Friday, June 29, 2007

Ryan Pyle Blog: China's War Against the Internet

As I sit here at my desk in Shanghai, China I am concerned by the war that is taking place inside China at the moment. For those who live here you know exactly what I am talking about, I am referring to the government's war against the internet.

Currently I am trying to upload images to my archive in NYC, I am getting a whopping 5.4KB/s and it's taking an average of 5-7 minutes per image to get this new work uploaded. When I was in Hong Kong last weekend for work I managed to upload about 100 megabytes of images in less than ten minutes; Hong Kong of course has free and un-censored internet access. China does not. But this isn't the whole story.

The government in China can be felt in every aspect of life, and that is to be assumed since China's ruling politicians continue to see the country as a "socialist" state. I use hyphens because sitting at my desk in Shanghai I can count no less than 17 buildings that seem to be greater than 40 stories high, and my apartment only faces north-east. It's clear that China's brand is a special kind of socialism.

But back to the war. The Chinese government owns and controls access to the internet. Meaning that they can block, slow down and shut down essentially anything they want. Sure there are proxies and such but they have been begun blocking the sites to download proxies. This all encompassing behavior by the PRC's government has lead to a mass of critical articles written by the world media, discussing things like "Net-Nannies" and "Cyber Cops"; and all these things are essentially true. There are rumors out there that some 40,000 people in China make a full time living from the government by surfing the web and fishing out "unacceptable" content. Sites like this one, are blocked, for example.

Now, let's move beyond that. Sure there will always be malicious content on the web that will be blocked in countries that rule in a one party system. There will be bloggers who disapprove of corruption, land seizures, web access, education, human rights and so on and so forth. All that, believe it or not, feels fairly standard for me after living in China for five years.

What I can't seem to tolerate is the government's heavy handed policy's on sites that don't directly criticize government actions. For example, the powers that be in China recently blocked But they didn't exactly block the site entirely, they just blocked the pictures - the website still operates and people can still log in and check their mail and contacts, etc. This is apparently in response to a some photographs that appeared on FLICKR after some police beat a woman selling food on the street in a city in central China.

So now FLICKR is being used as a political tool, perhaps not what its creators had intended. But let's look at who these creators are, oh that right. owns and operates FLICKR. And wasn't it just a few years back when Yahoo cooperated with the Chinese government and passed along secrete details about one man's email account that ended up getting that person imprisoned? Afterwards took an incredible amount of heat for their decision to cooperate, and now just a few years later this is how they are rewarded, by blocking the worlds most popular photo sharing website. It makes little sense.

Blocking sites, blocking pictures, slow FTP and obtaining personal information from web companies by threatening to shut down their China operations, are just some of the ways in which China is engaged in an all out war with the internet. Who will win, well I think the internet will win. People will always create new technology to stay one step ahead of Cisco System, the provider of most of China's Net Nannie equipment.

The real question, however, isn't who will win and who will lose, it's about the cost of this war. How many business suffer in China because of slow and impeded web access. How many good opinions are blocked when trying to isolate a few bad one's? How many beautiful pictures of China are blocked in relation to the one's from that protest and beating in Central China? Does all this just seem a little too paranoid? Does it seem like just a little too much? It does, I am sick of it. In the time it took to write this blog I have only been able to upload 4 images out of my batch of 30. Efficiency is king, and China is at the bottom end of that spectrum.

ps. I really hope this is the last time I have to write about my slow FTP problems in China.


Ryan Pyle

Monday, June 11, 2007

Ryan Pyle Blog: Rules, What Rules?

I was witness to something last week that was shocking. And its my opinion that this incident, and behavior like it, is becoming more typical of China's elite.

