Monday, April 27, 2009

Satisfaction and Disappointment: A Day in China

This blog post actually has very little to do with either business or government, but it has a lot to do with China and why I will most likely never make my “permanent” home here.

First the good news...

I learned long ago that to have more than one agenda item in a day while in China is to risk disappointment. The one item will inevitably take much longer than you expected, and may not even be accomplishable within a single day. I began this day with the modest goal of procuring round-trip train tickets to a city outside of Shanghai so that I can meet an auto industry veteran to whom I have been introduced by a mutual friend.

Despite being misdirected by the front desk personnel of my hotel, I was able to ask around and find the ticket office about a block away from where I had been directed. When I finally found the ticket office, I almost walked past it because I was expecting to see a room crammed with people and lines out the door. Much to my delight, the room was nearly empty! (Causing me to wonder if they had simply sold out of tickets.)

The girl who sold me my tickets was almost pleasant and even smiled a little. The transaction took less than a minute, and I walked away with the entire day ahead of me.

Back in my hotel room, I resumed working on a problem I had encountered the day before. Since arriving at this particular hotel from a less conveniently located one across town, I had been unable to use my VPN (virtual private network) to access the internet.

While the VPN is not absolutely necessary for run-of-the-mill web access (I can still check email and update my blog – for now), to me it is crucial for having a secure channel through which I can do things like pay bills, check my credit card and bank account balances, place securities trades, and, yes, access uncensored news.

Maybe I am a little too paranoid, but I am wary of the engineering prowess of Chinese hackers, and I would rather not have to deal with ID theft – especially while I’m away from home. I imagine the horror of surviving on handouts while waiting for a replacement ATM card to arrive.

After uninstalling and reinstalling my VPN software numerous times, reading all of the help files, trying to reconfigure my internet connection, pulling my hair out, rebooting about a thousand times, pulling more hair out, etc., I finally decided to just ask the hotel people about it. They seemed friendly enough.

When I asked, they were surprisingly forthcoming. “In preparation for the Olympics we had to change the equipment, and now VPNs cannot be used.”

“I see. But I stayed here last summer and used my VPN with no problems.”

“Yes, but we had to do this right before the Olympics in August.”

“Well, this creates a problem for me.”

“I am sorry and embarrassed (对不起,不好意思).”

Naturally, I don’t like it when other people make decisions on my behalf. When I clicked on news stories this morning that should have otherwise been immediately available to me, I was suddenly getting a number of timed out pages.

And it’s not like I cannot find the information elsewhere without a fairly thorough search, but the very idea that I cannot see what I want to see, when I want to see it, unnerves me. Access to information is the bedrock foundation of scholarship. My job as a social scientist is to read and assess all sides of an issue, but that’s awfully hard to do when someone is choking off part of my access.

Fine. So it has made things inconvenient for me. I can deal with that. But what disappoints me so much about this is the fact that the tools used to control information are a blunt instrument that not only prevent a relative minority of potential troublemakers from stirring up unrest, but they also thwart the actions of people who have every intention of making an honest and reasoned assessment.

And while this will not prevent me from conducting my research, it does prevent me from maintaining the broader world of context into which the knowledge I will gather should fit. And while I still want to maintain my independence as a scholar, it’s little things like this that just make it that much harder.

I took a quick walk down the street to another hotel and inquired whether they had internet in the rooms (they did), and whether I could use a VPN. As soon as I mentioned the VPN, their smiles disappeared and heads wagged from side to side.

On top of all this, there is a guy in China who spends his days beating the hell out of a piece of sheet metal with a ball-peen hammer, and, I swear, he has been dispatched to every hotel and apartment I have ever stayed in. He’s outside my window right now, hammering away as I write this.


  1. Curious - who is your service provider for the VPN and which one did you get? As I understand it there are some VPNs that are a bit more difficult to block... Down south here in GZ, I'm having no difficulties using Witopia's SSL service (they have one level lower though that is a bit more restrictive and supposedly slower).

  2. I'd recommend be-friending some ex-pats or missionary types (do they have the latter in China? in Africa, they abound). these folks always have the type of internet access someone like you or me want/need.

  3. Greg, please note that the guy who spends his days beating on sheet metal with a ball-peen hammer has a monopoly on all hotels in China, so there's nothing you can really do about this. I'm with Kim- befriend a few expats and you'll be introduced to fairly reliable VPN in no time. Or, drop by an English school and ask one of the foreign teachers; they always have a few tricks up their sleeves. Good luck!

  4. PS - A solution that a lot of expats use in China is Tor or free proxies (though I was having a lot of issues with both so I figured I'd bite the bullet and pay for

  5. @Clement Wan -- Thanks for the suggestions. I've found a temporary, but less than ideal solution. Checking out witopia too.

  6. One more - was looking for something else and came across this site - talking about sites that help make you appear as if you are coming from the US for accessing sites like hulu that can be only viewed in the US; but the effect is the same -


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