The notice was thoughtfully displayed on top of a writing pad next to the telephone, in our hotel in Shanghai. But no one telephones nowadays. So I didn’t see the sheet of paper, with its neatly formatted corporate logos, until my daughter brought it to me to make her a paper airplane.
There they were, in a list: a majority of the websites that constituted the parameters of my daily information intake as a resident of the United States of America, all of which are now formally banned by the Chinese government as a security measure. To a millennial resident of San Francisco, the list also reads as a rebuke of my generation’s priorities. But the People’s Republic of China isn’t interested in judging my life choices. It is flexing its ability to regulate the sources of information accessible to whoever are within its borders, Silicon Valley be damned.
I had seen the exact same list a week before, at my hotel in Beijing. It had the same awkward phrasing in English, and the carefully rendered corporate logos were in the same order. It is clearly the same file issued by some central authority, then printed and distributed by each hotel.
The issuance of such clear notices is a fairly stunning reversal of the stance taken by China just a decade ago, when its censorship of the Internet, via the so-called Great Firewall, was discreet and inwardly directed, hidden behind plausible deniability. Even just three years ago, in 2016, these same websites were not banned outright; instead, access to them was slowed down so much that only the most desperate would try to rely on them to communicate.
There are ways to get around the restrictions, but those are also getting more difficult. Last time I was in China, in 2016, I downloaded a free VPN after I arrived and had no trouble using it. This time, I had downloaded and paid for a premium VPN before leaving the U.S., but it has not worked. At a friend’s recommendation, I downloaded another VPN app after arriving, but that has not worked either.
I’ll be in China for four weeks this time. It is an unthinkable obstruction of daily life to be without the customary tools one uses to communicate with one’s friends and the world.
But at least there is a robot that prepares soft-serve ice cream.