Living in Shanghai, a bustling city of around 20 million, I am subject to witnessing a lot of different types of behavior. One type of behavior will be the subject of today's blog, my colleagues and I like to call it the "I'm above the law" syndrome. A typical description of this behavior might be when a member of China's new elite, a government official or wealthy business person, parks his new Porshe or BMW or Audi A6 in a "No Parking Zone". The problem with this is that there are police officers on every street corner in Shanghai directing traffic and the illegally parked car is quick to be ticketed. Should the owner or driver be in the immediate area when this is occurring a yelling match is often quick to follow. Emotions often run very high in big urban centers.

As I walk around this city on my weekends, doing a lot of street photography, I constantly see car owners yelling at police men. In many cases the car owners simply don't like being told what to do, they feel that because they drive a nice car, or any car at all, that they are above the law and can essentially do what they want. This is often the same for traffic laws as well. In all my travels in all the world I have never witnessed car owners (and drivers) yelling red-faced at traffic police officers. It's a new phenomenon in China, and it's my opinion that it's happening more often in China's larger cities where wealth flourishes.

Now, I frequently travel from Shanghai to Hong Kong. I do this for a variety of reasons from picking up camera gear to re-connecting with friends that I made when I was living there in 2002/2003. Because of my frequent visits to Hong Kong I am eligible for a Hong Kong International Airport (HKIA) Frequent Visitors (FV) Card. It's nothing special, if you visit more than 3 times a year you are eligible and it essentially means that you don't have to wait in the passport check / immigration lines. It's a great service and its something it really makes my travel much much easier. I was in HKIA last Friday June 8th at 5pm. After checking in I was moving to the immigration section or passport checking area to depart Hong Kong. Upon entering the passport checking area I notice that the regular immigration line up was huge, luckily I reached for my HKIA FV Card and headed up to the desk. Just as I was about to enter the line I was gently nudged aside by 4 Chinese passport holders.

They seemed in a rush so I slowed my step and let them enter the line ahead of me. Things stayed calm until the attendant who administers the Frequent Visitor line determined that none of these Chinese folks had FV Cards. When the attendant asked the four Chinese passport holders to re-join the regular line for exiting Hong Kong the trouble started.

The HKIA attendant began to ask, in Mandarin, a series of questions very calmly. "Do you have a Frequent Visitors Card?" "Are you late for your flight?" "Why are you in such a rush?" It seemed like a very rational set of questions for a group of people who seemed most determined to jump the line.

The Chinese passport holders than began to ignore the HKIA attendant and as he continued to ask questions and try to demand answer the Chinese folks just snickered amongst themselves and one man was actually laughing. The only woman of the group actually raised her hand, as if to wave him off and get him to stop with the questions. This group of Chinese passport holders clearly didn't have the HKIA FV Card, and they didn't seem to care. It became obvious that they felt they had the complete right to jump the line.

After a few minutes the HKIA attendant gave up, and the Chinese passport holders jumped the line and passed through with nothing but a few dirty looks from the people in the regular line. I stood back in awe, what had I just been a witness to?

A group of four Chinese passport holders, dressed in business attire, had brought their "I'm above the law" attitude to the HKIA. In effect this attitude, which is all too common in China had just been exported to Hong Kong. I was disappointed. I feel its one thing for people to behave like that in their own country, but to export their air of superiority to a place like Hong Kong, which has a long and proud tradition of the Rule of Law, just didn't seem right.

Now the rule of law is weak in China and most people are aware of this. The law doesn't really protect human rights or property rights or really anything that matters. While the local governments have been quick to build massive court houses and legal administrative buildings, their actual capability to solve problems or administer law has been lacking. Now I agree that China's development has been the most rapid in human history and that when the economy grows this fast it's often the law that is left playing catch up, but what is troubling isn't that the courts are weak, it's that some people (mainly new elite) believe that the law doesn't apply to them or that they can throw money on the problem and it will go away.

