Crossing the invisible line – On being blocked in China

A few weeks ago was not accessible within China. My initial urge was to figure out which post had led to being blocked, and decide what that would mean for the future of the blog. Was it our coverage of Chen Guangcheng’s case? Or was it my rant against the Global Time’s incredible lack of integrity which unintentionally went online the same day that Global Time’s called us one of the best English language blogs focused on China. A few days later though, the site was accessible and we hadn’t changed a thing. The Great Firewall of China had shifted once again.

In my year of blogging I’ve seen a number of websites get blocked and often people try to find a single reason. Instead of trying to list every possibility, I think it’s more efficient to look at the issue from a different angle.

Why we haven’t been blocked

I think the most important factor concerning why we haven’t been blocked is this is an English language blog. For the majority of netizens, English is not a language they easily understand, and so my website only reaches a tiny percentage of Chinese people. Meanwhile, translations of my posts appear on yizhe group’s site, which is blocked in China. I think if I were to write these same thoughts in Chinese, it would be seen as much more of a threat. As it stands though, Chinese readership is somewhat limited.

The second factor is that I don’t usually report on news stories as they happen. While this is somewhat a form of self-censorship, I am also trying to avoid knee-jerk reactions to complicated problems. To be completely honest, there are news stories coming out of China every week that are so shockingly amoral that I don’t even repeat them to my wife or parents. I don’t repeat these stories because they aren’t representative of the China I know. The writing I enjoy doing looks more at trends than individual events, and I think this helps me avoid the censors’ eyes who are watching for the most sensitive and recent news stories.

The third factor, is that I do try to present a fair view of China. While this doesn’t always show through as much as I would hope, I wish nothing but the best for the Chinese people. When I think a certain law or gov’t action is problematic, I try to find credible sources (from a Chinese perspective) to back up my arguments. After all it’s much harder for censors to argue with a point made by the People’s Daily than one made by some expat who sits typing away at his desk. The murkiness of what is or isn’t acceptable allows me to push boundaries.

The value of the invisible line

There are a few issues that will always draw the attention of China’s web monitors, like articles about Taiwanese or Tibetan independence or vivid descriptions of what happened in Tian’anmen Square. During the riots in Tibet back in 2008 I would read an article on CNN and email it to another foreign teacher who then wouldn’t be able to open the link. Stories were blocked almost as quickly as they went online. This visible line is useful for censors, but is easily skirted by netizens.

The much more powerful force though is the invisible line that keeps the author guessing what is or isn’t “sensitive.” A recent article from the New York Times profiling author Murong Xuecun illustrates just how powerful this force can be. In the article Murong Xuecun highlights the fact that when he writes he has no idea where exactly the line is. This ambiguity causes him to delete his most daring lines, and then make additional cuts during the editing process as the publisher also tries to guess at what is or isn’t acceptable.

I would guess this is the system that the Party prefers. With no one clear about what can be said, many opt instead to be more cautious in their writing, even if it wouldn’t have been caught by censors. I see this on an almost daily basis in the courses I’ve taught. When asking students for their opinions you’ll see an entire room full of people who, one-on-one, can be incredibly vocal but when surrounded by peers who could report their thoughtcrime, remain completely silent.

19 responses to “Crossing the invisible line – On being blocked in China”

  1. gregorylent says:

    one thing i am coming to feel … china has nothing to offer to the world, apart from money …. certainly nothing to add to the values of the new paradigm that is emerging globally in this decade .. the single caveat to that is that if the current china government wakes up and embraces an awareness of its ancient spiritual history, such things as are found at … this, the world needs, not the manufacturing or the money

  2. Anonymous says:

    Hi Tom, yoiur site is blocked again. I can only access it with a VPN. Regards from Beijing and keep up the good reporting..

  3. Yaxue C. says:

    Beijing mayor recently visited Sina headquarters (新浪)and, from what I heard on Weibo, he was displeased that it takes two hours for censors to take “sensitive” materials out.

  4. Anonymous says:

    As you mentioned that the gov is not so vigorous(which I nod my head falling down) to ban the foreign language based blogs,I assume that maybe is the Chinese version catch the monitors’ eagle eyes.Perhaps build a new website and move out all of the translated articles there can be a solution ,or may not,cos BeiJing has no bottomline .

