Clifford Coonan: It's amazing to see how access can be limited

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The highly public way in which Google threatened to quit China over the constant intervention of the net nannies who run the Great Firewall of China has been welcomed by China's webizens, but it has also highlighted just how difficult it can be to use the internet in China.

China has never been as free as it is now, and people are willing to exchange controversial views over dumplings at lunch in the capital in ways that were impossible to imagine even 15 years ago.

However, the Communist Party is touchy about the freedoms the internet offers. It is happy to enjoy the commercial benefits of the internet, but dislikes the way the web gives a platform to dissenting political views.

Bandwidth slows suddenly during periods of high security, such as around the 1 October National Day holiday or during the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown on June 4th 1989. The government is extremely effective in shutting down access to the internet when it suits its needs. During a reporting trip to Kashgar last year, shortly before the outbreak of violence in the Xinjiang capital Urumqi, this correspondent was amazed to see how easily all forms of online communication were shut down when he tried to file a story.

Following the riots in Xinjiang the internet there was completely shuttered and has only recently been re-opened in a limited way. Correspondents travelling to Urumqi to cover the riots were housed in the only hotel in the city in which internet coverage was permitted, presumably all carefully monitored by the state.

On other reporting trips to sensitive areas, internet access has been sketchy. At times you wonder if you are being paranoid when your computer doesn't work, but a couple of simple tests shows that at best your connection is being interfered with, and at worst that your online route has been blockaded.

Now people are asking what will happen to their Gmail accounts if China decides to stand firm, and the general consensus is that internet freedoms will become more restricted before things get better.

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