Earlier this week, Chinese censors abruptly blocked access to the website of Jawa Pos, one of Indonesia’s largest newspapers, confounding its publishers.
Hoàng Nguyên Phong, a researcher at the Open Technology Fund who tracks Chinese censorship, noticed on March 24 that Jawapos.com, which is published in Bahasa Indonesia, was being restricted using a technique known as DNS poisoning, which spoofs a website’s IP address to direct traffic to the wrong place. His findings were later confirmed by China-based researchers contacted by Rest of World.
Decisions to censor content in China are taken by the country’s Cyberspace Administration, an opaque body that does not publicly explain its decisions. This leaves experts to speculate about the reasons behind any individual block — “it’s challenging to guess what is in the mind of the [Chinese Communist Party],” Phong said.
The most likely explanation, researchers said, is that Jawa Pos touched upon one of China’s great sensitivities — human rights or pornography — and was subject to an arbitrary decision by a censor.
Dhimas Ginanjar, Jawapos.com’s chief editor, said that he couldn’t understand the motivation for the block, which he only learned of through Rest of World’s enquiry. “This is strange because the Chinese embassy actively invites us for press conferences or sends various updates from them. Our last communication with the embassy was last week,” he said in an email, adding that the site’s coverage of China is “not too controversial.”
Recent stories on jawapos.com covered the creation of a tourism “Confucius Institute” in Bali, and several broadly positive pieces about the successful rollout of the Chinese-made Sinovac Covid-19 vaccine in Indonesia. The site is entirely published in Bahasa Indonesia, a language that is not widely spoken in China.
The jawapos.com block could be related to increased sensitivity in Beijing over foreign coverage of its repression of Uyghurs in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region. International public pressure on multinational companies, including Nike and H&M, over the use of forced labor in their supply chains has led to a surge of news coverage and discussion on Chinese social media. H&M products were removed from a number of Chinese e-commerce apps this week after a year-old statement made by the company was recirculated online. Phong found that the e-commerce site Storenvy.com was also blocked on March 25, presumably because it hosted at least one store which sells traditional Uyghur merchandise and supports Uyghur causes.
While Jawapos has published several stories that mention Xinjiang, recent pieces have given prominence to Beijing’s official statements denying accusations of genocide. Still, experts said that might not be enough to deter censors.
“It would not be surprising if they are just blanket blocking websites that are running editorials on [Xinjiang] without reading the content,” said one of the founders of the Chinese censorship monitor greatfire.org, who goes by the alias Charlie Smith. “Most of the actual censors speak English as a foreign language, so I imagine they have fewer resources for websites in other languages, and are therefore more likely to err on the side of caution and block websites without actually reading them,” Smith said.
Once blocked, sites are very rarely removed from the censored list, Smith added.
Kompas, the other major Bahasa Indonesia news site, was still accessible in China on March 26. Its coverage of Xinjiang is broadly comparable to that of Jawa Pos. The Chinese embassy in Jakarta did not return a call seeking comment.
The case highlights the often random nature of China’s Great Firewall, despite its reported use of sophisticated artificial intelligence tools alongside an army of human staff. False positives and errors are common, according to Phong. “The Great Fire Wall is sophisticated, but not perfect,” he said. “It is also designed in a way that confuses impacted users, and there can also be mismatch between order from the government and their actual implementation too.”
Phong posited another possible explanation for the sudden ban. The only other popular urls blocked at the same time were bejav.net and asg.to (very, very NSFW), two Japanese porn sites. It is highly possible, he said, that censors had misread the ‘jaw’ in Jawapos.com as ‘JAV’, which stands for Japanese adult video. “This blocking,” he said, “is so wild.”