The BBC’s website in China has been unblocked, and the broadcaster says that yesterday 16,000 Chinese Internet users looked at its stories, up from the usual 100. While many Western news outlets get blocked by China’s Internet censoring from time to time, the BBC has been on double secret probation for
more than almost a decade. Unlike a site such as Google News, which you can visit sometimes but not always from the mainland, I’ve never been able to read BBC online without a proxy or other means. One explanation I was given by Rebecca MacKinnon, an expert on the Chinese Internet at the University of Hong Kong, was that sites with both English and Chinese content such as the BBC and Wikipedia get much more attention than English-only outlets. While hundreds of millions of Chinese study English, the number that could read a site like the BBC with ease is much smaller. And that population has at least some exposure to other sources news about the outside world anyway. What the authorities worry about is uncensored Chinese-language news getting to readers on the mainland. Indeed, the BBC’s Chinese language page is still blocked in China.
So why the change? The authorities don’t announce these things. The BBC says the government hasn’t even acknowledged the site was censored. One explanation is that this is the beginning of the expected opening up ahead of the Summer Olympics, and that come September things will return to normal. Still, it’s a curious development coming as the government and Chinese state press have complained about Western media coverage of the riots in Tibet.