I landed in China after a thirteen hour non-stop flight from Chicago feeling elated, excited, tired and uncertain about what to expect. I had been to Asia before with a visit last year to India and Nepal and trip to Japan years ago. I’ve found these countries fascinating yet for some reason I was unsure what my expectations would be of China. I had heard a lot about it. Both good and bad. It was time for me to judge for myself.
Of course I knew there would be tons of amazing history and culture to see. Not many other places in the world can boast about having a 5,000 year-old civilization. Yet I also knew it would be crowded, polluted, controlled, different, and perhaps confusing giving the huge paradox between the old and the new.
As I got off the plane and entered Beijing’s new Terminal 3, one of the largest terminals in the world that was completed just before the 2008 Olympics, my eyes widened. It was so huge, so modern, and so clean. This couldn’t be China, could it?
Photo taken just past midnight at Beijing International Airport’s Terminal 3.
We retrieved our luggage, and wearily followed the clearly marked signs in English pointing to the taxi line. Then, all hell broke loose. As we stood there, waiting patiently in line, there was a mad dash of black-haired Chinese pushing past us and jumping into cabs haphazardly. It was organized chaos. It was so uncivilized. It was China.
We arrived at our hotel well past one am, in a trance-like mood after so much travel. I hardly noticed the row after row of street food canteens lining the brightly light streets. Instead, what I noticed was the Soviet-looking appearance of our Trip Advisor rated hotel. The outside was just plain old ugly. Yet the inside was surprisingly nice.
We checked in to silence. No one was around except a few late night stragglers coming back drunk, commenting on how wonderful the Beijing nightlife was. The room was more than adequate (much nicer than the outside of the building) and since we were going on a twelve-hour time difference there was no way I could fall asleep. It was 1 am yet my body was telling me it was noon.
My plan of attacking jet leg was to have a few glasses of wine, stay up for a while and then try to sleep four to five hours if possible. It has worked before so I was hoping it would work this time.
I went down to the lobby to check my emails and enter my first blog post when I had my first real dose of serious culture shock. I entered www.wordpress.com and nothing happened. Hmmm. I was tired but I couldn’t quite understand why on earth it wasn’t working. I next went to my email and tried reading some of my fellow blog posts. I could read the emailed short version but then when I clicked on the link to read more, it went blank. Frustrated, I decided to try going on my Facebook page to send out a message to my friends that I had arrived and was here. No dice. It went blank.
It took me a day until it finally hit me that these sites as well as other social networking and media sites are blocked in China. I couldn’t believe it. I guess when I look back, it all makes sense to me and I should have known that this would be the case. I know that China’s government censors all its media including the internet. Yet for some reason I was completely taken aback.
I’ve heard stories off CNN being cut off right in the middle of a program. Words being mysteriously erased from Obama’s speeches. I’ve heard about the jailed and imprisoned writers, journalists and human rights activists who tried to speak their mind. Yet I was absolutely stunned by the level of censorship on the big wide web. How in the heck do they do it?
A timely November 7, 2011 article in the Financial Times claimed that:
“The heads of China’s leading information technology companies have pledged to censor internet content more strictly as the Communist party tries to tame the country’s boisterous online media”.
“While the Communist party regards the internet as making a positive contribution to economic development, it runs a vast censorship machine to ensure that online information does not challenge its grip of power”.
For a country that is advancing at lightning speed, with its 1.3 billion people wanting more and more a piece of the economic pie, I find this situation to be completely mind-boggling. As an American, I’m used to being able to say or do what I want. I had never realized how much I’d taken this liberty for granted until I was in a place where freedom of speech was gone.
Another big surprise was how incredibly slow the internet is in China. Whenever you do a search, the internet runs at a snail’s speed to find or not find the answer. I could just picture the giant censorship apparatus at work. How do do it?
With anything illegal, of course there are ways around it. Censorship can become uncensored. You can use a proxy service to sneak into blogging sites or Facebook, if you like. Likewise, many times things written in English from foreign sources are not censored (yet the Chinese versions are). An American businessman I met traveling in China told me he could access Facebook only on his Blackberry. And China does have their own Chinese versions of Facebook and Twitter-like tools which are in demand and growing. Yet it leads me to wonder how long this can really go on. The estimated 500 million internet users in China only continue to grow, as does the breadth of the wild wild web.
Will censorship be possible forever?
Stay tuned…next will be Day 1 Culture Shock galore!