Internet Censorship in China: How the Middle Kingdom Blocks the Web

obrBy Fergus O'Sullivan — Last Updated: 13 Nov'17 2017-11-13T07:21:08+00:00

If you’ve been following the news, you probably know that Xi Jinping, China’s strongman, has strengthened his grip on the country during the latest gathering of the communist party. Though most coverage has focused on Xi’s newly exalted status, there has also been some worrying news concerning censorship in China (which in this case includes Hong Kong and Macau).

Though there are plenty of excellent resources out there right now on the Great Firewall, the Cloudwards.net editorial team has decided to give a condensed overview of the why and what of how all this works. We’ll also give you an idea on how to circumvent the Chinese censor. If you just want to know if your favorite sites are accessible while there, we also have a handy tool that does just that.

For those who want to know more, let’s take a dive into the crazy world of censors and communist apparatchiks. Leave your sense of normal at the door.

Censorship in China

You’re probably aware that China tightly controls what parts of the Internet its people can access. The communist-controlled state does this through the Great Firewall, which is a set of protocols that allows censors to regulate access to whatever they see as fit (or rather, unfit) for public consumption. The Great Firewall is properly part of the Golden Shield project, which is the collective name for all the initiatives that aim to censor the Chinese Internet.

The Great Firewall is as old as China’s Internet, with some form or another existing since the first cable was laid, aside of the censorship of more traditional media that was in place long before. We’ll get into the how and why in more detail further down, but in short it prevents people inside China from accessing any sites that the powers that be have deemed unsavory, for whatever reason.

Blocked sites range from the kinda obvious, like porn (not that we know anything about that, mind you), to the downright silly like a blog on urban survival or even Facebook and Twitter. The thrust of all this is simple: make sure that the Chinese people aren’t exposed to devilish foreign influences on the one hand, insurrectionist ideals on the other.

It is for this last reason, for example, that many normally accessible sites like the BBC and CNN are shut down around June 4, when human rights group around the world (yes, even in China) remember the Tiananmen Square massacre, when the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) slaughtered civilians in their hundreds.

An example of foreign influence is Bloomberg news, which was temporarily blacked out in China after reporters for the agency were found to be getting a little too close to the secrets of one of the Middle Kingdom’s wealthiest men. In return for being allowed access again, the chief editor at the time allegedly spiked (that’s journotalk for killing a story) several pieces that cast a poor light on how the country is run.

How China Censors the Web

Now, there are plenty of countries that block the web in some way or another, but what’s amazing about the People’s Republic is the inventiveness that has been brought to bear on the problem. From targeting keywords to wholesale shutting down of servers, China’s censors have descended on unauthorized content like an army.

Back in 2013, CNN reported that Golden Shield employs around two million people to patrol all Internet traffic and there are indications that this number has only grown since then. Though this may only seem like a drop in a bucket compared to the total population of almost 1.4 billion people, it does show how seriously the party and state take censorship; the PLA, for example, has around 2.3 million men under arms.

However, even by simply limiting the information that comes in, we’re still talking petabytes of data every second that need to be checked for suspicious content. Though you could conceivable sift through it by hand (to a certain extent this is what Iran does), to do so to an extent that China strives for would require even more people than the People’s Republic has at its disposal.

The answer to that particular problem is, of course, keyword targeting. Much as the NSA, FBI and the rest of the alphabet can trawl wholesale through our emails searching for words like “bomb,” “president,” “terror,” etc., the Chinese government target terms it deems subversive and has humans check out the resultant lists.

As an aside, this works like a charm: when Fergus was in Hong Kong in 2015 he ran a search for “Dalai Lama” and was met with a “no results found” message.

Even this, however, has stretched the censors to their limits and it was recently revealed that the Chinese government has improved drastically on several forms of AI that help it block content from its citizens. The Stanford study we linked to earlier claims that several western corporations have helped the Chinese government put this together, which serves as an interesting aside on their particular morals, in our opinion.

