Duke website back in China

A block against Duke websites in China was finally lifted this week, but not before a lengthy stretch without electronic communication took its toll on University admissions and caused several high-level headaches.


For several months, the University was unable to send and receive e-mails to and from China and could not access Chinese websites. In addition, Duke websites were unavailable to those in China. University administrators do not know the exact cause of the Internet block, but suspect a link to computer viruses or worms that sent excessive amounts of spam e-mail to China.


Administrators are also unsure of what triggered the release of the block, but said they are glad the months-long ordeal has found some resolution.


"We don't know for sure why it got blocked, and we also don't know how it got unblocked," said Gilbert Merkx, vice provost for international affairs. "We think our agreement with [China's State Administration of Foreign Experts Affairs] may have led to the block being removed after we appealed to them on our behalf."


Merkx noted, however, that the University may not yet be out of the woods, as some other institutions experiencing similar blocks from China reportedly restored Internet contact only to lose it again.

Although the Internet block in China has been removed, the University must still deal with the consequences of the long time period spent incommunicado. For instance, the University saw a dramatic decrease in applications from mainland China at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, Merkx said.


Bertie Belvin, associate dean for enrollment services at the Graduate School, said that as of Jan. 5, 2004, the Graduate School received only 900 applications from China for the upcoming fall semester--a 53 percent decrease from the 1,934 applications received by the same day last year.


Belvin said the decrease was not necessarily attributable entirely to the Internet block, as other factors such as increased difficulty in obtaining student visas may also have been involved. "Other schools are experiencing similar decreases in applications from China, and some of the schools we checked with aren't aware of any Internet blocks," she said.


She added, however, that the Graduate School has not seen similar drops in applications from other countries where it is now difficult to get student visas and that the drop in applications from China accounts for almost the entire total decrease in applications to the Graduate School for 2004-2005.


"We have a lot of very talented, bright students here at Duke from China, and this is not a good situation to have our numbers declining in applications, regardless of what the reason is," Belvin said. "Some departments, particularly in the sciences and engineering, have significant Chinese populations, so they're really concerned to see the drop."


Christoph Guttentag, director of undergraduate admissions, said it is too soon to know what kind of an effect the Internet block had on the number of undergraduate applications, as undergraduate admissions officers will be sorting through the regular decision applications until the end of January.


Of the theories circulating about the cause for the block, Merkx said he favors theory that it was a reaction to a "spam attack" from Duke's server. Such was the case with Yale University, whose website was similarly blocked in China earlier this year. But, as with Duke, no one at Yale knows with certainty why the block was lifted, although Ellen Hammond, Yale's curator for East Asia Collections, noted that the day the university was unblocked was the same day a high-level Chinese minister visited Yale's library.


"At that point, everything was mysteriously available again," Hammond said. "We asked him about the block and he said it was just a technical problem, but he seemed to understand what we were talking about, so it wasn't news to him.... What it all means is up to the interpreter."


Merkx said he thinks Duke's Internet block was also cut off when infected computers on the Duke server sent spam messages to China. And though the Office of Information Technology managed to disinfect Duke's server, Merkx speculated that China did not check back to see if it was safe to reconnect.


Merkx said he puts less faith in a second theory behind the Internet block, which posits that the block was a political action against the University in retaliation for e-mails sent from Falun Gong students at Duke. Merkx said there is no evidence for this theory, although he noted that China has been known to cut off websites they feel are "politically inconvenient."


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