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Watch with Mother

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Gone but not forgotten

I have just returned from a month's holiday in England.  After the heat and humidity in the oven that is the Beijing summer, the cool temperatures and brisk sea breezes were blessed relief.  There's nothing quite like a walk on a Norfolk beach to invigorate the soul.  What's more, after returning from my morning walk and turning on the computer, I would be treated to yet another breath of fresh air.  Open access to YouTube and Facebook no less!


  YouTube is fantastic for young children.  There are many really wonderful "learn to read" videos; and of course old favourites, like the entire Tom and Jerry library and all of the other cartoon classics.  It's not that I'm against my five-year-old's favourite, Ben 10, a modern-day cartoon super-hero (who's also blazing a trail in China), but I can't help thinking that the children's programmes I watched when I was a kid were, well, much better (not to mention far less violent).  So, if you want a trip down memory lane while giving your kids a treat at the same time, then YouTube is the place to be. 

 

  As a young kid in the 60s, my first memories of television are of watching Watch with Mother while eating mince pies.  Watch with Mother was the BBC's flagship children's programme of the 1950s, 60s and early 70s.  You'll be pleased to know that the early editions of it (copyright expires after 50 years in Britain) can be found on YouTube.   So... with a tip of the hat to the BBC, I'm sure you are more than ready for me to get to the point of this article.  But before I do, please allow me to ask a question:


  Are you sitting comfortably?  Yes?  Then I'll begin:


  Once upon a time there was a magician who could make words and images disappear. The Empress of the Land at the Centre of the Earth heard of the magician’s power and, fearful that these things could pervert her beloved children, summoned him to her palace. “You are commanded to rid this land of harmful intangibles,” said the assistants of the courtiers appointed by the minister who had been handed the Matriarch’s proclamation.  The wily magician thought for a moment before conjuring up a figure from thin air.  “This kind of magic doesn’t come cheap,” he said, rubbing his hands together.  “I will need 40 million grains of gold – paid in advance of course”.  The officials did their sums and enthusiastically agreed that any price was a small price to pay for keeping the country harmonious and Mother happy. 


  Making words and images disappear (or “green-damning” them if you would forgive the pun) is one thing; but not nearly as impressive as removing an entire country from the lexicon.  That requires very powerful magic indeed.  But, the signs are that the trick to beat all tricks has been pulled off.  If you are in China, try searching for news about the country (that, up until 1990, was called South-West Africa) on a local search engine and you could be forgiven for thinking that the place has disappeared off the map – which is odd considering that the said country is an increasingly important importer of Chinese goods and equipment.


  Google China’s graph showing the number of news stories that include the country’s name, flat-lined in July and thus far in August.  And, what’s more, if one tries to access China-related news about the country on the English language version of Yahoo (which, unlike the English version of Google, conforms to the protocol requirements of local search), then you will get no further than the all-too familiar error message Internet Explorer cannot display the webpage”.


  Blogs and current affairs websites that flout the unwritten rules and publish “undesirable word combinations” run a very high risk of being “disappeared”.  So, given that I write in China and am read by a loyal Chinese following (thanks Mr Liang and Miss Ma, much appreciated), I hope you can forgive my clumsy efforts to tiptoe around this issue (proving once again that self-censorship is the most effective form of censorship in China).  Suffice to say that the followers of south-west African current affairs will of course know why Mother is not sitting comfortably.  


  Expunging country “X” from search engine results is the latest eddy in China’s ever-fluid censorship protocol.  As recently as two years ago, even a popular British children’s Internet site, Cbeebies, was blocked.  For those of you who think that Bill and Ben, Andy Pandy, and Postman Pat are stalwarts of morality who would never conspire to threaten social harmony, I urge you to put yourself in Mother’s yellow slippers. 

 

  As any British five year-old could tell you, “Cbeebies” is a cunning encryption of “Children’s BBC”.  From the early days of the Internet, the BBC was identified as a subversive public enemy and consequently any Internet page – Wimbledon coverage, woman’s hour recordings, proms concerts and even the shipping forecast – that included “bbc” in its website address (URL) was automatically blocked.


  Last year, in a determined effort to be seen to be honouring the “censorship free Internet” commitment it had given to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) when pitching for the 2008 Games, the BBC and many previously blocked websites were unblocked.  Other beneficiaries included Wikipedia and Google (both of which, up until then, had frequently fallen foul of the unwritten code of conduct).  


  Today is the anniversary of the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics and, in respect of Internet openness at least, the first year's report card isn't looking good.  On the plus side, the BBC's website and Wikipedia are still up and running, but many other websites have been far less fortunate:  Access to Google news (non Chinese versions, whose web crawlers are – unlike Yahoo’s – unleashed outside of China) is frequently disrupted (presently the search function doesn’t work and the photos, videos and graphics don’t appear).  Google’s YouTube was disappeared in March (around the time of a sensitive anniversary) and hasn’t reappeared (my five-year old is most upset and wants to know why). 


  At this point, please allow me to clear something up:  If you are reading this website in China, you may be wondering why the video section of this website doesn’t show any videos.  The reason is that they are linked by html to YouTube, and if YouTube isn’t available, you can't see videos on this site (hence the numerous "holes"). 


  May saw the arrival of an even more sensitive anniversary and, not coincidentally, down went Gmail and Flickr for a while. It is also clear to anyone who gets out of bed and visits the toilet in the morning that the recent disappearance of Facebook and Twitter is firmly connected to events in Xinjiang.   A by-product (conspiracy theorists may disagree with this analysis) of all of these disappearances, reappearances, and further disappearances is that many home-grown (and therefore home-controlled) social network sites are now regarded by viewers, and the advertisers who chase them, as bastions of continuous connectivity, which is of course a crucially important ingredient for the success of any social networking site.


  Indeed, numerous Facebook and YouTube look-alike local channels must be laughing all the way to the bank. 

 

  As for the China businesses of the international social-networking brands that created the concepts, I would be very surprised if they are sitting comfortably.  I would be even more surprised if any of them lived happily ever after.

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Mother knows best