Reflections on a Wandering Life.....

Sunday, December 26, 2010

China, the New Black Hole 

I grew up in a boarding school in Northern Japan. It was an isolated environment in many ways, but I had a connection to the world that predated computers by a generation. It was my short wave radio. I used to tune in the Voice of America from the States, the Far East Network (American Armed Forces Radio) from Tokyo, and Radio Moscow from the Soviet Union. But from China, nothing. China in those days was the "black hole."

China's "reform and opening up" has changed that situation dramatically, but the vestiges of China's historical antipathy toward outsiders does have modern manifestations. A fascinating map put together by a Facebook Intern shows a light for every Facebook connection in the world.

Click picture for high resolution image.
Most interesting is the big blank spot where China is supposed to be. Facebook is blocked in China. But the map is misleading. I am in China, and I use Facebook regularly. The blocking of Facebook started a revolution among young people who suddenly had a reason to break through the GFW (Great Firewall of China). VPN (Virtual Private Networks) are fast becoming a standard accessory for young people who want to be involved internationally. When you use a VPN, it effectively takes you "out" of China. The other day, I was trying to view a video on Youku (Chinese Youtube copycat site) that I sometimes use for language practice. Since I was going to a site inside of China, I didn't need my VPN, but I had been using it for something else, and had forgotten to turn it off. When I tried to access the Youku video, I got a message that said, "Sorry, but this video is currerntly available to be streamed within China only (China blocks some content going out as well as some content coming in)." Obviously, I was coming at it with an IP address outside of China. So when you look at the lights in this Facebook map, many of them do in fact show connections with Chinese users, but they show up as connections to locations (wherever the VPN server happens to be) outside of China.

The blocking of Facebook was frustrating at first, but in many ways, it is one of the best things that has happened to the Internet in China, because it has motivated young Chinese engineers to conquer the GFW like nothing else could have.

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