversations that transcend distance while living in China.


The near instantaneous global communication of the telegraph that made the world much smaller was limited to kings eighty years ago (see Thompson 2000). Now the masses with email and instant messenger programs today can easily and quickly connect around the world. As I noted in an earlier blog, I think the Chinese government is quite aware that sites like Facebook are the penultimate of reducing distance. The “little pieces of information” as I call it, “the likes” and the one-liners of one’s newsfeed resemble the small pieces of information we share with friends and family when we have small conversations gathered together, and this sense of conversation can now more easily be experienced online. Yet living in China there are limits to who you can converse with and when.


To keep in contact with those in China I use the chat program QQ, the Chinese social networking site RenRen, the Twitter-like Weibo (though sparingly) and I watch videos on Chinese video host sites like Youku. I cannot freely access Twitter, YouTube, or Facebook, though I can post to Twitter via LinkedIn. To keep in contact with those living outside China I use various Gmail accounts and Skype. On limited occasions I access Facebook via SSH tunneling. Yet quite often Gmail does not load, and I either use a mail client on my computer or I use QQ email to send and receive messages as I did yesterday emailing my advisor.


What my advisors (Jeffrey Goldffarb, Eiko Ikegami) have argued, drawing on the work of Meyrowtiz, is that these conversations, first physical and now digital, can have political consequences. Meyrowitz argues that electronic communication limits our ability to use physical distance to control information flows, yet China actively tries to re-instate a sense of physical distance; for example those not near the 180,000 annual protests never know they take place, just as many today do not know that there ever were protests at Tiananmen Square in 1989. At the height of chatter about the downfall of Bo Xilai and rumors about army vehicles on the streets of Beijing users could not add comments to their friends’ posts on Weibo (see article). If one did not live in the city center, they would not be able to know what was or was not on the streets.


In the past year there has been a great deal of attention on using digital media to discuss and debate what’s happening on the streets in one’s country, particularly looking at North Africa. Yet there is also the more macro question about knowing about what is going on in other countries. What do Americans know about the streets of China and what do Chinese know about the streets of the United States? One can see that if a person has interaction with a group defined as deviants, they are going to be more open towards their behavior; think, for example, of the evolving views towards homosexuals in the United States. In a similar way there is the argument that globalization increases interactions between different groups in the world, reducing the chance of violence as people in other countries start to have faces, names and lives.


The goal of China’s policies is that people like myself will give up and not try to join the conversations on US platforms like Facebook and Twitter, finding it too much work and will resign ourselves to domestic self-censoring sites (see James Fallows’ oft-cited explanation of the Great Firewall of China. As an expatriate, I get frustrated and I start blogging about it. Yet there is also the question of what impacts these policies can have on understandings of Americans and Chinese. Absent the exchange of the little pieces of information between China and the US, the flows consist of Lady Gaga videos and NBA sports scores into China and stories about Bo Xilai and tweets from artist and activist Ai Weiwei out of China, an incomplete picture of both countries.


If one looks at the data of We Are Social it's possible to see that there are 500,000 Facebook users and 1 million Twitter users in China, numbers that may not extend much beyond the expatriate community. Yet from my dissertation research in China I am conscious of the fact that China is educating the largest English speaking population in the world. As students do their homework they are learning about environmental issues like climate change (by reading English texts). If the restrictions were reduced, I would imagine there is a segment of the population, albeit small, who would start sharing the little pieces of information on Facebook and Twitter as a means of doing their English homework, in the process challenging existing conceptions Americans and Chinese have of each other.


Follow Chris on Twitter @enviroeberhardt


Goldfarb, Jeffrey. 2006. The Politics of Small Things: the Power of the Powerless in Dark Times. University of Chicago Press: Chicago. 

Ikegami, Eiko. 2005. Bonds of Civility: Aesthetic Networks and the Political Origins of Japanese Culture. Cambridge University Press: New York. 

Meyrowitz, Joshua. 1985. No Sense of Place: The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behavior. Oxford University Press: New York. 

Thompson, John B. 2000. The Globalization of Communication. The Global Transformation Reader: an introduction to the globalization debate. David Held; Anthony G McGrew, eds. Polity Press:Malden, MA.



China, internet