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
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.