At time of writing, very little is known about how exactly these AIs behave, as it can be stated as a general rule nasty regimes tend to not want to reveal exactly how they routinely abuse human rights. We do know, however, that the filter is ridiculously effective, stopping a large amount of traffic right after it lands at a Chinese access point. Hooray for the engineers, we guess?

Lo-Tech Censorship Solutions

Besides employing an army of geeks and AI companions, China also blocks the web in simpler ways. The most technical of these is a button that basically just switches off the Chinese Internet, or at least the offending part.

A publication more prone to fancy than Cloudwards.net would probably have you believe that there is, in fact, a large red button in a dowdy Beijing office which has a sweaty, red-faced apparatchik in uniform posted next to it. This uniformed man’s only task is to slam down on the button every time a pimply teenager in Nowhere, Alabama posts “Jinping suxxor” while screaming something appropriately communist.

Alas, this is not the case, but in practice it more or less the same way: China can, and occasionally, does, simply shut down entire chunks of the Internet because something offensive popped up on their system. Unlike any democracy, the Internet only flows into the country at certain points, so to speak, making it easy to simply cut it off.

Overkill buttons aside, the Communist Party also uses a few tactics that students of Soviet Russia or other unpleasant countries will recognize. The main one is that publications are held responsible for what is printed, so if someone goes onto your forum — the teenager from our little piece of fiction above, for example — and says something bad about the regime, you are held responsible and shut down.

The result of this is that most Chinese websites as well as more traditional media self-censor or employ a special censor (who may or may not be a party member) to make sure all information they present passes muster. If you’d like to know more about how that works in practice, we’d like to recommend an excellent and also highly amusing piece by Mitch Moxley.

How to Evade Chinese Censorship

Now that we have a rough idea of how all this works, what can people in China or visitors to the country do to evade censorship? Not that we recommend putting plans into place to overthrow the regime while on your tour of the terracotta warriors and the Forbidden City, mind you, but it would be nice to post your experiences to Facebook or be able to send out the odd tweet.

The simplest way is to use a VPN, which is what human rights workers as well as Chinese businessmen looking to make a few bucks have been doing for years now, despite the many crackdowns on their use. We have a list of best VPN for China, though with some experimentation of your own you could probably find another one of our best VPN providers is up to the task as well.

If you’re not sure whether or not you’ll need to use a VPN at all, we here at Cloudwards.net have put together a simple tool that will allow you to check whether or not your favorite sites are blocked or not. By simply putting in the address, the tool can quickly check whether it passes through Chinese content checks or not. You can give it a go yourself just below.

Test if a site is blocked in China

Using a VPN is the easiest way for foreigners to access the free Internet, but Chinese people have had to develop other ways to communicate, often because they are at much greater risk of the crackdowns we mentioned — arresting a foreigner for VPN use would draw undue attention to the communist regime’s practices.

Those critical of the government in China are currently using government-approved sites like Baidu and Weibo to communicate, but of course not directly (unless they really feel like having some uniformed thugs over for tea). Instead, they use puns and other forms of wordplay in the often homophonic Chinese language to communicate. How elaborate it gets you can read about in this article, about a recent ban on puns implemented by the party.

This is of course not a bulletproof way to communicate, but it does allow people to at least blow off some steam and tell each other what is really going on when they’re tired of reading the same old drivel that they read every day in the newspapers.

Conclusion

That, in a nutshell, is how Chinese censorship works and how you can get around it. However, before you think that this is something only citizens of and visitors to certain countries need to deal with, there is a chance that people in more developed, democratic countries may find themselves needing to use a VPN to simply check their email or post their opinion.

China has recently started exporting its particular brand of press hostility to Turkey, while in the United States ISPs will soon be able to sell on customer browsing data (as if PRISM and the Patriot Act weren’t enough). All in all, it’s becoming a scary world out there, hopefully we won’t be publishing a censorship tool like the one above for the U.S. or the EU anytime soon.

We hope you enjoyed reading our piece and would welcome any discussion in the comments below. Thank you for reading and stay safe.

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