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Asia Buzz: Cat and Mouse
Shanghainese Web addicts take on the authorities

November 16, 2000
Web posted at 11:55 a.m. Hong Kong time, 10:55 p.m. EDT

Shanghai! Pearl of the East, Whore of Asia, the Dragon's Head, the New Hong Kong? Can imaginative copywriters come up with any more descriptions for this booming port city?

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Here's another: "Scourge of the Internet." But how can that be? Shanghai -- with its nerds who populate Fudan University -- is supposed to be the sharp end of the new Chinese economy?

Outwardly, that seems to be the case. Shanghai's polluted streets seem a lot like other busy Asian metropolises. Internet companies have also commandeered the sides of buses to advertise dotcoms, imploring locals to log on and make Netrepreneurs rich. The local business magazines profile groovy 20-something geeks clad in regulation city-black as if they are the new Jerry Yang of Yahoo! Occasionally there's an inquiring piece, like in this month's national business journal Caijing, which questions how these young pioneers are going to make money, particularly when you consider that a miniscule $10 million of China's $6 billion advertising spend found its way online.


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The story behind today's news from the editors of Asiaweek

Shanghai generally seems pretty upbeat and the World Trade Organization-bound China seems willing, if not desperate, to reinvent and integrate itself into the New Economy.

That is until you log on to sites, particularly those of foreign media (such as this one), which give you a bit more insight into modern Chinese life than the coal output for September in Heilongjiang province. And thus begins a boring cat-and-mouse game with local authorities as eager and determined to block useful sites as users are to access them. Users find themselves bouncing from proxy server to proxy server to get around the firewalls put up by China. Of course, one can simply dial into Hong Kong or the West and access a global ISP such as AOL, Compuserve or AT&T. But the $6 a minute that hotels and China Telecom charge makes that pretty prohibitive.

Furthermore, China is getting smarter, blocking more and more sites that enable samizdat Net surfing. One popular site used by underground surfers in recent months in Shanghai has been The idea here is very simple. Anonymizer is hosted out of the U.S. and claims to provide a digital alias that stops pesky ISPs and sites from monitoring your surfing habits. You log on to Anonymizer, tap in the domain you want to access into the provided field, and Anonymizer does the rest. It locates the site and redirects you -- anonymously -- to your requested site.

Anonymizer has been a big hit this year with the foreign community in Shanghai, enabling them ready access to "subversive" activities like reading the "New York Times" online, or "TIME," among many others. But no more. The Chinese authorities have blocked the site in the past month -- frustrated users, particularly those less familiar with Net protocol, are fearful again that their online activities are being monitored and complain that China's censorship has gone too far. Stuff like this also worries proponents of China's accession to the World Trade Organization, with the group's new obsession with online commerce and information technology.

But because it's the Internet, users are proving infinitely resourceful. Suddenly Shanghainese Web addicts are getting skilled in basic German and Swedish in order to access popular proxy sites. It wouldn't be right for me to name them -- that might simply start another round of cat-and-mouse -- but suffice to say if you are heading to Shanghai and want to keep up with the news online, you might want to do some research on Stockholm and Frankfurt before you go.

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