Great Firewall gives and takes away

On the day China unblocked the BBC, The First Post found itself censored, says Linton Chiswick

BY Linton Chiswick LAST UPDATED AT 09:32 ON Thu 27 Mar 2008

On Tuesday, while the BBC celebrated its news site's first appearance on Chinese computer screens in a decade, The First Post wasn't having nearly as much luck. The tradition of hands-on web censorship in the People's Republic isn't going anywhere for the moment.

It's been called The Great Firewall of China, a crude but effective internet barrier blocking large numbers of Western sites from Chinese eyes. Chinese authorities have never admitted blocking the BBC's news output; nor did they, on Tuesday, confirm they were allowing traffic through.

But claims by BBC employees based in China that their news pages were suddenly accessible were substantiated by server statistics showing a substantial numbers of Chinese visitors to news.bbc.co.uk. Interestingly, the BBC's Chinese language pages remained blocked.

Meanwhile The First Post, a website which has traditionally enjoyed free access in China, ran a front-page story about a Chinese Olympic badminton coach who admitted match-fixing during the 2004 Athens games and continues to justify what ­ to most ­ would seem a blatant contradiction of the Olympic 'openness, fairness and justice' ideals.

The piece was read widely. Except not by its author, Gary Jones, who, based in Shanghai couldn't access it. While The First Post's front page was available, links to Beijing Games: another shuttlecock-up went directly to an error page that simply read "The connection was reset" - the very same message that had, until Tuesday, greeted Chinese visitors to the BBC's news site.

China's cynical PR exercise to 'allow' the BBC before the Games start is obvious, but what's also clear is that their hearts just aren't in it.

Allowing surfers free and unfettered access to stories about Britain's declining economy, the extravagance of our expenses-happy politicians and our luxury car brand fire sales is one thing; the real test will come when the BBC dares question the ethics of Chinese badminton. · 

For further concise, balanced comment and analysis on the week's news, try The Week magazine. Subscribe today and get 6 issues completely free.