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.

Advertisements

Hotel survives fire that razed ancient town

The hotel I stayed at in Dukezong survived Saturday’s fire, which destroyed most of the ancient town.

“We were very lucky, our hotel suffered little damage,” said Matthieu Lelievre, who owns Kersang’s Relay Station hotel with his wife and her family.

More than 80 percent of the buildings in Dukezong, located in southwestern China’s Yunnan province, were destroyed in the fire. The New York Times reported on Tuesday that local officials said the blaze was caused by an electrical problem that ignited a curtain inside a guesthouse. Continue reading

Inflation’s bad sting find its way to Beijing

“You’ll be amazed at how everything is so cheap here,” a friend told me about Beijing, after I accepted a job to work in the city.

And for a time, I was. A tall bottle of beer and plate full of meat skewers cost around 20 yuan ($3.29) at a restaurant near my office. Cab fares, with a flag-down rate of less than 10 yuan, were less than half of what you’d pay in a large US city.

Apartments I priced near the Lama Temple — an area popular among expats for its bars, cafes and traditional Beijing alleyways — were around 4,000 yuan a month, or $658, not bad for a city of more than 20 million.

Fast-forward three years and rent at those same apartments has increased more than 1,000 yuan ($164) a month. Groceries have also become more expensive, and that beer and plate of meat skewers now cost closer to 30 yuan ($4.94). Continue reading

Knowing when to say give

As tourists file into the Yonghe Lama Temple, a woman carrying a gray sack stops near the entrance and gets down on her knees.

She bows, lowering her head so close to the ground that her shoulder-length hair hangs inches from the concrete. Still hunched over, she extends her hands, palms up, toward a plastic bowl in front of her body. The bowl is filled with coins and a few yuan bills.

Most people walk past the woman without looking down, pausing only to snap a few pictures of a historic arch outside the temple – a Buddhist monastery that is one of Beijing’s most visited tourist attractions. Continue reading