China’s block party

One day last year, during a bout of homesickness, I tried to log onto kentucky.com to catch up on news from my home state in the U.S. Kentucky.com is the website for one of the state’s flagship papers, the Lexington Herald-Leader.

The page wouldn’t load. I assumed it was a connection error, so I checked my modem and refreshed the page. Still, it wouldn’t load. I knew that websites like Facebook, Twitter and Google were blocked in China, but the Lexington Herald-Leader? What does the Chinese government have against bourbon and college basketball?

I emailed a friend who works at the Herald-Leader, which is owned by The McClatchy Company, and he said it was possible that all of the company’s newspaper websites were blocked. The Herald-Leader had also recently published a story on the Dalai Lama, whom the Chinese government considers to be a violent separatist, after he visited the state, so that could be the reason, he added.

To access the newspaper’s website, I had to use a virtual private network, or VPN, which allows Internet users in China to get around the “Great Firewall.” VPNs are illegal in China but have largely been tolerated until recently, when government interference made them harder to use.

A senior official with China’s Ministry of Information and Technology told local media last week that the crackdown on VPNs was a move to foster the “healthy development” of the country’s Internet.

If the last few years are any judge, “healthy development” means more censorship. Among the major news sites that have been blocked are the New York Times and Wall Street Journal (both published stories on the wealth of Communist party members and their families before the plug was pulled).

Instagram joined the long listed of social media sites banned on the mainland after the protests  in Hong Kong last fall. Google, which has long been at odds with the Chinese government, is no longer accessible, and Internet users can’t log into its email service, Gmail, without a VPN.

The ramped up censorship comes at a time when nearly 700,000 Chinese are studying abroad. Most (30 percent) attend college in the U.S., where they inevitably use Facebook to build their social networks and Google to research for coursework. It’s conceivable that, in a few years, these internationally savvy students will return home and connect to a Chinese Internet that is more closed off to the world than the one they left.

Despite the uptick in online censorship, not every website that gets the ax goes dark forever. The popular movie site IMDB (Internet Movie Database), which was blocked in 2010 after its homepage featured a preview of a documentary about the Free Tibet movement, was unblocked in 2013.

Earlier this week, while using the Internet without a VPN, I discovered another site that had been unblocked: kentucky.com.

I guess the Chinese government likes bourbon and college basketball after all.

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