China Cuts Off Access to Western News Sites Over the past week of uprisings in Tibet, the Chinese government has cut access to Western media websites to keep the Chinese people from finding out how serious the crisis has been. James Fallows of Atlantic Monthly explains how China's "Great Firewall" works.
NPR logo

China Cuts Off Access to Western News Sites

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/88827006/88826986" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
China Cuts Off Access to Western News Sites

China Cuts Off Access to Western News Sites

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/88827006/88826986" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

SUSAN STAMBERG, host:

Over the past week of uprisings in Tibet, the Chinese government has cut access to Western media Web sites - CNN, the BBC, YouTube among them - to keep the Chinese people from finding out how serious the crisis has been. Censorship is surely nothing new in China, but new technologies have been harder to control. In China, the Internet is filtered through a vast server dubbed The Great Firewall.

But James Fallows explains in the March issue of The Atlantic Monthly that monitoring The Great Firewall is just part of China's censorship strategy. Mr. Fallows joins us from our studio in Beijing. Good morning to you.

Mr. JAMES FALLOWS (Atlantic Monthly): Good evening to you, Susan.

STAMBERG: Right, depending where you're sitting. What happens when you type in the words Tibetan uprising on a search engine in China?

Mr. FALLOWS: To begin with, there are a number of sites that simply are blocked and they're on the permanent Do Not Connect list. And probably those of, you know, various Tibetan organizations would be involved there. If you go to a site, which at some other time would be innocuous enough, let's say an NPR site, and the content that's coming back on that page says things about Dalai Lama or Tibet or Lhasa or whatever, then keyword filters build in - would let you sort of reach that page, but then as soon as it started feeding back, your screen would go blank and it would say, you know, site not found or the connection was reset.

STAMBERG: Oh, that's extraordinary and sophisticated technology then.

Mr. FALLOWS: Well, when American technologists or Western technologists look at the Chinese firewall, they say, what's the problem? Because there are two quite easy ways to avoid every single means it has of controlling your content. One is something called a proxy server, which essentially conceals where you are coming from when you send a request. One of your requests is bounced to some other computer in Finland, is bounced to Brazil, and it's a way to sort of play, you know, hide the ball - and what you're looking for eventually comes back. The other is something called a VPN or virtual private network, which does the same thing in a kind of cleaner and faster way. And almost every foreigner working in China and a number of elite Chinese people have these systems. Because they mean you can get whatever you want. But it works because it's enough of a nuisance and enough of an expense for average Chinese people that they just don't bother, so the controls work for most people.

And I have one of these myself. It costs me $40 a year. You know, $40 a year to an average person in China is a lot more money than it is to me.

STAMBERG: Let's zero in now on information about protests in Tibet.

Mr. FALLOWS: You know, if you first think of just, of the media that come to you - either the newspapers or the TV - you know, for a long time the news of Tibet was just suppressed. For people who wanted to go further and look on the Internet, search for news themselves, if they were not using one of the ways to evade the great firewall, they simply couldn't get to a lot of sites.

And I did an experiment, actually, before coming here, of turning off my VPN and trying to search for as much Tibet-related news as I could. And just again and again and again, you got these site not found, connection reset, the Internet just freezing.

STAMBERG: You write that they're working on various aspects of the Internet system getting ready for the Olympics. So what's going to be different then about Internet access?

Mr. FALLOWS: I found somebody at a tech company who had been given a list of sites by the government, you know, Internet censors saying during the three or four weeks of the Olympics, take all the controls off these sites.

STAMBERG: Wow.

Mr. FALLOWS: And the sites were where the foreign reporters will be and the foreign athletes and the foreign dignitaries. And so the desired effect was these people would come, they'd log onto the Internet and they'd say, what's all this I hear about Chinese Internet censorship?

STAMBERG: Thank you so much, James Fallows. His Atlantic Monthly story on China's Internet is called "The Connection has Been Reset." Thanks, Jim.

Mr. FALLOWS: My pleasure. Thank you.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.