The Great Firewall (or the Golden Shield Project, depending on your preferred title) has been acting mighty strange of late.
Early last week Chinese internet users noticed they were able to access the social networking site Google+ without tdhe assistance of censor-evading software. This week Facebook and the micro-blogging site Twitter, both of which are normally blocked in China, have also been intermittently available.
Why? So far there has been no clear explanation for the change, with both government and media largely silent on the issue. Even netizens seem at a loss to explain what is going on.
One rumour doing the rounds on weibo is that a student from Shanghai’s prestigious Jiaotong University had hacked into the firewall, opening up a window on formerly forbidden content.
Sina Weibo’s new anti-rumour department denied that, leading netizens to offer alternative theories for the sudden loosening of internet restrictions.
“Maybe this is the result of Xi Jinping going to the U.S,” posted one user, before concluding it was more likely that foreign sites such as Google+ had found a way to get around the Great Firewall.
Other more optimistic souls suggested the government might even be experimenting with greater internet freedoms.
“End of the Great Firewall?”wondered weibo user Yu Yangli. “I hope so.”
If that were genuinely the case, the authorities would probably find the response of Chinese netizens over the last few days quite encouraging.
Thousands did take advantage of the apparent loophole to flood President Obama’s re-election page on Google+. But the majority simply did so out of curiosity rather than as an overt political statement.
To the bemusement of Americans who bothered to run the translate function on the Google site, many of the messages from the wave of new visitors mentioned “sofa” or “floor” – Chinese internet slang for being the first to write something on a thread or join it later.
“The comments on the Obama campaign’s verified account are mostly in Chinese and reached a torrent in the last few days, drawing puzzlement and complaints from some American users,” wrote the Washington Post.
Many of the more serious messages simply expressed pleasure on experiencing the worldwide web as most other people do.
“Across the Great Firewall we can see the world,” wrote Baobao Rouzi.
But quite a few drew parallels between Obama’s page and their own access to China’s leaders. “It is easier to talk with President Obama than President Hu,” mused one.
Other Chinese comments made demands of Obama, some of them of a more political nature.
“Mr. President, we want American freedom,” said a posting under the name Zhang Mian. Quite a few comments played on this theme, and the desire for democracy. One netizen even invited Obama to ‘liberate’ China in the same way he did Iraq and Libya.
All in all, it got quite feisty.
Local media covered the breaching of the Great Firewall, including the Global Times.
In an editorial in its English edition on Tuesday, the newspaper mentioned “Occupy Obama” (as the event has become known), saying that it indicated the wish of the Chinese public “to communicate with high-ranking leaders through new media”.
In its Chinese edition, the newspaper noted further that people “normally don’t get to talk with officials” – an interesting admission given that the National People’s Congress, China’s parliamentary body, will convene in a few days.
In the meantime, bilingual Chinese have offered an explanation for what was going on to the confused American audience.
“It’s like when you haven’t eaten food for a long time,” weibo fan Wutingjian wrote. “When you finally get to eat you have no time to stop and think if it is delicious. I hope you could understand that, my American friends.”
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