When Internet Blocking Fails

 An internet not coming to a computer near you …

CCP gets more paranoid than usual around June 4 of every year, particularly those years a multiple of five from 1989.   This year is 30 years since the Tian’anmen massacre.

I was in Chicago around June 4 of 2009, but I made the 2014 anniversary.  Internet blocking began early in May.  Every foreigner in China gets accustomed to internet and social media blocking, but in 2014 the online ban was nearly total.  It was a lesson in how particular the censorship could be.   You know, it’s China – it’s complicated.

At my school in Hangzhou, there were two internet services for students – one for Chinese, one for foreigners.  I got the foreign service, since I was living in the foreign faculty housing.  This was post-google ban in China, so it was expected that gmail would not go through.  Surprisingly, I could receive gmail, but could not respond to a gmail address, whether I used my own gmail or another server.  My principal means of communicating with students outside the classroom – for homework, paper information, changes in class scheduling – was via email.  My Chinese students could receive my emails from my aol account.  Some of my foreign students who lived off-campus, outside of the school server, could not.  When students told me they had not received my emails, at first I put that down to normal attempts to get around responsibility.  I was wrong.  My students could not receive my emails, and I could not receive theirs.

Herein lies the lesson about blocking particularity.  Blocking could be done, is done, at any of several different levels – national, provincial, city, district or individual school. The flow of information could be turned on or off like a hose, and could be titrated to whatever level was desired.  In 2014, I could send some emails – but one email might take four or six hours to send.

In 2015, one of my computers was blocked completely in Hangzhou – no internet access whatsoever, for a period of about six months. The same computer, taken to Wuhan, still had no access; but another computer of mine did work in Wuhan.  The blocking was targeted at me – or at least, at the computer I always used.

I was more than a little incensed about the blocking at my school.  Student contacts were completely disrupted, even more than usual.  In class, I began telling students when I had sent an email, and asked the foreign students to tell each other about my emails, so that they might be able to send to each other. Sometimes, that worked.

Communication with students outside of the classroom was nearly impossible.  This was made more ridiculous by the selectivity of the blocking – students living on campus had worse internet service than those living off campus. Sometimes. And vice versa.

The 2014 internet massacre was actually the second major interruption since 2009.  In late 2012, there were similar problems – emails that never got through – without any notice, emails that took many hours to send.  That was the time of the Bloomberg and the New York Times exposing the billions of dollars in family wealth accumulated by sons and family of Xi Jinping and Wen Jiabao, and CCP thought those exposès a bit … unseemly.   It was at this time that google was completely blocked from China – search, email to and from.

In my case, it was not only being unable to communicate with students.  I had business to conduct in Chicago, which was made impossible.  Checks could not get written.  Blocking was not just google, but any search, any email.

Not to sugarcoat it, but I voiced my discontent.  I complained.  Like voting – early and often.

The international office of our university was the natural place to go.  One of my Chinese government students from Chicago was the deputy leader (second only to the party leader) and she was generally sympathetic to my occasional foreign demands.  After a couple of weeks of no service, I went to her office on a Tuesday morning. The excuses were pathetic – there were problems with the whole school internet server (the Chinese students had no problem).  Ok.  Then, just a problem for foreign internet servers in China.  So why was this not a problem all over China?  Then, the apologies – “I have been told it will be fixed by next Monday.”  This, of course, on a Tuesday.  There were five or six successive Tuesdays with this promise.

Since this was clearly a problem only at our university, I suggested some remedies.  My favorite was a big, gross remedy that indicated how stupid the whole business was. The Chinese students had no problems.  The school administration people had no problems.  Apparently, the rest of China had no problems.  A residential development about 500 meters away on the other side of some small hills had no internet access problems.

I volunteered.  Ok, if this is so difficult for you to solve internally, give me 500 meters of category 5 cable, and we can string a wire from the adjacent residential development with service to the foreign faculty building. Right over the hills, bushes and all. Lay cable on the ground.  Would take two guys a few hours.  Inelegant, but solved.

The blocking was a problem for all the foreign faculty and the foreign students.  But I was teaching major courses, not language courses, so I was more or less a leader of the foreign faculty.  Sometimes leadership demands bold action.

I demanded a meeting with the university president.  I pointed out that the school was really banking on a large increase in the foreign student population.  I was more or less the face of the foreign presence at the school, and if I could not get internet access, all those foreign students in Germany, Indonesia, the –stans, and Africa would hear about the problems someway when I finally could get access.  In any case, the blocking was a violation of my contract with the school, that internet access would be available.

After six weeks of promises about next Monday, mirabile dictu, after my meeting with the university president on a Friday, access was restored by next Monday morning.

Worked pretty well, too.  Guanxi and a credible threat works wonders.