When Westerners think of internet censorship in China, they usually picture a Big Brother-like world, where innocuous characters such as Winnie The Pooh and Peppa Pig can be blocked for obscure reasons and citizens have no access to international news.
But the system that keeps the Chinese web under tight control is a sophisticated machine, the functioning of which is less straightforward than might be expected. The fight against these measures – nicknamed the Great Firewall – is a vital and multifaceted one.
The combination of laws and technologies that are meant to stop foreign websites spreading in mainland China is part of the Golden Shield Project, which manages information systems in the country. The Western websites that are usually blocked range from Google to Facebook to Twitter, while social media posts on delicate topics are also quickly taken down.
“We used to call them the three Ts: Taiwan, Tiananmen Square, Tibet. Anything on those topics would be very sensitive,” says Professor Adrian Hadland, former Head of International Communications at the University of Nottingham Ningbo China (UNNC).
Connected but not too much
According to a 2014 Harvard study, censorship also targets all posts that could encourage any kind of collective action, even if in favour of the government.
“The government is, first and foremost, worried about people mobilising against them. The concern is that even a small protest can start a nationwide movement against the Chinese Communist Party, a lesson learnt during the 1989 pro-democracy movement,” says Maya Wang, senior researcher on China for Human Rights Watch.
This does not imply, as one may think, that the Chinese authorities are actually trying to block all kinds of interaction with the West. Becoming a world power requires building a modern country that has an effective connection with the rest of the world. But the Chinese government also wants to keep its citizens under control.
They have therefore invented what scholar Rebecca MacKinnon has called “networked authoritarianism”: a society where the internet and social media exist, and are as chaotic as anywhere else, but are also attentively manipulated. This includes hiring thousands (allegedly up to 2 million) of social media users to produce pro-government content, distracting the conversation from sensitive issues.
Such an articulate strategy is extremely tricky, but it also allows unexpected spaces of resistance. People use a variety of strategies to access international news and to discuss censored topics.
“I don’t have statistics on how many people try to bypass the Great Firewall,” says Maya Wang. “But they include ordinary people as well as people who do business, who research, and who have any connection abroad.”
VPNs are the most used circumvention tools
The most common way to do it is by using Virtual Private Networks (VPNs). VPN services allow you to disguise where you are connecting to the internet from by encrypting the connection; it is what you would have used some years ago to create a Netflix USA account before the platform was actually made available in the UK.
China’s policy on VPNs generally reflects the idea of networked authoritarianism. Chinese authorities used to tolerate them, knowing that blocking them completely would damage some businesses, not to mention how poorly it would reflect on the regime inside and outside the country.
This year, things have become stricter. On 31 March 2018, “unauthorised” VPNs were officially banned from China. The authorities have not fully enforced the ban and individual VPNs still work, but there is increased interference, the connection can be unreliable and you might need multiple VPNs to use Google.
The government’s treatment of VPNs illustrates how the strategies of “networked authoritarianism” work so well. Cautiously allowing the restricted use of VPNs and creating a wide but carefully manipulated internet network are very different from true democratisation of information.
VPNs are not free and cannot be accessed by everyone. When you need more than one, they start to require quite a consistent amount of money (and patience). Imagine having to spend hours and dozens of pounds just to access Twitter or BBC News, perhaps after a long day at work. Meanwhile, you also have a Chinese equivalent that is censored, but can be accessed for free instantly.
A free internet for everyone
“For common Chinese people it’s difficult to circumvent the Great Firewall,” says Professor Hadland. “If you’ve got money, you can do it easily. But often you have to pay in foreign exchange, and there are restrictions on that. If you are an international, you can usually find a way, but if you are a local it’s almost impossible.”
Democratisation of circumvention has therefore become the real battlefield. The activist project Greatfire.org, originally set up in 2011 to monitor which sites were blocked by the firewall, now considers this its main goal.
“Our initial mission was to provide transparency to online censorship in China. Now our mission is to help all Chinese access an uncensored internet,” says Charlie Smith, the pseudonym of one of the founders of the projects.
Greatfire.org has built a series of tools to circumvent censorship, including FreeWeibo, the uncensored version of Weibo (commonly referred to as the Chinese version of Twitter), and FreeBrowser, an app that allows everyone to browse the internet uncensored.
According to the Greatfire.org website, FreeWeibo: “mimics the look of the real Weibo website, but instead of presenting a ‘harmonized’ version of it, it restores and integrates censored and deleted posts, so that Chinese can access a real-time view of the real discussions that are taking place online in China.”
Greatfire.org’s services rely on a strategy known as “collateral freedom”. Collateral freedom means making it economically prohibitive to censor content by hosting it on cloud services that are considered too important to block, such as those owned by Amazon.
In essence, the services beat the Chinese authorities at their own game, exploiting their need not to cut off the main economic actors of the Western world. In this way, despite the huge disparity of resources, they have managed to keep the project alive.
“Even though we have limited funds and the Chinese authorities spend more than £7.5 billion a year on censorship, we still can make gains,” says Charlie Smith. Greatfire.org is currently running a crowdfunding campaign in order to keep their tools available for free.
“We do not at a fundamental level believe that access to information should come at a cost.”