A lot of you might think that I am making too much of this small incident at an airport, and perhaps I am. But if I am its because I am worried of an ever greater problem that I see just below the surface of incidents like this. I see a massive country producing wealth like there is no tomorrow. I see a country without any evidence of the Rule of Law. I see a small minority of the country who happen to be either politically connected or wealthy doing essentially what they want when they want and taking little or no regard for people around them. I see a country with a growing feeling of nationalism and an air of superiority that seems to be unchecked. This scares me.

Ryan Pyle
Skype: ryanpyle

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Ryan Pyle Blog: The Role of the THUG

The Chinese countryside is a vast and expansive place. Roughly 700 million people call the rural regions of China home and with most of the wealth and good jobs existing in the urban areas, a lot of rural people find themselves with a whole lot of nothing to do. So often jobs are created out of nothing, and people often sit around for weeks until something rouses their attention.

Enter the THUG.

A thug is, at least as part of my vocabulary, a Mafia-like term meaning essentially "The Muscle". The body guards, and/or guys who do the dirty work. We've all seen them before in movies like: Goodfella's, The Godfather and my personal favorite, Casino.

Thugs in China often operate within the gray area that exists between the government and private industry. They don't exactly work for the government but they protect the interests of government and private industry, which are essentially the same thing in the remote regions. Thugs in China can intimidate local people to move off their land, keep local people quiet of certain incidents or help run interference when foreign journalists visit to snoop around....among many other things.

A few weeks ago I found myself in a remote region of Shandong province, for those who may not be sure it's the large province that sits just north of Shanghai and south of Beijing. I was working on an assignment that was part of the large food and drug quality controls that exist in China.

When my writing partner and I arrived in a remote village in Shangdong we could tell right away that the thugs had arrived first, and succeeded in intimidating the locals. None of the local villagers would to talk with us. As we moved down the streets attempting to converse, people ran in to their homes and bolted up there front doors. It wasn't the friendly welcome I had been hoping for, and it made getting a decent quote difficult.

After snooping around factories, and talking to the few people who didn't run away from us, the thugs arrived. They were driving a black Honda with tinted black windows. (it's always usually a black VW Santana with tinted windows but it was clear that business was good in this village)

After they harassed our driver they turned to us. As they started hurling questions at us about who we were and what we were doing; we replied with only "Who are you?". And that question seemed too difficult to answer. The man in charge, looking eye to eye with me was wearing black leather lofers, white pants mildly too tight, and a snug white t-shirt that exposed a beer belly. He stood dumb founded. As we produced business cards indicated who we were and what we did for a living this man in white was silenced. He lingered on that he worked for the government but wasn't a government official, he could produce no business card - a true rarity in China. (Even taxi drivers have business cards!)

The lead thug then began with his mobile, a new Motorola Razor, talking to the propaganda department of the local country who's job it was to my life as difficult as possible. As he continued on the phone my writing partner and I decided to hit the road and get out of dodge, so to speak. The locals were tight lipped, the doors were bolted and the thugs were calling in back up. This wasn't going to have a happy ending.

As we drove away from the village we noticed that our black Honda was following us, in fact they were right behind us. As we paced along at 100km/hr our thugs were less than 20m behind us and didn't have the decency to leave at least one car between us, very clandestine. They followed us, for over an hour, until we left the county. And while they were intrusive and essentially ruined our reporting, they did not pose a real physical threat like the baseball bat and hammer carrying thugs in the movies.

I've been done in by thugs in the past, whether it was my assistant/translator getting detained in Kashgar for 24 hours, or getting stopped by 3 cars full of thugs in Sichuan province, and detained for a full day. It happens, sadly, too often. Rarely are they violent or aggressive. Mostly they just are there to deter or distract. Instead of carrying aluminum baseball bats they carry Motorola Razors and European Carryalls for men. They get in the way, make threats and scare the locals from talking to us. It's a brutal moment on any assignment, seeing that black VW Santana (or Honda) arrive and having two or three badly dressed large men get out of the car and walk towards we go, again.

Ryan Pyle
Skype: ryanpyle