Predawn Beijing is quiet. Under the layer of silvery haze, it is clad in the same diffuse light as smoggy Shanghai. “Zui jing shi yin tian.” is the meteorological equivocation from one of my Beijing friends. It’s been cloudy lately. I think that’s simply a euphemism for air pollution. The factories that supply the clamoring world with cheap mass-manufactured goods do not exist in a vacuum; they must make an impact on the environment. Where there’s smoke there’s fire, and the Chinese manufacturing sector certainly is a furnace. The economy demands to be fed. Vehicular traffic to move the workforce and raw materials. Power plants to feed the engines of commerce. They all leave traces in the air quality, the way exhaled smoke at a crowded party the night before still hangs in the air the following morning when you’re hauling the empty bottles out to the recycling bin.
As I wait for the sunrise, I casually prod the Great Firewall of China with a stick, try to access various websites over the hotel wifi. The official websites for Amnesty International, WikiLeaks and FaLunGong all quickly return a Connection Dropped error in the web browser. Even IMDb is inaccessible, weirdly enough. So is Twitter. Looks like a simple connection reset from a web filter, probably at the ISP. I can get name resolution and ping the web hosts, even do a fairly vanilla portscan on one of them, but no go on port 80. CNN.com coughs up partial pages, with some data sources clearly timing out. However, Flickr comes up and I can post to Twitter via Flickr2Twitter. And I can VPN into my servers outside China and thereby circumvent the web censorship.
Google search results are interesting. Google.com keeps redirecting me to Google Hong Kong until I pick my language/location preferences, then it stays put on Google.com. I get search results for various mildly inflammatory search terms such as Tibet, Tiananmen Square and Ai Weiwei, but none of the links in the first page work, and even Google’s cached copies of those sites are inaccessible. Some searches are markedly slow, and I fancy that is due to the overhead of Big Brother logging my IP. Then again, how much does a pseudopolice state care about restricting Net access at a hotel full of foreign tourists? Especially when we’re in a city that is seemingly all bustling capitalist activity? It’s different when you run the same searches from a rural home with a residential ISP.
Even if you discount the self-policing Chinese netizens who do not want to ring the cherries on the Net monitors, it’s not possible to completely block the netizens of China from accessing the outside world. The Net’s too dispersed and there are too many ways to get in and out. So the Chinese censors can only block the bigger sites and filter keywords in the URLs and search terms. Herd the Chinese Net users to alternate sites and services that exist within China; ones that are more easily controlled and monitored. No wonder there are so many guides to using anonymizers (like Tor) and proxies from inside China. You must have the need and the know-how; you gotta have the onions, in more than one sense.
It is light out at 4 a.m. and I’m running west along JianGuoMen Road, which turns into ChangAn Road as I get closer to TianAnMen Square. It’s a broad thoroughfare; I count 7 to 10 car lanes in each direction. Behind me, the towering Yintai Office Building complex where Cisco conducts their CCIE lab exams,. (Yesterday, in uber-nerd mode, I circled Tower 3 taking snapshots and chatted with the nice young fellas at the sign-in desk who seemed a bit perplexed that I was treating their workplace like a tourist attraction.) Beijing is one of only 10 locations in the world where you can take the lab exams. 5 of those 10 locations are in Asia or the Middle East, an indicator of the high demand for networking skills in this region. 4 billion people in Asia; lots of developing economies, lots of networks to build. If you chart the regional growth in proportion of the the rest of the world, it’s like a gravity well.
So all these network engineers who grew up in such a restrictive political climate, culturally discouraged from challenging authority; these geeks are the curators of the networks that move information and ideas in Asia. Monitor search results. Facilitate censorship. Will they challenge the premise of information filtering, or will they just implement whatever the customer wants? I remember when the Net was the Wild West. Walk into a user’s group in California in the 90s and it was all longhairs in Birkenstocks. Same folks you saw at Critical Mass and the local co-op. The corporate sysadmins in their starched shirtsleeves and ties seemed so out of touch with their lumbering proprietary systems and ideologies. But national free speech policies and cyberlaws are a reflection of geographical jurisdictions, and the laws are increasingly reflecting the interests of the corporate and political power bases, not the nerdy power base of the IT proletariat. Nerd culture tends to be meritocratic but egalitarian, I think. More interested in empirical raw data than relying on someone else’s take.
Migrant workers have been protesting recently in GuangZhou, reported on the international new channels outside China. But the story is downplayed in the Chinese media. And Ai WeiWei’s detention is the subject of OpEd pieces about how political activism is not a shield for economic crimes. It’s all about shaping the information, isn’t it?
All along ChangAn Road, high-end retail stores and major banks. One of my Pekingese friends told me about the exorbitant rental rates on this road. I see signage for Porsche and Burberry and HSBC. China’s open for business, they seem to say. Also lining the roads are huge monolithic government agencies, built in the imposing Soviet architectural style. Don’t fuck with us, they seem to say. I smile at the uniformed guards outside the Ministry of Commerce, immobile at their posts.
Closer to TianAnMen Square, the road widens even more. You could drive a tank through there, my inner Margaret Cho cackles. I recognize the lampposts, with their bunch-of-grapes cluster of lights, from Jeff Widener’s famous photo of Tank Man standing off with a row of tanks during the ’89 protests here. 22 years after the fact, Tank Man is still nameless, rumored to have been executed or in hiding. A bunch of folks hustled him off the street, away from the tanks. Nobody saw where he was taken.
I take off my iPod and pass it through the x-ray security scanners to get into TianAnMen Square. The place is full of school groups and tourists watching the daily flag-raising ceremony at sunup. Loads of enterprising photographers offering to take an instant snapshot for a few yuan. Across the road, the gigantic portrait of Chairman Mao hangs from TianAnMen Gate, leading into the Forbidden City.
I run back to my hotel, past all these legacies of the Chinese economic reforms of the last two decades. Staff on the early shift start to trickle into the banks and the retail stores. Billy Corgan sings on my iPod:
We all want to hold in the everlasting gaze
Enchanted in the rapture of his sentimental sway
But underneath the wheels lie the skulls of every cog
The fickle fascination of an everlasting god
A few days later, I am in London, standing across the Thames from the Tate Modern. This is where Ai Wei Wei exhibited his Sunflower Seeds last year. A hundred million hand-painted porcelain sunflower seeds that you could walk on, crunch them underfoot. Today though, at the front of the Tate Modern’s roof facade is the simple message “Release Ai Wei Wei”.
With so many eyes watching, Ai WeiWei is released on bail on 22 June 2011. I think of a recent Twitter comment from the frontlines of the Arab Spring, how one activist was released from jail because the police knew she had a Twitter following. Everyone bases their decisions on what they know, and what they think other people know. If everyone assumed that someone was watching them, would everyone behave ethically?