Opinion & Analysis

‘The Great Firewall’: Censorship in China

What content gets blocked online in China and how? Sam Gaskin, who worked in China for 10 years, provides an overview for New Zealand journalists. 

OPINION: Back in 2008 I was working for a lifestyle magazine in Shanghai. At the back of the open-plan office was a glass room where the government censor had his desk. He didn’t really change our copy – I’m not sure he read English very well – but he made sure that any maps of China we published included Taiwan, and that our photos of Shanghai had blue, unpolluted skies. When a picture of a child waving an upside-down Chinese flag made it to print, he was furious.

These days, Chinese censorship is much more sophisticated. In the 10 years I’ve worked in China, most of the world’s biggest websites have gone dark, and finding workarounds to access them has become more and more difficult. Even on sites and apps that can be accessed, certain pages, terms and images – those comparing Xi Jinping to Winnie the Pooh, for instance – have disappeared.

Some of the most heavily censored topics are those that question the legitimacy of the CCP’s rule, including freedom movements in Tibet and Xinjiang, Taiwan’s status, and Tiananmen Square.

Meanwhile, the unavailability of sites like Google, YouTube, Twitter and eBay has helped give rise to Chinese online giants such as Baidu, Youku, Weibo and Taobao – sites that the CCP can not only lean on to self-censor, but rely on to grow the economy, domestic tax revenues and jobs.

The Great Firewall

The People’s Republic of China has censored print media, radio, television, film and live performances since its founding in 1949. Shortly after China first accessed the Internet in 1994, digital censorship was added to the list.

Hong Kong Free Press has published a detailed history of online censorship in China, beginning in 1998 when the Ministry of Public Security launched the Golden Shield project. Nicknamed the Great Firewall, it initially blocked specific domain names and server IP addresses, cutting off access to news sites such as CNN.

The next stage in the Great Firewall’s development was keyword censorship, which works by causing the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) to reset when undesirable content is detected, resulting in a browser returning a “failed to load” message. Instead of the CCP manually switching sites off one by one, any sites containing sensitive material would automatically time out for people trying to access them in China.

In response to such censorship, internet users in China began to use Virtual Proxy Networks (VPNs), software that disguises the user’s IP address so they appear to be accessing a site from a location where they are not censored.

The Great Firewall was subsequently upgraded to identify distinctive features of internet traffic sent via VPNs. We’re now seeing an ongoing race between VPN developers, finding ever more sophisticated ways to disguise rerouted traffic, and censors attempting to keep up.

On 22 January 2017, the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) tried a new approach, announcing laws preventing people from creating or purchasing their own VPNs in China. The “Cyber Security Law” took effect on 1 June. Because internet users have to register with their names and IDs when they lease or buy an apartment and when they set up an internet connection, police are now able to track down local VPN providers and force them to cease operations.

While VPN services provided by foreign companies can still be used in China, they tend to be more expensive, and the sites and platforms where they can be purchased are blocked. Google’s Play Store is inaccessible in China, and Apple agreed to remove VPN providers from its China App Store. 

What’s blocked?

Greatfire.org is a useful resource for checking which sites are blocked in China. As at March 2018, 166 of the top 1,000 highest traffic sites ranked by Alexa were blocked, many of them either Google country domains (including google.co.nz) or porn sites.

Other notable blocked sites include: Social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr, Snapchat and Flickr; media outlets such as The New York Times, Bloomberg and Reuters; and entertainment channels such as Netflix, YouTube, Vimeo, Spotify and SoundCloud.

Many of the sites New Zealanders commonly use to do their jobs are also blocked, including Dropbox and Google’s Drive, Docs, Gmail, Maps and Calendar.

Also blocked are messaging apps popular elsewhere in Asia – Line, KaKao Talk, Telegram, Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp. Skype was added to the list of blocked sites in 2017.

Keeping track of all the terms, pictures and gifs blocked on Chinese social media is a little trickier, as it’s incredibly dynamic. In 2014, The Atlantic reported 64 terms used to refer to the Tiananmen Square Massacre, with “64” itself being one of them, shorthand for the event’s date, 4 June.

A great resource for tracking censorship on Weibo and WeChat – China’s Twitter and Facebook equivalents – is The Citizen Lab, a research project based at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs. The most comprehensive list of banned terms, is a little old, having been published in 2013, but they give regular updates on specific topics, such as Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, and the 19th People’s Congress, which took place in October.

Before you go – advice for journalists 

WeChat is essential for contacting people in China, though be aware that your communications on it can be monitored.

One more thing. Your Uber app doesn’t work in China. There is a Chinese version, but it has no English-language support. Instead, download Didi (滴滴出行), which does, or you might not even make it to your hotel.

Sam Gaskin worked as an arts and culture journalist in Shanghai from 2007 till 2017. Views expressed are personal to the author.

– Asia Media Centre