China’s Great Firewall Is Rising

Technology and political will are converging to create a seamless nationwide Intranet -- amid growing netizen anger.

A man surfs the internet in Beijing on J
A man surfs the internet in Beijing on June 15, 2009. The designers of controversial Internet filtering software that China has ordered shipped with all new computers said they were trying to fix security glitches in the programme in the latest blow to the plan to include the filtering software with all PCs sold in China from July 1, which has been criticised overseas and even in China as a bid at mass censorship and a threat to personal privacy. Researchers at the University of Michigan who examined the software last week said it contained serious security vulnerabilities that could allow outside parties to take control of computers running it via remote access. Chinese authorities have a history of blocking sites that feature porn or politically unacceptable subjects such as the brutal crackdown on Tiananmen pro-democracy protests in 1989 and the banned spiritual group Falungong. AFP PHOTO / Frederic J. BROWN (Photo credit should read FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)

The Internet just shrank, at least from the perspective of China’s 649 million web users. After Chinese regulators blocked Astrill and several other free and paid-subscription virtual private networks (VPNs), leaping China’s Great Firewall — a popular term referring to the complex web of censorship that fences in the Chinese web — has become more difficult. Experts discuss how netizens have reacted to the block, whether they will accept such a limited Internet, and how this latest web tightening will affect Beijing’s attempt to project a positive image to the world.   

George Chen, Financial Editor, South China Morning Post:

The use of virtual private networks (VPNs) has been an open secret in China for a long time, not only for many expat students, businessmen, journalists, and short-term travelers to China, but also for a fast-growing number of average Chinese. This is especially true among the younger generations whose members are keen to stay connected with the rest of the world freely, such as by using Facebook to stay in touch with friends and alumni met while working or studying abroad. Because young Chinese who have returned to China wish to maintain their links to the outside world via sites such as Facebook, the unexpected VPN ban was among the top trending recent stories on social media — and not just on Twitter, a blocked service that requires a VPN to access in China. I also see more young Chinese Internet users have begun to complain on local social media platforms such as Weibo. Their frustrations are so obvious that the Chinese government won’t be able to overlook them.

To be fair, many young users often employ VPNs to “climb the Great Firewall” for reasons having little to do with politics directly. Many use the paid subscription services to access Instagram because they follow South Korean or Hollywood entertainment stars. Because Beijing’s new near zero tolerance of “climbing the wall” blocks access to beloved overseas entertainment content more young Chinese web surfers will develop feelings of intolerance of China’s Internet policy. One comment I saw on Weibo represents the strong opinions brewing. The Weibo post suggested young Chinese study hard and eventually get out of China to study and live abroad so they might enjoy free information and a free Internet. If that is the feeling growing among more and more young Chinese, such a restrictive Internet policy will backfire on the nation’s future, sooner or later.

The most interesting thing about banning VPNs is not the ban itself but its timing. Why now? VPNs have existed for many years. Beijing clearly knows about their popularity, especially among expatriates living in China. Now, it seems the government feels it can no longer tolerate the existence of VPNs as Chinese President Xi Jinping intensifies his efforts to tighten control of ideology in all areas of society, from cyberspace to the university, where lecturers now are forbidden from promoting Western values and students must take Marxism studies seriously. There also has been a growing debate in China over whether learning English is more important for Chinese people than learning better Chinese first. The importance of English proficiency in national college entrance exams is lessening.

The VPN ban is a part of China’s ideology war and Beijing is not going to give up any time soon. We might soon see someone get charged with and sentenced for using or providing “illegal VPN services.” These days, the government is keen to regulate everything it hates and promote everything it likes with new legislation or renewed enforcement. That’s what the rule of law Chinese-style is all about.

Ironically, Beijing has adopted a double standard where global social media are concerned. In recent months, state-owned media organizations such as the official Xinhua News Agency and China Central Television launched official and verified Facebook and Twitter accounts. On the one hand, Beijing tries to tell 1.3 billion citizens they can’t get on Facebook and Twitter inside China. On the other hand, Beijing allows and most likely encourages state media to occupy foreign social media platforms to better tell the China story now that the nation is firmly in the spotlight as the world’s number one economy. Beijing’s double standard Internet policy will cause embarrassment. The young generation of Chinese is not stupid or naïve. Naturally, some smart kids will doubt such a double standard.

Beijing may continue to push more propaganda via Facebook and Twitter to improve its image, but the recent series of Internet policies forbidding the leak of any kind of bad news about the government and its leaders will only fuel domestic doubts about the government’s level of self-confidence.

