At about 10:30 last night, in the country of China, the city of Beijing, the neighborhood of HouHai, part of the universe vanished. With a snap of the fingers -- a tap of the keyboard, really -- it was gone.
I was logging on to my VPN connection, which allows me to circumvent Chinese Internet restrictions, when my laptop screen went solid blue. A message followed, which said in essence that I should reboot the computer and pray that it came back on. I did, and it did, but my VPN was gone, and with it any information on the Web that the Communist Party of China would prefer that people not view.
The VPN (Virtual Private Network) software creates an Internet line that gives users the ability to virtually tunnel past what's frequently called the "Great Firewall of China" -- the restrictions on Internet usage here. Where I once had a VPN I now have only this message: "Error 5: No host name exists for this connection entry. Unable to make VPN connection."
I've sent a note to our tech guys, and am sure things will soon be right, but for now a part of the world's information has simply been chopped off.
So, in the interest of exploring the contours of the forbidden, I am right now opening a second browser window to see what is missing. Of course, this is just an idle scanning of the Web, prone to problems with my connection, servers and the sites I'm trying to open. But let's give it a try.
Firstly, I can no longer Twitter. That steady flow of information from China bloggers, news watchers and dissidents is gone. I cannot hear what they think is interesting or worth arguing about. Facebook is also forbidden.
Now typing "Tiananmen Square" into Google ... "Internet Explorer cannot display the webpage." And, curiously, now that I try to skip back to the Google homepage it too cannot be displayed. But I can go to the Yahoo homepage, where the e-mail is infamous here for being easily hacked.
I've closed the browser and when I open it again, Google's back.
No luck, of course, with dalailama.com. The same for an interview in the Christian Science Monitor with the exiled Uihgur leader Rebiya Kadeer. And an interview with Kadeer in Foreign Policy.
Amnesty International? No dice. Human Rights Watch? Nope.
Ok, now trying "Cultural Revolution." A lot of sites came up. Trying the first entry, which is Wikipedia ... long pause ... it's there with a general history. To quote: "Those identified as spies, 'running dogs' or 'revisionists' (such as landowners) were variously subjected to violent attack, imprisonment, rape, torture, sustained and systematic harassment and abuse, seizure of property and erasure of social identity, with unknown hundreds of thousands (or more) murdered, executed, starved or worked to death. "
But let's say I want something a bit more specific. Hu Jie's gut-wrenching documentary about a vice principal killed at a Beijing High School during the Cultural Revolution is on YouTube, but it's blocked along with everything else at that site.
On to the blogs. The popular danwei and pekingduck sites don't seem to come up. The majority of other blogs that I usually check are loading, though some of them are very slow.
Interesting -- an entry at the China Media Project blog that translated Yu Jie's essay about his prickly meeting with state security is accessible. (Yu wrote a book critical of China's premier, Wen Jiabao.)
Am pausing now to wonder what this tells us.
There are some things that the state here does not tolerate. Trouble in Tibet and the Uighur regions. Discussion of the Tiananmen Square crackdown. Interference by Western human rights groups. Unregulated communication by the masses via platforms like Twitter and YouTube.
Beyond that, the approach is much more nuanced. You can use Google, but it's not as convenient as Yahoo. You can learn about some history in general, but not in particular. You can write and read blogs, though access is a bit haphazard. In other words, there is a large field of things that the government will allow, with the price of dealing with a sliding scale of hassle.
It is easier, by far, to browse Xinhua, the state news service. The site is fast and colorful. Between the news reports and analysis about events across the globe, there's a large feature right now about the 2010 Miss Universe pageant. (Miss Mexico was the winner.)
After the jumble of restricted or slow sites, it feels a lot more convenient to just click on Xinhua or similar portals. That, I imagine, is the point.