Remembering China's May Fourth Movement: slowing the internet to a crawl

Blogspot has re-disappeared, MSN Messenger is inaccessible from an artsy Beijing cafe, searches for Carrefour are just back from going unanswered, and the spring sky is clear.

Blogspot has re-disappeared , MSN Messenger is inaccessible from an artsy Beijing cafe, searches for Carrefour are just back from going unanswered, and the spring sky is clear. It's the 89th anniversary of China's May Fourth Movement.

In 1919, student activism took a powerful and still-honored turn for the patriotic in China. On May 4, thousands of students gathered at Tiananmen to protest the Treaty of Versailles and its treatment of previously German-held territory in Shandong Province, which was given to Japan rather than back to China.

Today, students have been at the forefront of recent demonstrations of national pride in the face of demonstrations against the Olympic flame as it toured the world. After a French demonstrator went after a woman carrying the torch in a wheelchair, anti-French sentiment was converted to demonstrations and boycotts directed against the French megamart Carrefour.

As with most political action these days, demonstrations have been organized using the internet, and indications are that Chinese authorities are out to keep things calm today. Bloggers such as Google Blogoscoped have spilt untold bytes discussing the fact that Google.cn now blocks Carrefour searches. That's now over, but Baidu had also severely limited its results for some days.

Today, from various connections in Beijing, the internet is palpably slower. One suspects the content filters are unusually active today, though it's always possible this has absolutely nothing to do with May Fourth. Slow internet days are a fact of life in China, where transpacific bandwidth has not yet grown to its full potential.

Either way, a South China Morning Post article the other day (not online) noted that the protests hit Carrefour's sales, and discourse on the anti-foreign protests, including vocal opponents of anti-Carrefour tactics, is healthy on the Chinese internet. Wang Jianshuo went to Carrefour yesterday, and shows us before and after photos: It's still undercrowded.

No one doubts the government's desire to avoid unrest and conflict leading up to the Olympics. There's no way to know whether today's molasses-speed connections are related to what day it is, but it wouldn't surprise me. For now, it's time for me to go celebrate Youth Day.

About the author

    Formerly a journalist and consultant in Beijing, Graham Webster is a graduate student studying East Asia at Harvard University. At Sinobyte, he follows the effects of technology on Chinese politics, the environment, and global affairs. He is a member of the CNET Blog Network, and is not an employee of CNET. Disclosure.

     

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