Steve Dickinson, attorney, Harris and Moure:

From my perspective, the recent moves shutting down VPN services are a natural product of the desire of Chinese regulators to create an entirely closed Internet system. It appears to me that they have largely succeeded. The effect is quite remarkable. I am writing now from a hotel in the suburbs of Phnom Penh. From this small hotel I can access the Internet with no restrictions of any kind and with uninterrupted, fast service. I will return to China next week and settle down to an Internet that simply does not work.

The question asked is who is affected. In my own circle of friends and colleagues, it appears to me that only foreigners feel the impact. My Chinese friends do not care for the simple reason that none of them use VPNs. It could be argued that they do not care because they do not know what they are missing. But I have a number of friends who have returned from foreign countries where the Internet is open. When they return to China, they also do not use VPNs to access foreign sites. This is because the Chinese Intranet provides them access to everything they want:

— Every piece of recorded music is freely available in pirated form.

— Every movie or TV show is freely available for viewing or download in pirated form.

— Online shopping is available for every type of product, both genuine and pirated.

— Social media is ubiquitous with the excellent WeChat and similar applications.

— Gossip about the government and other scandals is spread rapidly through online chat.

— Local and international news is freely available from local sources that share the biases of the Chinese viewers.

VPNs are a clear violation of Chinese law. Termination of access is entirely consistent with Chinese law and policy. The Chinese people do not care a bit about it. So what’s the deal?

David Schlesinger, former chairman, Thomson Reuters China:

What matters today is not whether the Great Wall kept the barbarians out. In fact it did not; eventually they entered in China, triumphant. But the Wall was built, and much remains today stretching across both time and space.

It was built at huge cost in lives and time and material — it showed what Imperial power could do when mobilized. It showed the might of Chinese civilization. It was and is a symbol of the importance and grandeur of thousands of years of Chinese state dominance.

So too the Great Firewall.

It matters little whether a VPN works five hours a day or only five minutes every hour. What matters is that it is necessary at all; what matters is that it is not allowed to work 24 hours a day, seven days a week. What matters is that Beijing has a heavy finger on the switch and that that finger, and its power, is visible to all.

During the Cultural Revolution, China descended into chaos as the Red Guard “linked up” — dà chuàn lián — using big character wall posters to spread information and the vast rail links across the country to spread themselves and their ideas.

During the student-led protests of 1989, “linking up” through posters and rail links and roads brought millions to the streets.

Today, the digital equivalent of a poster is an electronic posting. The digital equivalent of a rail line is a fiber-optic cable. The specter of a digital linking up is a nightmare to government lovers of order, control, and stability.

And so the linking up is blocked.

There is no need to shut the rail lines down; all you need to do is have police in the stations checking IDs and guards on the train arresting suspicious groups. There is no need to shut down the Internet. All you have to do is show you can arrest commentators who forget to show deference. All you have to do is block foreign services that serve as transmitters and broadcasters of unwanted messages. All you have to do is show that you are monitoring bit by bit, byte by byte, and have the power to crack down.

What President Xi is showing is that to him the only ideology that matters in China today is an ideology of power and not an ideology of ideas. That can certainly be effective for a time, but the use of that power carries a price as well. The current frustrations and anger at Internet access and VPN impotence are just some examples of the costs that may one day become due.

Xiao Qiang, founder and editor-in-chief, China Digital Times:

George raised a good question about the timing of the ban on VPNs: “Why now?” For years, Chinese censors have been aware of, and seeking policy and technological solutions for, the fact that millions of Internet users regularly use paid or free VPN services to get over the Great Firewall.

In an interview with the English-language state-run Global Times in February 2011, Fang Binxing — widely regarded as the “father of the Great Firewall” — noted that “I have six VPNs on my home computer … but I only try them to test which side wins: the GFW [Great Firewall] or the VPN.” In the same interview, Fang also said: “It’s a ceaseless war between the GFW and VPNs…. So far, the GFW is lagging behind and still needs improvement.”

It seems that this time the Great Firewall is gaining the upper hand in this ceaseless war. But I also want to mention another phenomenon on the Chinese Internet related to this timing — political rumors are traveling like a storm in recent months, and they almost always start from websites outside of China, exclusively about politics at the highest level: the fall of Zhou Yongkang, huge wealth of corrupted People’s Liberation Army General Gu Junshan, Ling Jihua and his “Gang of West Mountain.” Almost every time, these “rumors” turn to be the true, but days or weeks, sometimes months or even years ahead of the Chinese government’s official confirmation. It is not clear how this information is leaked to websites outside of China, and who is behind such actions. More and more people are using VPNs and other circumvention tools to seek such political information, and further spread this information back inside the Great Firewall. Those information brokers, with the aid of VPNs and other circumvention tools, are playing a vital role in shaping the unofficial media environment inside of China, where a ferocious political cleansing campaign under the name of anti-corruption is ongoing at the highest levels of power.

