BEIJING, Dec. 22 – It was widely reported that the New York Times website had been blocked by in China late last week. China Briefing can reveal that the issue was a technical problem relating to problems with incoming servers located at the Beijing TV Tower, which receives and redistributes websites. As of Monday morning, the New York Times site is up and accessible as normal – see the current home page as accessible from Beijing.
The issue highlights two aspects of understanding China, firstly the Chinese lack of available PR that exists to interface with the global media community, and secondly, despite the relaxing of many restrictions just before the Olympics, a lack of trust by foreign journalists concerning anything coming out of China – and the oft repeated initial reactions that censorship or other ulterior motives must be at play. It is not always the case. Beijing’s use of censorship as regards media is problematic, and there is no doubt that stories that are perceived as negative towards the country can be barred. However, the country has come a long way in the past 20 years, when imported newspapers – including those from Hong Kong – would have offensive articles cut out. The internet revolution has since occurred and access to international news and media is easy from China in most modern cities, and this is especially true of places like Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou.
Of more concern to the Chinese authorities is the situation regarding “social unrest.” This much misunderstood and admittedly widely interpreted term is used by Beijing to justify media crackdowns and to block “inappropriate” content appearing in China. Consequently, organizations considered by the Chinese government to be subversive, such as the free Tibet movement or anyone advocating Taiwanese independence, are blocked. Chinese passions run high, and while the situation concerning these territories remains in evolution, it is, at least to the Chinese, necessity. It is this angle that the foreign media, or commentators unfamiliar with China, often focus on. They tend to regard media control as purely a political tool, used for repression. However, it is not quite as simple as that.
Much of China’s population lies in rural areas, and the government is very careful about exposing them to too much commercialization; especially advertising. With China already having had its history shaped by numerous revolutions, including the current government, who came into power on the back of a bloody civil war, the authorities are well aware of the strength of people power.
Displaying advertisements for lifestyles to people who cannot afford items taken for granted in the West, or even the high value cities on the East coast is a situation that needs to be carefully managed by Beijing, even within its own broadcasts. The constant bombardment of an up market lifestyle to people, who at present have no means to achieve such a status, only leads to discontent and social unrest. Under such circumstances, matters can get out of hand quickly.
So when reporting about website and media blocking, overseas journalists would do well to check first if such activities are purely as a result of blanket media censorship, a technical issue, or a still necessary need to maintain social order. When writing about China, one should really attempt to understand the mentality. Until journalistic knee jerk reactions to the New York Times being “blocked” can be mature enough to give China the benefit of the doubt for a couple of days, overseas reporting on matters within the country will continue to be negative and often, inaccurate. And that betrays a lack of professional journalistic behavior and displays an ignorance about what is actually going on in the country. Overseas editors would do well to note.