Report

Beijing Tightened Internet Controls Before Glitzy Military Parade

Chinese censors have systematically knocked out tools to evade the Great Firewall.

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It was impossible to miss the choreography on display in the streets of Beijing Thursday — thousands of goose-stepping troops, tanks in perfect formation, and an array of new missiles. Marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, the parade was a chance for Chinese leader Xi Jinping to stir his country’s nationalist feelings and also to assert his own authority by announcing plans to slash 300,000 troops from China’s bloated military.

But before the tanks ever got rolling, Chinese censors worked hard to ensure that the parade would be a propaganda success. In the weeks leading up to the parade, Beijing didn’t just direct its state media apparatus to cover the preparations in exhaustive detail. Behind the scenes, it also continued its campaign to limit what citizens can see online by clamping down on the tools ordinary Chinese use to jump what is widely known as the Great Firewall. The phrase refers to restrictions preventing Chinese netizens from accessing certain sites deemed inappropriate by the government. In response, a cottage industry of so-called “circumvention tools” have popped up to allow ordinary Internet users to bypass those obstacles.

Most of these tools come in the form of virtual private networks, or VPNs, which can be used to evade Internet restrictions by routing traffic through a server around the Great Firewall. In the weeks before the parade, Chinese authorities stepped up a systematic campaign against circumvention tools. In at least one case, a VPN developer was visited by Chinese police and told to take his open source tool to circumvent the Great Firewall off GitHub, a site used both by corporations and hackers to share and edit code. These enforcement efforts have severely hampered free access to information in China and have further tightened Beijing’s control over the Internet.

When Chinese tanks rolled across Beijing’s streets on Thursday, it was harder than ever for the country’s Internet users to access media coverage and social media posts that deviated from the government’s line. “Censorship starts at home,” said Charlie Smith, the pseudonymous co-founder of GreatFire.org, a website that tracks Chinese web censorship. (Smith works under a pseudonym to avoid reprisals from the Chinese government.) “When Internet users see nothing negative on social media, then they start looking at foreign media, so then [the authorities] block those sites. Now, they’ve taken the extra step of cracking down on circumvention tools to make sure that people cannot freely access information.”

One after another, a series of VPNs have in recent weeks shut down. Late last month, two prominent open source projects, Shadowsocks and GoAgent, were removed from GitHub. In the case of Shadowsocks, the programmer behind the project, who goes by the moniker Clowwindy, reported that he had been visited by police and told to remove the code, which has since been posted elsewhere online by other programmers. I hope one day I’ll live in a country where I have freedom to write any code I like without fearing,” he wrote online after removing the code. In late July, Qujing, an open souce proxy service, which is another way to mask the physical location of one’s computer, said it was shutting its doors out of deference to China’s “laws, regulations, and policies.” In recent days another proxy service, IPv6, removed its code with the message “Discontinued, RIP.”

The recent removal of open source circumvention projects from GitHub was accompanied last week by a distributed denial of service, or DDoS, attack on the code-sharing site, which caused service interruptions for several days. That attack came just a few days after Shadowsocks was removed from the site, but a spokesperson for GitHub refused to comment on the origin of the attack or what pages of the site had been targeted. In March, the site was hit by a DDoS attack that was described as the largest in its history. The attack targeted pages banned by the Chinese government, including the Chinese-language edition of the New York Times, and was traced back to China by security researchers.  

Chinese authorities also appear to be using digital tools to directly attack circumvention efforts. On Aug. 18, Hongxing, a proxy service, said on Twitter that it had experienced a “large-scale service disruption” and that it was suspending “new user registration and support.” The service hasn’t posted on Twitter since that statement.

While it’s impossible to definitively attribute the attack on Hongxing to Chinese authorities, the pattern of VPN shutdowns are reflective of what the country’s programmers say is a tightening of Internet restrictions and an attempt to target tools used to get around the Great Firewall. “Previously, they only [banned] VPN service providers. Now they also ban public development and distribution of circumvention tools,” one Chinese developer who has worked on Internet freedom issues told Foreign Policy.

The removal of such tools makes it harder than ever for ordinary Chinese to bypass the country’s censors, and, as is typically the case for major set-piece events such as Thursday’s parade, those censors were out in force, removing content from the Internet that undermined Xi’s message of national strength. For example, this Weibo post implicitly comparing Nazi goose-stepping to the imminent Chinese parade was scrubbed from the social media service. The post doesn’t actually mention the parade, but even the insinuation was considered out of bounds.

The campaign to shut down VPNs began in earnest in January, when Chinese authorities carried out attacks on Astrill, StrongVPN, and Golden Frog to slow their service to a crawl. That crackdown prompted loud complaints from businesses and academics, but as recent weeks have shown the Chinese authorities have not eased up in their campaign against circumvention tools.

Internet freedom activists now wonder whether the new restrictions are here to stay. “This is now the new Internet reality,” Smith said. “We hope the situation will get better, but we expect it to only get worse.”

Photo credit: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace. @EliasGroll

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