Testing Unblocked Foreign Websites inside China

By: yushu on 10 July 2008

Some signs have indicated that Chinese government is loosening the Internet censorship before the start of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. According to reports , the Chinese government has stopped restricting access to the Chinese Wikipedia in China since July 3. Hong Kong Ming Pao also reported that China unblocked Hong Kong news websites-except "Apple Daily" -ahead of Olympics. On Wednesday, July 9, six ONI volunteers from three Chinese cities, Beijing, Shanghai, and Nanjing, used China Telecom or Netcom Internet service to test the Chinese Wikipedia and four Hong Kong and Taiwan websites that were reported to be unblocked on Tuesday.

In contrast to these reports, our testing results showed that Chinese Wikipedia is still not accessible in Beijing, Shanghai, and Nanjing on Wednesday. Most of our volunteers received the error message reading “This page cannot be displayed,” except one volunteer in Beijing who just received the following blank webpage when he tried to access to the Chinese Wikipedia.

To look at the claims of Hong Kong and Taiwan websites being unblocked by Chinese government, we chose Ming Pao news website based in Hong Kong, Singtao news website based in Hong Kong, Yahoo! Hong Kong, and Liberty Times news website based in Taiwan. With the exception of the Liberty Times, the other three websites are accessible in three cities.

In order to further test whether Chinese Internet users are able to access to all information on those Hong Kong based news websites, one ONI researcher in the U.S. sent our volunteers the hyperlinks of two specific pieces of news on Ming Pao and Singtao websites about Funlungong and China Internet censorship including a lot of sensitive keywords, such as “June 4,” “Falungong,” and “human rights.” The volunteers are asked to directly access to these two pieces of news. The testing results showed that only volunteers in Beijing can successfully access to these two pieces of news. The volunteers in Shanghai and Nanjing were not able to read the content of the news (see the following screenshot), or their connections to the webpage were severed with an error message reading “This page cannot be displayed.” Despite low connection speed, other news without sensitive topics or keywords on Ming Pao and Singtao websites are accessible to all volunteers.

However, once our volunteers searched for sensitive topics, such as “Falungong,” “June 4,” and “Tibet riot” on three Hong Kong websites, all of their connections to those websites would be reseted for several minutes and then they received an error message reading “This page cannot be displayed.”

“Journalists are our friends”

Our testing results indicate that although China government appears to have at least momentarily unblocked some foreign websites in a move that can be attributed to the fast approaching Games, the user experience is still hampered by the documented system of using TCP reset packets to terminate connections based on sensitive keywords. Under Beijing’s “host city contract”, China should guarantee that the Internet is freely accessible for the entire duration of the Olympic Summer Games. However, this guarantee can also be narrowly construed. According to Hong Kong Ming Pao , the Beijing Olympic Committee is considering unblocking a part of foreign websites for foreign journalists. One month before the Olympics, the Chinese government has guaranteed press freedom and convenient and possibly unfettered Internet access—but only for the approximately 21,000 journalists gathering en masse to cover the Games. At the Main Press Center, various Venue Media Centers, and Olympics venues, the Internet may very well be fast and free , but whether Chinese citizens and critical voices will also be accorded the same openings has yet to be determined.