This article originally appeared in the Oct. 8, 2010 edition of the New York Times.
Angel Hsu scaled the Great Firewall of China to report on U.S. Deputy Climate Envoy Jonathan Pershing’s dim sum outing.
“Went to have dinner at Ding Tai Fung in #Tianjin. Guess who was there? US lead negotiator Jonathan Pershing. Can’t get away from that guy!” Hsu, who tweets by the handle @ecoangelhsu, told her 352 followers.
Kartikeya Singh, who is tracking discussions on technology transfer, tweeted a bit of optimism from the U.N. talks: “#tech transfer brightest spot in the #unfccc #tianjin climate talks. Never seen a more friendly atmosphere in negotiating room!”
And @TylerSuiters, reporting for Clean Skies News, got around China’s cyber-censors to tweet the hallway wisdom of Natural Resoures Defense Council expert Jake Schmidt: “At update w/ @NRDCNews on Tianjin #climate talks. Jake Schmidt: “So how’re we doing? Not so great.”
Twitter isn’t the only forbidden site being openly accessed at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change talks in China this week. OneWorldTV has uploaded dozens of short videos to YouTube, and the UNFCCC manages to frequently update its Facebook page. How are so many bloggers, activists and reporters in Tianjin for the year’s penultimate negotiating session able to breach the Chinese government’s vast ability to monitor and control electronic communication?
“Through BlackBerry,” reported Schmidt, citing one of the best known ways of getting around centralized firewall systems. Schmidt has been tweeting from the U.N. meetings himself, posting updates that are widely circulated in the blogosphere.
“Luckily, I have an external VPN, which my friend told me I could use,” added Singh. Paid virtual private networks (VPNs), another common circumvention tool that allows access to forbidden social networking sites — and a measure of secure Internet use — are increasingly popular in China.
Those attending the talks this week say Twitter, Facebook and other verboten-in-the-PRC sites can be accessed in the official UNFCCC computer room. Elsewhere in the well-connected Tianjin Meijiang Convention and Exhibition Center, the sites are off-limit.
The Tianjin tweets have been given a scrolling home on the UNFCCC’s “virtual participation” page. They run the gamut from informative (RT @duycks: Reading: “KP shouldnt B held for ransom by any1” in #tianjin ECO5 http://bit.ly/dBsQjJ #COP16 #UNFCCC) to the theatrical (RT @jrussar: Song to the #UNFCCC “You’ve got to get yourself together/ You’ve got stuck in a moment and now you can’t get out of it.” Thanks to U2.)
Hsu, a Yale PhD student studying Chinese emissions in Beijing, said she first discovered the value of Twitter at last year’s chaotic U.N. climate conference in Copenhagen, Denmark.
“Sometimes the only way you could figure out what was going on was through Twitter,” she recalled. This year, she said, is far less frenetic, but Twitter remains an equally important tool for activists. She’s found out about impromptu press conferences and hallway buzz. She even tweeted a picture of Vice Minister of the National Development and Reform Commission Xie Zhenhua — who reportedly is under instruction not to leave the building lest he get blamed for talks going south — casually enjoying an exhibit with a group of students.
“In terms of logistics, it has been incredibly useful to see what’s going on,” she said.
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