A few months ago, China Daily published a letter on its Web site from "D.H.," a reader who reported being both "extremely frustrated" and "pleasantly surprised" while surfing the Web in China. Although certain sites, such as Time magazine's, remained blocked, he said, others that seem at least as subversive, such as the online version of the pro-independence Taipei Times, were accessible.
"Overall," D.H. said, "the general trend has been clear -- the list of websites blocked in China has been getting shorter and shorter." He concluded by offering "kudos to China for continuing to grant more and more freedom to the people within her borders!"
I'm not sure "kudos," let alone exclamation points, are in order when a repressive government decides to be a little less repressive. But my experience during two weeks in Beijing, Changsha and Guangzhou jibes with D.H.'s impression in the sense that I encountered a puzzling mixture of sites that seemed to be blocked for political reasons and sites that were accessible even though they offered essentially the same information.
Internet connections are notoriously unreliable in China, and you never see a screen that announces "This Page Blocked by the Bureau of Censorship," so caution is appropriate when discussing the government's filtering. A page that does not come up the first nine times you try to connect may finally load after the 10th attempt.
But when you're unable to visit a site from different locations at different times on different days, even while other sites load with no problem, it's reasonable to surmise that the government is blocking it. Although D.H.'s letter claimed the government's BBC News block had been lifted, for instance, I was unable to open any pages from news.bbc.co.uk.
Even when articles from that address showed up in Google searches, when I tried to read them all I got was "The page cannot be displayed." Likewise, as D.H. mentioned, Time was consistently inaccessible.
Yet many other news sources were available, including CNN, Newsweek, The Washington Post and The New York Times. I suppose it's possible that the BBC and Time provide damning information about the Chinese regime you just can't get elsewhere, but it seems unlikely.
Trying to understand the source of Chinese censors' grudges against the BBC and Time may be a fruitless endeavor. But it does seem that the government's choices about which sites to block are more a matter of retaliating for perceived offenses than limiting the flow of information in any meaningful way.