The Great Firewall – China’s ‘web’ of control

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Image by Gerd Altmann

This year, HarperCollins published a book called ‘Wuhan Diary’, written by the Chinese author Fang Fang. The book provides an eyewitness account of the early days of the Coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China. But before I begin, let me give you a little background about Fang. She was the chairperson of the Hubei Provincial Writer’s Association – a government-regulated group. Although she did criticise the government’s authoritarian system that covered up the outbreak, she also praised the grassroot level communist party comrades, the frontline health workers and volunteers who rose to the occasion and helped ailing citizens.

Coming back to the book, Wuhan Diary is adapted from a series of posts on social media that were published at the time when the Chinese people were agitated by the death of Dr Li Wenliang, the young doctor who was punished for circulating an early report of coronavirus and succumbed to it later. And if you, like me, thought that the book was received positively in China for its assessment of the pandemic, at a time when many were questioning the government’s inability in handling the virus, then sadly, you are wrong.

The young generation in China has been transformed and today they are one of the biggest and strongest pillars of Beijing’s defence operation – both online and offline.

Since Fang decided to publish her book through an international publisher, it received a severe backlash, not from the Communist Party, but – wait for it – from Chinese citizens. The critics who were mostly young adults on social media accused Fang of not highlighting the Chinese government’s success in containing the virus and called her an “anti-China force”. (Sounds familiar?) Some overtly zealous individuals even went to expose Fang’s personal information which included her residential address and phone numbers. Long story short, Fang suffered, considerably.

This attack on Fang illustrates a significant shift in the mindset of people under Xi Jinping’s China. For years, the internet in China was seen as a medium for new thoughts, a platform where people could even go and expose government malpractices and criticise politicians. That abruptly changed in recent years as the government took full control of the internet and changed the country’s messaging to a nationalistic tone. 

The nationalistic sentiments among Chinese youth are now extraordinarily strong – especially when it comes to national security. This applies to the “concerns” on the sovereignty of China, territorial issues etc. The young generation in China has been transformed and today they are one of the biggest and strongest pillars of Beijing’s defence operation – both online and offline. In simple terms, Chinese propaganda today works through its citizens, all the government needs to do is nudge their train of thoughts in the  direction that suits them.

The Great Firewall

Apart from global topics like Covid-19, Uighurs, or military tensions along its borders, have you ever come across any other news about China or its people? Anything at all? No, right? Now that is Chinese censorship a.k.a The Great Firewall at work.

China’s censorship system has existed since the 1990s, but it became official in 1998 when the government launched the Golden Shield Project – a massive surveillance and censorship program aimed to suppress information, identify and trace individuals, and enable immediate access to their personal records. Initially, only a handful of the anti-communist websites were blocked, but gradually the scale and scope increased. It is estimated that more than 60,000 policemen were a part of this gigantic project in its starting years.

A subsystem of the Golden Shield was soon created and was called “The Great Firewall” in reference to its role as a network firewall and the ancient Great Wall of China. This project came with the ability to block content by preventing IP addresses from being routed through non-Chinese servers and consisted of standard firewalls and proxy servers at every Internet gateway. Because of its disconnection from the outside world of IP routing protocols, the network contained within the Great Firewall was described as “the Chinese autonomous routing domain”.

China’s Censorship Milestones

Beijing has been constantly reinforcing its Great Firewall that encircles China and censors information flowing into the country. This digital wall now blocks more than 18,000 websites operated across the planet and is patrolled by tens of thousands of cyber-savvy individuals. Here I’ll share some alarming information about China’s censorship history chronologically. 

When Google China’s search engine was launched in 2006, no one imagined that it’d abruptly come to an end in just four years – all thanks to a major hack of the company’s website and disputes over censorship of web results. Apart from censoring web results, the government harassed Google employees who usually experienced police interventions in their day to day life.

The repression largely blocked any meaningful channels through which young people could gain perspectives that are different from official narratives.

