The chill behind China's vision of a 'beautiful' internet

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WuzhenImage source, Getty Images
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The beautiful waterways of Wuzhen, the venue for the great and the good of the internet world to gather

Wuzhen, I can only imagine, has been chosen as the venue for China's World Internet Conference because it is beautiful.

That is one of the recurring themes of the event: that the internet is a thing of beauty which should be shared and cherished by all mankind.

And Wuzhen is a water town, a village held together by interconnecting canals, criss-crossed by elegant stone bridges.

So that kind of works for the internet metaphor too. But the town, as it happens, is also unbearably cold at this time of year.

It is a miserable kind of cold that seeps into your bones until reporters waiting to go live in front of canal-side cameras find themselves hopping up and down and swearing.

And despite its beauty, Wuzhen is a bit surreal - a townscape in which it is hard to know where the real history ends and the reconstruction of it begins.

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Security, on the streets and online, was a constant theme of the Wuzhen gathering

That mix of inhospitable chill and bizarre architecture might also be said to reflect something of China's internet reality, although the Communist Party conference organisers would not like that suggestion one bit.

China was recently ranked the world's worst abuser of internet freedom and its system of heavy censorship is, of course, now well known outside of the country.

But few of those lucky enough to live on the bright but distant shores of unfiltered broadband can really imagine what daily life is like behind the Great Firewall.

Image source, AFP
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Access denied

An internet meme doing the rounds a few months ago on Chinese social media said it all.

A caption on a photo of Mark Zuckerberg meeting Xi Jinping had the young American being introduced to the Chinese President as the CEO of "404 Page Not Found."

That is, of course, because Facebook is blocked in China, and "404 Page Not Found" is a common error message seen by Chinese netizens trying to access any one of hundreds of blocked websites, including Facebook.

Image source, Getty Images
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No fan of the global internet buffet, Beijing prefers to order an online set menu for its citizens

For those who do want, or need, to connect to Mr Zuckerberg's site, or to Twitter, Youtube, Instagram, The New York Times, Bloomberg, and the BBC Chinese Service, to name but a few, the only choice is to use VPN software.

These programs, which come at a not insignificant cost for anyone on an average Chinese wage, will, most of the time, get you through.

But they can also turn your internet experience into a cat-and-mouse game of unpredictable speed and patchy connectivity, and you are sometimes forced to switch from one VPN provider to another to stay ahead of the authorities.

Think of trying to use dial-up internet in 1995. In rural Wales. While hiding from the police. You have got the idea.

Image source, EPA
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Chinese President Xi Jinping set out his vision of an internet controlled by national governments
Image source, Reuters
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Among the fans of the idea of a state-controlled internet, was Russia, represented by Prime Minister Medvedev

And then, apart from the blocking, there's the censorship.

Social media sites are compelled by the government to keep a stable of salaried censors to filter out forbidden search terms and scrub politically sensitive comment clean.

Even many of today's posts about the internet conference itself appear to have been put through the rinser, giving the range of comments a positive spin.

There are also estimated to be tens of thousands of small-scale freelance propaganda workers, paid a pittance-a-post to swamp the internet with pro-government chatter.

Image source, Getty Images
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While the conference is under way, they might want to post this selfie on Instagram

The ultimate irony though, is that while sheltering from the biting cold in Wuzhen's reconstructed homes, now serving as restaurants or cafes, conference delegates can hop right over the Great Firewall.

Their passes come with a wi-fi access code that, for the duration of the event, makes the conference zone an oasis of unfettered internet access.

China is using its World Internet Conference to champion its vision of a new set of rules for cyberspace, by which any sovereign power can claim the right to keep its people in ignorance.

But the foreign attendees here - some of whom may one day be helping to build this chilling architecture of repression - are being shielded from the dreadful effects of that vision.