Walled world

If you live in Beijing and Google molihua – jasmine flower – the ‘page cannot be displayed’.

The New York Times reports that sales of the fragrant little white flower are being suppressed in flower markets as China remains in a heightened state of anxiety that the scent of dissent may spread from West Asia. “Local officials, fearful of the flower’s destabilising potency, cancelled this summer’s China International Jasmine Cultural Festival,’’ said NYT. Text messages with the Chinese characters for jasmine are reportedly blocked.

The NYT report is not blocked, though its link to a video of President Hu Jintao singing the Qing dynasty folk song Molihua is behind walls.

Since February, ordinary tasks like reading the morning news online or just sending emails have become tests of patience. The latest Gmail mystery remains unsolved with both Google and the Chinese government saying they are not to blame for the reason why users across China are finding it difficult to sign into Gmail. I’ve given up clicking and refreshing Gmail chat. When I send messages, the computer hangs for several seconds or longer as if deciding whether to send it or stifle it.

Some news websites are now selectively accessible. I can access the Guardian homepage but there are days when I click on the China section and ‘the page cannot be displayed’.

The Guardian reports that China has now started turning its attention to virtual private networks (VPN) used to circumvent the firewall. “Chinese internet users suspect that their government is interfering with the method they have been using to tunnel under the Great Firewall to prevent them connecting with the outside world,’’ said the report. “Sites such as search engine Google and news site MSN have become difficult to access, they say. And a number of universities and businesses have begun warning their users not to try to evade the firewall.’’

There are still ways to find the news without VPN if you have plenty of patience. A version of molihua music played at the Beijing Olympics medal ceremonies is online in a 2008 China Daily report with an audio clip. “This piece of music reminds you of the gold medals for the Beijing Olympics, which are made of gold and jade,’’ Zhao Dongming, the head of the Olympics cultural department, is quoted saying.

Online life in China has completely changed since the Olympian heady rush of 2008 when I came to Beijing. I could then post Facebook messages, chat on Gmail and download YouTube videos.

Since April in Beijing, I can no longer open the Hindustan Times e-paper on my laptop, though the homepage and other sections of the website are available. Friends in Beijing are wondering why they can’t click and read the paper either.

A reader from a remote northern province emailed that he can’t access his morning paper and ‘misses the news’. A few days later the same reader sent another email. “HT opens well in Stockholm where I am on holiday.”

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