madpen's journal

Avoiding Chinese “Harmonization” in 2013

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This blog is blocked within China. In fact, all WordPress blogs cannot be accessed with a normal internet connection within China. WordPress.com is just one of hundreds of websites that has been blocked, or “harmonized” by internet censors behind the Great Firewall of China.

In China, to get “harmonized” is a euphemism for being censored or blocked by the government. “Harmonization” ensures that society can function smoothly, free from disruption by: social justice movements, religious ‘cults’, pornography, political criticism, democracy, or other byproducts of intellectual freedom. The Chinese government currently employs tens of thousands of people and computer algorithms to closely monitor internet activity, combing the web for flagged keywords and phrases. Anything posted related to ‘Tiananmen Square Incident/Massacre/Demonstration/Protest/Event/1979’ will be blocked in short order, as will anything to do with ‘Free Tibet’, ‘Dalai Lama’, ‘Falun Gong’, or ‘Great Firewall’. Names of certain chinese officials cannot be searched for. Major social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, and WordPress are blocked. That’s just a very short list. For a more robust list of blocked search terms and websites, visit greatfire.org, a website that actively monitors content blocked by the Great Firewall. Certainly the Chinese government is not the only one that engages in internet censorship, but it is by far one of the best at it.

To avoid harmonization, many Chinese netizens have gotten creative. They use hundreds of evolving euphemisms and puns to express themselves while authorities struggle to figure out their intended meaning. Critics and citizen activists convey messages through artwork, animations, poetry and allegory. But for those with the resources and technical know-how, there is at least one relatively easy way to create/access “harmonized” content.

Thousands of people within China are able to access blocked websites and censored content by using Virtual Private Networks (VPNs). To circumvent or tunnel through the Great Firewall, VPNs connect users to secure networks that extend outside of China. Back in 2006/7 I used a VPN client called Hotspotshield, a free ad-sponsored service that has since been harmonized. I am currently using an academic VPN service from my university that allows me to use the internet as if I were connecting within Canada. For those without school VPNs, there are several alternatives. Pay services that claim limited functionality within China include StrongVPN and Witopia, however they advertise that their services within China require “special settings” and that service varies depending on region and time. According to a tech rep from Witopia, the closer you are to Beijing (the heart of the CCP censorship apparatus) the more unreliable service becomes. The representative also noted that connections within certain ‘sensitive’ provinces such as Xinjiang and Tibet are extremely unreliable.

Internet censorship has been a big issue for civil society groups such as environmental organizations that want to publish pollution data. Even for the US embassy in Beijing, there has been much controversy surrounding its BeijingAir Twitter feed. It currently reads:

03-21-2013 07:00; PM2.5; 107.0; 175; Unhealthy (at 24-hour exposure at this level)

I might have to don my respirator today.

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One comment on “Avoiding Chinese “Harmonization” in 2013

  1. Gregory Van De Mark
    March 20, 2013

    Fascinating! Keep fighting the good fight!

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