  5. Every time a site is unavailable, everyone assumes it is blocked. Often there other explanations. I always take the view that you should wait a while before declaring yourself blocked.

    That said, there are bloggers who see being blocked as some sort of award for heroism. “Wow! It’s so terrible I’ve been blocked! I must be doing something great!”

    The sad truth is that they very seldom block individual blogs. They block blog hosting services. I have been running my blog since December 2004 and my website since 2002 and the only time I have been blocked, despite my best efforts, was for about eight months in 2005/6 when they blocked all of the the hosting company I was then using.

    To my surprise, during the block, my hits from China went up!

  6. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for the reporting on the manner of oversight given blogs. Your commentary is important. It is great to be recognized as one of the premium blogs. Looking forward to your book when it is completed. Keep up the good work. – Marvin Eckfeldt

  7. Keeping up with the ways Chinese netizens access information must have the government feeling like a dog chasing its tail, round and round and round. I watch the Chinese guys who work in my office as they access multiple free VPNs – to them it’s expected that the one they’re currently using will eventually be blocked, and so they move on to the next one. When I asked what they used the VPN for, they said ‘Google Earth. It’s really cool!’ Maybe they’re reading political dialogues at home…..

  8. Tom, my blog has been recently blocked even though I write about nothing that would be deemed sensitive to Chinese Party Officials. I am pretty sure that the China Officials in charge have blocked WordPress just like they did during the Guangzhou Games and the Beijing Olympics. Perhaps this time though they have blocked it for good since there a number of blogs that feature stories about China’s news events. And we all know how paranoid the PRC is. Keep up the good work you’re doing with your blog.

    • Tom says: has been blocked again, I think largely because it is simple and quick to create a blog and host files for free beyond the reach of Chinese censors.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Unfortanately it’s only going to get worse…
    See here

  10. Ken says:

    Yeah, it’s not your blog, it’s the wordpress domain your on, generally. Stuff happens. Open again now. It comes and goes. Part of the GFW strategy seems to be simply raising the frustration factor, so folks just make other choices about which sites to visit, or so I’ve heard.

  11. Ken says:

    Hmmm… your=you’re. Sorry.

  12. “Yeah, it’s not your blog, it’s the wordpress domain your on”

    The site isn’t on the WordPress domain. He is using WordPress software on his own domain, as do I.

    And it’s not blocked anyway!

  13. M says:

    by my experience with my own blog which I’m running on my own domain with quite rare CMS it’s that most of the blogs are not blocked by censors but by automatic software which is just checking usage of some words, when I used word “communism” lot of times in some of my articles my blog became blocked and later when I used slang word “commie” (in my native language) blog become again unblocked, but since then I published so many stuff it would be impossible to find the reason, the problematic word which got attention of filtering software so i gave up in the end and stopped caring, anyway 99% of my readers are from abroad and those in China can use VPN, so no big deal being blocked if you are not targeted on chinese audience writing in chinese language

  14. M says:

    it’s also good idea to not advertise what kind of CMS you use, not because of censors but also because of possible attacks if there will be found some security bug, so much for WordPress thing, but I don’t really thing that running CMS will affect you being blocked if you are running it on your own domain

    and your blog is blocked for sure, I tried to access it here in Beijing before writing comment and was unable to access it without use of VPN, you can always check status of your blog here (as you already know):

    albeit both sides are right now incorrect and say it’s not blocked, usually 2nd one is giving false results and 1st one is usually correct

    • I am opening the site and sending this without a VPN. I’m in Guangxi. It isn’t blocked here.

      • Tom says:

        It’s important to note that the Great Firewall, much like the Great Wall itself, isn’t actually a single entity, but censorship at many different levels. In the case of the blog I would guess that some ISP’s are blocking it, and some aren’t. Like I mentioned in the post, nobody is really sure where the line is, same goes for the censors themselves.

  15. […] line" in China really is, of course – it very much depends on current political trends. As a blogger based in China wrote last year, "the much more powerful force though is the invisible line that […]

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.