In February 2011, an online appeal went viral that called for the people in China to emulate the Arab Spring protests. This resulted in small gatherings of curious onlookers in several cities in China. Beijing took it as a national threat and reacted by rounding up many of the country’s most outspoken critics. They were kept in captivity for many months without any legal aid while being subjected to forced sleep deprivation, abusive interrogations, and threats. The government’s severe response hushed independent activism in the country and instilled fear in the hearts of government critics.

In late 2012, Xi Jinping became the supreme leader of China, assuming the position of secretary-general of the Communist Party. Xi’s rule saw the accelerated suppression of civil society and ideological control. Nationalist narrative became the new norm and censorship was strongly enforced. 

In 2013, the Communist Party issued Document No. 9 – a communique warning its members against ‘seven perils’ that could undermine its rule, including changes to universal values, living in a society, and a free press. With the document setting the tone, what followed was a period of ceaseless crackdowns on the internet, media, and education. The repression largely blocked any meaningful channels through which young people could gain perspectives that are different from official narratives.

Gradually, the concept of being ‘online’ in China changed. The list of forbidden words and images grew. Articles and posts that managed to get published got removed quickly. The government got more aggressive with censorship. Freedom and liberty vanished.

A huge number of foreign websites were blocked by China using the Great Firewall. Twitter and Facebook were blocked, and so were the Times and other western news outlets. Although it is still possible to use VPNs to bypass the block, it got increasingly dangerous to use them because people went to jail for selling VPNs, while others were fined for merely using them. At one point, it was even illegal to have a Twitter account in China. People were arrested for having one or were forced to deactivate their accounts.

In July 2015, authorities rounded up and questioned hundreds of lawyers, legal assistants, writers, and activists across the country who served as the conscience of the nation. Many of them were ill-treated, many disappeared without a trace, many died in state custody and many were jailed indefinitely. 

The government also tightened its ideological grip over universities and schools. In 2019, Xi called for educators to avoid the use of ‘false ideas and thoughts’ when teaching ideologies and political courses. University teachers who are brave enough to deviate from textbooks get reported by student informants who keep tabs on their professors’ ideological views. Some professors, including foreigners, were punished for making remarks critical of the government. As a result, it’s awfully hard for anyone to imagine how the next generation of Chinese youngsters will see and perceive the world. 

Is there a light at the end of this tunnel?

Censorship of websites hosted within China is not carried out by some programmed central system but rather by the internet companies themselves, on orders from the government. Once a post is deleted from, for e.g. Weibo (China’s Twitter alternative), it’s pretty much gone forever without a trace. 

when there are only a few alternative sources of information, government propaganda becomes more and more believable.

The e-commerce services, social networks and search engines that are heavily monitored by the government, won’t be of much use for people who want to engage on political topics. Topics such as Tibet, or historical events like Tiananmen Square, Taiwanese independence, etc. that the Chinese government doesn’t want its people to know about will never be made public on the internet. 

So, when there are only a few alternative sources of information, government propaganda becomes more and more believable. Propaganda like the coronavirus was brought to China by the US Army, protesters in Hong Kong are violent and extreme, and are instigated by western intelligence agencies; Taiwan’s election was a result of American manipulation etc. are a few examples. Chinese citizens are living inside an information bubble that the government controls fully.  

What the world should do.

The Great Wall of Chinese censorship is here to stay. It cannot be brought down from the outside, and it might take decades before people living inside China start raising their voice. The only way to overcome China is by giving a fresh perspective of the world to its people, in the form of unbiased information, education and learning. Most importantly, the world needs to keep supporting journalists, writers, and activists who are critical of China.

And to make that happen, democracies around the world should keep their universities and educational institutions open for Chinese students who wish to learn and understand things from a new perspective. World governments and individuals should support independent Chinese media organisations that run outside China. Who knows, there might be young people on the other side of the Great Firewall who are brave enough to sneak past the digital defences in search of information. And when they do, we should try our best to give them what they are looking for: the truth.

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