Tea Leaf Nation

Chinese Web Users Vent Outrage at Gmail Block

As the country’s Great Firewall inches higher, some call for it to be razed.

Lu Wei, China's Minister of Cyberspace Affairs Administration, gestures after giving a speech at the opening ceremony of the World Internet Conference in Wuzhen, in eastern China's Zhejiang province on November 19, 2014. China, which censors online content it deems to be politically sensitive, opened the World Internet Conference in Wuzhen with the country's biggest Internet companies in attendance alongside a sprinkling of foreign executives and officials. AFP PHOTO / JOHANNES EISELE [IN_PRODUCTION] [Verrouillé] 12:57-19/11/2014 Wuzhen SHA ECO,POL (Photo credit should read JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images)

It just got a bit harder to use the Internet in China, part of a pattern of slowly eroding web freedom that’s now seeing signs of fierce backlash there. Starting on Dec. 26, Chinese Internet users who had previously accessed Google’s Gmail via third-party apps found themselves unable to do so without the aid of a “virtual private network,” the only way to sidestep China’s so-called Great Firewall, which censors some foreign sites. On Weibo, China’s largest public-facing social network, the outcry was quick and fierce — at least before it, too, was censored.

The online protest was notable for its intensity, its quantity, and its willingness to criticize authority — even Chinese President Xi Jinping — directly. In a now-deleted post, one frequent Weibo user from Shenzhen directed readers to sign an online White House petition asking (in English) that the United States voice concern over the blocking’s “effect on global economy and welfare.” (The petition is currently far short of the 100,000 online signatures that would trigger a White House response, but in answer to a question about the blockage, a State Department spokesman said that Chinese Internet censorship was “incompatible with China’s aspirations to build a modern information-based economy and society.”)

That post, and the thousands of responses to it, were deleted, but not before Foreign Policy captured the most popular replies. The most up-voted was a direct dig at Xi: “After a certain person took the top position, everything started to get tighter and tighter. And moreover [he] uses worship-style propaganda similar to that from 40 years ago” — a reference to propaganda outlets efforts to lionize Xi, which some view as redolent of late Communist strongman Mao Zedong’s cult of personality. The user complained that authorities had banned online viewing of U.S. television series (like the popular Big Bang Theory, banned in April) and Instagram (blocked in September), concluding, “This is the start of the closing of the country, and the death of our rising prosperity.” Another popular post complained, “Certain people send their daughters to receive an American education, but poor common folks can’t use the Internet to understand the outside world.” (Xi Jinping’s daughter recently graduated from Harvard.) One user added, “I’ve had enough of this kind of opinion guidance” — another term for online censorship and propaganda — “and individual worship.” In each case, reference to the Chinese president was coded either as “Papa Xi,” a sometimes-affectionate moniker that first appeared online, or simply “XJP.”

Other heavily trafficked Weibo threads also evinced fierce discontent with China’s handling of the Internet. After a non-political Weibo account called “Headline News” relayed Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying’s statement that she was not aware of the block, over 2,700 responses poured in before the conversation was censored. Among the most popular responses was a complaint that China “did not have an Internet, but [rather] a local area network,” while another called it “laughable” that Chinese authorities had “never admitted to the construction of the great firewall.” Indeed, in all of his speeches about China’s vision for Internet governance, the country’s top Internet regulator, Lu Wei, has never mentioned its signature characteristic, which is the systematic blocking of many foreign websites, including Twitter and Facebook.

But well before the advent of social networks, including Weibo and its mobile competitor WeChat, email allowed Chinese netizens to contact foreigners, and each other, in a forum less tightly monitored and controlled than public chat rooms. In April 2004, Chinese journalist Shi Tao used Yahoo’s email platform to send an order he’d received from Chinese propaganda authorities to a U.S.-based pro-democracy website. (Shi later served over eight years in prison after Yahoo supplied government authorities with Shi’s user information.) Chinese authorities sentenced dissident and now-imprisoned Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo for circulating Charter 08, a December 2008 call for democracy, via email. And email continues to be the communication mode of choice among journalists and Chinese dissidents. The Chinese government may have decided that Gmail was proving too effective in linking dissidents to each other, and to the outside world. Of course, the move is also likely to bolster the fortunes of domestic actors like Baidu, which can best be described as the Google of China, a company that hosts search, maps, a chat forum, and an online encyclopedia.

In comments deleted from Weibo but captured on FreeWeibo, a mirror site, a Beijing bookstore owner wrote sardonically that “the result of the ‘World Internet Conference,’” at which web czar Lu presided in December, “was to block gmail [sic]. Is cutting a country off from the world supposed to increase its self-confidence?” One tech blogger wrote that “email was a milestone” in the development of the Internet: Even for those unable to access Facebook or Twitter, or to afford a smartphone, “anyone could use email to communicate,” while service providers “did not dare” to impede the function of a tool so vital to smooth commerce. The decision to subject Gmail to the Great Firewall, he wrote, was “sure to enter the annals of history.”

Many commenters felt the move’s historical significance traced back even further, to the policy of biguan suoguo, roughly meaning “close and lock the country.” Many Chinese associate that approach with the country’s final dynasty, the Qing, and view it as the cause of China’s descent from prosperity and power and its subsequent humiliation at the hands of stronger foreign powers. Given that much contemporary Communist Party rhetoric either explicitly or implicitly invokes the image of a China moving beyond that humiliating period, it’s small wonder that censors found it heretical to link contemporary Internet governance to that painful past.

To be sure, Gmail’s further blocking in China does not make it impossible to send emails from within China to foreign accounts. But it does further crimp Internet freedom, and the sudden block is sure to render life more difficult for Chinese individuals and businesses, particularly in the short term. In the longer term, the move is likely to deepen dissatisfaction with a paternalistic, inward-facing vision of the Internet. If Chinese authorities were not aware of the risk of online backlash before their unannounced move, they likely are now. “One day, the Chinese Great Firewall will come down like the Berlin Wall,” one Weibo user vowed. “And I will see it in my lifetime.”

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian and Shujie Leng contributed research.

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David Wertime is a senior editor at Foreign Policy, where he manages its China section, Tea Leaf Nation. In 2011, he co-founded Tea Leaf Nation as a private company translating and analyzing Chinese social media, which the FP Group acquired in September 2013. David has since created two new miniseries and launched FP’s Chinese-language service. His culture-bridging work has been profiled in books including The Athena Doctrine and Digital Cosmopolitans and magazines including Psychology Today. David frequently discusses China on television and radio and has testified before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. In his spare time, David is an avid marathon runner, a kitchen volunteer at So Others Might Eat, and an expert mentor at 1776, a Washington, D.C.-based incubator and seed fund. Originally from Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, David is a proud returned Peace Corps volunteer. He holds an English degree from Yale University and a law degree from Harvard University.