Why China’s Block of the New York Times Doesn’t Matter (As Much As It Once Did).

Earlier this week, Jim Fallows – via his blog – broke the story of the Chinese government’s block of the New York Times website in China. It’s an important story, and a really nifty piece of blogged reporting: Fallows asked his China-based readers to email whether or not they could access the NYT’s site, and by the end of the day, he had his scoop. Who says you can’t report from a desktop?

Anyway, in addition to sending in a Shanghai-based connectivity report to Fallows, I also sent along (a day later) some thoughts on the relative importance of the NYT block in 2008, as compared to the impact of such a block in 2002, when I first moved here. At his suggestion, I’m posting 99% of that email, below (with some hyperlinks and two end notes added):

[UPDATE: The NYT’s site was un-blocked on Monday, Dec. 22. However, I think this post remains relevant, regardless of the NYT’s connectivity status.]

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But I have to admit, I can’t help but stand back and compare the relatively minor impact – on me, at least –  of a NYT block in 2008, to the ones that regularly occured when I first moved here in 2002. Back then, I can recall being frustrated to the point of anger at regular blocks on the NYT, LAT, and the WP – they were my primary sources of China news. Knock them out, and my knowledge of China was much less. Flash forward to 2008, and I can tell you that I still read those papers (although, I think the WSJ’s China coverage is, by far, the best of the major American papers), but they are no longer my primary sources of China news. Instead, I start the day with a scan of danwei‘s “from the web”, ESWN, China Environmental Law, and occasionally, Shanghaiist (all of which are reported – as opposed to – opinion blogs). And only then do I move to the traditional media, starting with the SCMP. In fact, at this point, I rarely look at the NYT’s coverage (compare Yardley’s 30 years piece to the SCMP’s much tougher month-long series) due to the fact that it rarely breaks anything that wasn’t on the blogs or in the Hong Kong papers, first. And I’m guessing that I’m not the only one – more and more I’ve noticed major Western papers, and the AP and Reuters, in particular, picking up stories that – in some form – were originally broken on English-language China blogs (ie, the Fallows blog scooped the NYT on news related to their website!). I guess, in a sense, this is no different than what’s happening with political blogs in the US, though the China blogs are a bit different in that they’re often written by people with a specific kind of expertise, and typically involve more reporting than opinionating.

What’s curious to me – in fact, what’s astounding to me – is that the Chinese authorities either haven’t picked up on this phenomenon, or they don’t care. Instead, they are doing what Chinese officials always do: focusing their attention on the entity with the most prestige. Quite honestly, I think most Chinese officials would have a hard time believing that the rather rag-tag unwashed mass of (for the most part) young, male, poorly compensated bloggers could actually drive news coverage.

I don’t mean to suggest that the block isn’t important. But it is interesting (to me, at least) that it is so much less consequential to consumers of English-language news in China, in 2008, than it would have been even two years ago (admittedly, a small group of people, even including the Chinese readers of English). If I had the competence to read and understand the Chinese language blogs that break news, I’d guess that it would matter even less.

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A couple of end notes. First, I should have added the excellent China Law Blog to the list in the email. I read it daily. And second, I compare Jim Yadley’s piece on the thirty years of reform to the SCMP’s outstanding month-long series, 30 Years of Reform (paid subscriber only). Some have speculated that Yardley’s piece was the cause of the block. If so, it’s interesting that the SCMP has been running a much tougher, much more “sensitive” (the catch-all word for topics that the CCP doesn’t like) and more detailed series of articles without any block at all.

[Addendum 12/22: I’ve had several people email in regard to why I would choose the SCMP over US-based media. Primarily, the issue is localization. Put differently, if you wanted to get information about a political event in, say, Minneapolis, who would you trust to give you the better news report: a Minneapolis political reporter who’s been covering the area for years, or a reporter with a national paper who drops in and out when national news is being made? My preference for HK papers over the NYT and other US papers comes down to the same issue. Hong Kong reporters, though not Chinese in a strict sense, are the local alternative so long as media is strictly controlled within Mainland China.]

10 thoughts on “Why China’s Block of the New York Times Doesn’t Matter (As Much As It Once Did).

  1. One other thing to remember regarding SCMP and why they may not care as much about it: you have to subscribe to get into most of the stories, including the month-long series.

  2. Of course, maybe we are looking at this all wrong. Maybe it was orchestrated by the Times to show they still have relevance with respect to China. I know I also rarely read anything in the NYT, but when I saw it was blocked, I wanted to read what could possibly be the reason. Like a lot of people I quickly went to nytimes.com. Maybe they paid someone off 🙂
    Never underestimate the value of the street cred from being blocked by the Great Firewall. It’s this decade’s banned in Boston.

  3. I doubt it’s Jim Yardley’s piece, as you can read the exact same piece on the iht.com site perfectly fine and also through google reader. More importantly though, the blocking is inconsistent, alternate IPs for the nyt aren’t blockedat all. Maybe they’re gauging how different media outlets respond to the block?

  4. I don’t think it’s that sophisticated. I think it’s a prestige thing, as Adam says. They aren’t trying to block all mention of a certain article—as they might with some domestic web story of a riot—but are trying to signal their displeasure at a big, powerful entity. And they know that they’d have support from at least some portion of their population in this if it ever came to that: the NYT can be painted like CNN.

    Or… maybe they’re just testing the consequences.

  5. bbb – You link to a google listing of stories related to broken undersea communication cables in the Mediterranean. Plausible, but unlikely. Here is what Fallows had to say in response to that hypothesis a few days ago:

    “Could the problem be related to a recent physical break in three of the four main internet cables connecting Asia to North America? (As reported here and elsewhere.) Maybe — but at face value that wouldn’t seem to explain why the NYTimes.com site loads at normal speeds when you’re using a VPN but times-out when you try it through the plain, old, Great Firewall-screened Chinese internet. It also wouldn’t explain why most other international sites seem to behave normally.

    When the main undersea cable off Taiwan was cut in an earthquake nearly two years ago, you knew it immediately. Internet traffic in most parts of Asia was either interrupted altogether or brought to 300-baud dialup modem speeds. But maybe this recent break somehow contributes to the NYT problem?”

  6. Great observations. Roland Soong of ESWN recently wrote about foreign media’s growing irrelevance. Back in 2006 I did a study of how blogs were impacting foreign media coverage of China. It would be interesting to re-do the survey today. Here‘s the academic paper I wrote from the study, free draft here(PDF). (Thanks to the slow gears of academic publishing, the thing didn’t get published till this year.)

  7. What strikes me is how off the mark almost all Chinese media and blog coverage is about the West. If you read what Chinese readers have access to you come away with a fundamentally incorrect view of the West. Of course this is true in reverse with the exception that Westerners have access to many more viewpoints on China than do Chinese about the West.

    All you have to do to measure the misinformation that the Chinese labor under is ask anyone of them about the Dalai Lama.

  8. I can read both languages and from what I can see, China is likely to publish good things about the west, most of the anti-china propaganda actually comes from the western media sources.

    The things written on China is pretty bad and there are many gullible people who actually believe everything.

    I think if anything the west are most uninformed about China.

    Correction to Jay:
    The West have MORE sources that is written on ONE singular viewpoint.

    Who are you kidding…

    oh bloggers are a different exception, they are usually provoked by anti-china sentiments.

    Media should be controlled better otherwise you get all this garbage we get here in the west.

    I give up reading a lot of the big papers now days.

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