Rogier Creemers, research officer, Program for Comparative Media Law and Policy, University of Oxford:

It seems to me that building a Chinese Intranet has been pursued as an aspiration for years. However, until recently, it seems that there was insufficient technological capability and political will to make this happen. These things seem to have changed in the last year and a half. Through the creation of the Cyberspace Administration of China and the Central Leading Group for Cybersecurity and Informatization, the previously fragmented Internet governance landscape has been consolidated. In terms of content, Xi’s administration has gradually sought to establish a nativist ideology and forestall foreign intervention.

This reconfiguration of the Internet has been largely driven by perceived security risks, and the leadership has responded both by strengthening defensive measures and substituting local products and services for those imported from abroad. Previously, defensive measures mainly concerned content, which remains a very important element of China’s cyber policy. Anyone who’s been reading speeches made by Lu Wei and Xi Jinping will notice there is a growing concern about ideological infiltration, sponsored by Western entities. The ideological rectification drive is currently targeting academics: the one group of Chinese professionals who have regular interaction with the outside world, in many cases have been educated abroad and, as recent vituperative articles have correctly alleged, teach about foreign models of governance in Chinese universities.

More recently, security concerns have also broadened to security technology, with the Snowden affair as the obvious catalyst. Apple subsequently became the first Western tech company to explicitly comply with new security inspection requirements.

But as Steve argues above, these limitations to foreign content may only be of limited concern to China’s online population. Indigenously developed software, hardware, and online platforms seemingly satisfy the needs and wants of most Chinese netizens. There are, of course, always exceptions, but I’m also seeing increasing numbers of Westerners who set up WeChat accounts in order to stay in touch with Chinese friends returning home. The Wall can also be crossed the other way around.

The big question, of course, is whether or not these new measures are damaging to other interests in China. Charlie is right to point at business concerns, and certainly, suspension of major international payment systems is something to worry about. But on the other hand, with China’s Internet population having grown to 684 million at the end of last year, the lure of the market beckons. It could be argued that their fiduciary duty to shareholders requires corporations such as Apple to continue to pursue a presence in China. It may well be prudent for governments and businesses to start to imagine scenarios where a favorable environment for foreign businesses is no longer a priority in Zhongnanhai.

David Wertime, Senior Editor, Foreign Policy:

I’d like to take issue with Steve’s contention that Chinese people “do not care a bit” about the recent moves to make China’s Great Firewall taller and more robust. He’s surely right that most Chinese web users don’t bother to use VPN (leaving millions, as Xiao writes, who still do). Meanwhile, among those who do, George rightly notes many are seeking “access [to] Instagram” or are jumping the Firewall “because they follow South Korean or Hollywood entertainment stars.” But as George also mentions, there are also a significant number of web users protesting, on principled grounds, the government’s moves toward what it calls “Internet sovereignty.”

On Jan. 23, for example, outrage flooded in after Chongqing-based Computer News discussed the latest hit to VPN services like Astrill. It’s evident that over 12,000 people commented on the Computer News post, although the comments themselves have mysteriously disappeared. Before that happened, I received screenshots of what were at the time the most up-voted. They included these:

“Isn’t it interesting [i.e. ironic] that China held the World Internet Conference.”

“What are you afraid of? This country is backwards in its bones.”

“[This is] a big step toward becoming a new North Korea.”

Other comments are still available elsewhere on Weibo that rather directly criticize President Xi for the recent retrenchment. One critique of Xi is still available here, although many more have been deleted. None of these sentiments were unique to this thread, or this moment.

Weibo has hundreds of millions of users, and one looking for a particular strain of sentiment is likely to find it. But it certainly doesn’t take much digging to see genuine and building anger over authorities’ handling of the Chinese Internet — or what many there are now calling a LAN, or an Intranet. VPNs might be illegal in China, but Steve would surely agree that law and justice sometimes diverge. A non-negligible portion of Chinese netizens think that’s what’s happening here.

AFP/Getty Images

<p class="MsoNormal"> George Chen is a 2014 Yale World Fellow and author of two books: This is Hong Kong I Know (2014) and Foreign Banks in China (2011). He is on Twitter at @george_chen </p>
David Schlesinger is founder of Tripod Advisors and former Chairman of Thomson Reuters China.
Rogier Creemers is research officer at the Program for Comparative Media Law and Policy at the University of Oxford.

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.