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Encountering Chinese net censorship whilst researching my dissertation


Today I got a nice reminder that Chinese net censorship works both ways. Everyone involved with China in some way is well aware of the wide-ranging Internet censorship system in the country, but it’s easy to forget that the Great Firewall is equally suspicious of outside requests to servers in China.

I’ve come up against this today as I’m trying to get hold of content related to 刘宾雁 (Liu Binyan), one of the authors I’m looking at in my undergraduate dissertation. Frequently, if I try to access content involving this term on Chinese servers, my connection will be cut off, and then temporarily blocked if I try again.

Resetting your connection is the Great Firewall's preferred tactic.

Resetting your connection is the Great Firewall’s preferred tactic.

When this happens, your connection to the server is reset so supposedly you’re none the wiser about this mysterious network error. When I was in Qingdao a few years ago, the strategy was different. If you tried to access forbidden pages you’d be redirected some search-portal website (presumably government-endorsed), and once or twice I even saw a direct “you are not allowed to access this content” kind of message.

Preventing the outside world from knowing

Liu Binyan’s name is mud as far as the Chinese government is concerned, and it seems that they’d prefer it if he didn’t exist on the Internet. So, for example, if I search for his name on CNKI (the Chinese equivalent of JSTOR), my connection often gets reset. If I go as far as trying to download PDF copies of articles involving Liu Binyan, I get cut off even more consistently. Persistence results in being unable to connect to CNKI at all for a few minutes.

This is the exact same blocking behaviour I got used to China last year. Your first couple of requests get reset, and if you continue then you can lose your entire connection for a few minutes, presumably as a sort of warning or punishment. Obviously the Great Firewall can’t reach out and cut off my Internet connection in the UK, but it can do the next best thing and stop me connecting to anything behind its gates.

However, these blocks and restrictions are often temporary. I get the impression that new, unseen requests trigger some sort of auto-suspicion and are blocked as a precaution. After a while, though, the block will sometimes disappear. I often wonder if there’s some sort of manual review process going on here, in which someone checks out what you’re trying to access and decides if it’s OK or not.

It is hilarious that the Great Firewall interferes with external traffic trying to access Chinese servers, though. What a terrible PR move. I’m assuming that the non-specific ‘connection reset’ method is to avoid bringing too much attention to this fact. If outside users were presented with “the Chinese government does not want you to see this content” each time they made one of these requests, it would be hugely embarrassing for said government.

A minor work-around for search

These blocks quickly get frustrating if you’re trying a variety of different search terms to find what you want. I don’t really mind waiting a while once I’ve settled on a page or document that I want to see, but if you get blocked for a few minutes every time you try to search for things it can quickly take too long to be worthwhile (I think this is the intended effect).

To avoid this, I’ve taken to using Google with a site: parameter to have unrestricted (and often high-quality) search access to these sites. E.g. I now search CNKI like this. Searching for 刘宾雁 through CNKI’s interface gets zero results, but Google shows many. Once you’ve identified a good-looking resource via Google in this way, you can start playing the waiting-to-be-unblocked game with the Great Firewall. Not a game-changer, but it does save a little bit of time.

The other option is to do a search excluding the results from one site. So if you find something that looks good on CNKI but can’t access it, search Google for it’s title -site:cnki.net . If you’re lucky, some dastardly pirate will have made it available elsewhere and you may be able to get your hands on it.

Finally, you might want to try the WAP (mobile) version of CNKI. For some bizarre reason, then WAP site seems to have less restrictions on it, and lets you search for and download PDFs that get blocked on the main Web interface.

Of course, if what you’re looking for is blocked outright then none of this will work. Try Hong Kong, and good luck.