China's Internet has never been an easy place to drive. Although theoretically a super-highway paved with thousands of kilometers of fiber optic lanes, the Internet is more like a highway with a toll booth at every mile. Data is scanned repeatedly and often. In techno-speak, the speed is high, but there is also high latency. That's why even when some enterprising souls turn on their VPN's as a way to get around the Great Fire Wall, their performance goes up -- the broadband speed declines but most of that latency (sitting around at toll booths) disappears.
Things have gotten even worse since last Fall, most likely as a result of the 18th Party Congress. Not only are certain individual websites less accessible, in general it's felt as if another layer of filtering and security was added, molasses poured on top of glue. This has been the informal feeling of friends across China, north and south, off and on campuses, Chinese and foreign.
Today is the first day I'm wondering if things have changed. Why? Because Skype today worked crystal clear for first time since I can remember. A clear video-to-video chat between China and the US, without VPN, over WiFi, with essentially no problems, save for my kids bouncing around the room not holding the camera steady. We could all see and hear each other clear as a bell with no static or delay.
I looked outside, the sky was still a semi-clear, semi-milk white haze (PM 2.5 reading still way up there). A few minutes later I got into a cab, and traffic still was snarled, and the drivers still darted left and right without warning. Pedestrians still hocked loogies on to the street. Bushes were still covered with dust, and tree branches still were naked. And the ground was still as dry as a desert - because yes, we are, in fact, living on top of a desert hidden by a city of 20 million.
Yet I still have a ray of hope that something positive happened today.
Am I dreaming?