They weren’t kidding about the Great Firewall.
I knew about the Chinese government’s policy of blocking more than 2,700 websites it finds threatening for whatever reason, but I didn’t experience it until this week. When I taught in Hunan province five years ago, the problem wasn’t blocking (though I did notice that most attempts to Google brought up the Chinese browser Baidu instead); it was the laughable Internet connection in my apartment. The New York Times? No problem, if I could connect at all.
But it seems Google had already been blocked in 2009. Gmail followed in 2014, and so have Google’s other offshoots. As for The Times, in 2013 its Shanghai correspondent, David Barboza, won the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting for his front-page expose of corruption at high levels of the government, and The Times became newspaper non grata. Twenty-five years ago, Dave was writing harmless little features for me for a long-defunct section called the Sunday Main 2. Now he’s gotten my morning “paper” blocked. Thanks, Dave.
I’d had hints from Chinese students at the CUNY journalism school. One applicant whose English I was asked to assess worried that Skype might be blocked and suggested an elaborate Plan B for our interview; I told her I’d never had a problem Skyping to China before, and in the end we didn’t, either. A new student this fall, with whom I’d been working remotely over the summer, offered to help me set up a VPN, or virtual private network, which encrypts data and effectively disguises where it’s coming from. I thanked her but said I was planning to set up a VPN through my security software, Avast.
I didn’t move fast enough. Avast offered seven-day free trial, which I activated just before leaving home and figured would last into my first few days in China. In Hong Kong (a special administrative region where the blocking does not apply) I had no problem connecting and blithely ignored Avast’s advice to subscribe today. I had other things on my mind, like jet lag.
Then I arrived at my apartment in Guangzhou. A building staff member gave me a username and a password, along with an Ethernet cord as a backup to the wifi. She briefly established a connection, but then I shut down my laptop and lost it. For the next three days, I had no luck signing in and couldn’t figure out why. Was I misreading the username and password? (Well, that, too, as it turned out.)
When the situation was becoming urgent – the first of the month loomed, and my New York rent was due — the problem was solved the way all foreign teachers’ problems are solved here: I was assigned a student to help. This one came over to my apartment and had assessed the problem within minutes: to sign in, I had to connect to a browser. What’s my browser? Chrome. As in Google Chrome.
He returned the next day with a flash drive containing a Chinese browser and a (free!) VPN. Both student and VPN shall remain nameless. Now Gmail and everything else (including Facebook, also blocked, and YouTube, on which I rely for teaching material) are humming along, at least on my laptop. (My e-book and iPod Touch are another story. The browser on the e-book is, of course, Chrome; I find I can’t Google but can connect to some specific addresses.) They’re blocked on the university computers, though, so I’m devising systems for e-mailing work I’ve done at home to my CUNY address and printing it in the office. (The apartment has no printer, though I’m heading to the mall today to look for a cheap one.) I haven’t yet figured out how to show YouTube videos in class, but I have a feeling my laptop is going to be commuting across campus.
So if you’ve been wondering why I’ve been so quiet, now you know. If have something urgent to say, copy it to firstname.lastname@example.org, just to be safe.