Monday, 9 May 2011

War of the River Crab: China & the Web

The pressures on and future of China’s Internet censorship.

“Advances in the technology of telecommunications have proved an unambiguous threat to totalitarian regimes everywhere.”

So spoke Rupert Murdoch at London’s Banqueting Hall back in 1993. And so at the time it appeared. Pursuing glasnost had had the unintended effect of spurring the dissolution of the USSR as media organisations fast grew teeth sharp enough to fatally wound. Meanwhile, the People’s Republic of China had been near terminally rocked by the events at Tiananmen Square in spring 1989 as fax machines danced rings around government censorship. Within a few years, however, Murdoch would be assisting the printed voice of the Chinese Communist Party, the People’s Daily, to take its first tentative steps onto the World Wide Web.

Protester is dragged away by the security forces
during 2008's riot in Xinjiang province.


Nearly two decades on and the Chinese authorities are still fighting a multi-pronged cyber-civil war. In 2009, Xinjiang separatists were able to outmanoeuvre the authorities using social messaging sights like Facebook and then publish footage of the violent clashes between Uighur Muslims and ethnic Chinese on popular websites like YouTube. At the same time the ‘Tank Man’ Facebook page was spreading like wildfire [i] with many subscribers viewing from within China. Wrote one Chinese web-user: “a Salute [sic.] to those vanguards fighting for the freedom of Chinese people!!! And we Chinese need armed struggle against CCP [sic.] rather than peaceful movement!!!![ii]”.

Dissident voices are increasingly using the web to spread their various messages, of which one of the more notable was the 2006 protest against censorship by Mao Zedong’s former secretary Li Rui and other prominent officials and academics. Like Murdoch, they felt the endgame was approaching in the age of the Internet. “History demonstrates that only a totalitarian system needs news censorship, out of the delusion that it can keep the public locked in ignorance,” read their plea. “Depriving the public of freedom of expression so nobody dares speak out will sow the seeds of disaster for political and social transition."

The key layer of defence against the World Wide Web and what the Chinese authorities call ‘spiritual pollution’ is the Golden Shield Project, known colloquially as the Great Firewall of China and running since late 2003. Its inception alone was reported by state media to have cost $800 million USD not including future running costs. A US Congressional hearing in 2006 announced it had been far more effective at censoring the Web than initially had been anticipated[iii].

Evidence from within China is that, one way or another, large numbers of Chinese users are accessing prohibited websites daily. Contraband information is often able to bypass the safeguards entirely, with one independent, scientific study giving a figure of a 28% failure rate of intercepting prohibited terms[iv], especially true at times of high internet usage. Furthermore, there are multiple methods to access restricted content available for the determined user.

Online proxy servers and VPNs are an effective but
unreliable method of by-passing web-blocking.


Currently, the most popular way to circumvent the internet blockade is through the use of Virtual Privacy Networks (VPNs) which have the advantages of being relatively simple process to locate online and users in China report few problems accessing blocked sights when doing so. Said one Malaysian entrepreneur currently residing in Beijing, “At least a good few years must have been taken out of my lifespan thanks to the GFW [sic.]. ... I discovered that my Malaysian bank's website was blocked (although it has been unblocked now). No problem, I thought, I'd just use one of those free proxies/ VPNs floating around the Internet. …. Until suddenly none of the free proxies/ VPNs worked during the 2009 May Golden Week [the week-long, high-security celebrations for the 60th Anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic] and I could not gain access to my bank's website. That drew the final nail into the coffin. Since then I have been subscribing to a VPN for USD60 per year. Life in the virtual world is beautiful again.[v]” A British-Hong Kongese manager working in China goes futher: “’They' [i.e. the Chinese censors] can block whatever sites they want but, ultimately, if someone wants to get access to the blocked site badly enough, it can be done. I shelled out for a VPN so all is rosy.[vi]”

However, while obtaining and operating such software requires little technical know-how, this is a practical option for only those netizens in China who have both the financial resources available and the linguistical skills to use these services. Not only do proxy servers and VPNs tend to use only Western languages, the ability to locate the software and use web-based support is reported to be limited on Chinese-language internet forums[vii].  VPNs which support Chinese are beginning to emerge, such as US government-sponsored Freegate [viii] [ix] and, more recently, the service provided by TUVPN.com[x]. However, many of the free-to-use services are reported to be no longer effective in China as it seems the censors are belatedly targeting them[xi]. A testimony at the US Congress’ U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission noted the limitations of such software, particularly due to lack of funding available to developers[xii].

The truth is that despite the huge resources that are currently being thrown at the problem, prohibitive internet control is at best arbitrary given the sheer size and complexity of the World Wide Web. Though much of reference-site Wikipedia was unblocked prior to the Beijing Olympics in 2008, no photographs, statistical tables or other attachments may yet be viewed. Neither may seemingly innocuous pages such as that of the United Kingdom[xiii]. One reason for this being that the Great Firewall relies upon the relatively simple process of key-word filtering, rather than constantly locating sensitive websites.  This is exacerbated by what has been called a ‘panopticon’ effect[xiv] where service providers are held accountable for what is published and as such create their own unofficial blacklists to avoid reprimand. One such list was published in the Washington Post and included the seemingly apolitical terms ‘Indonesia’, ‘tsunami’ and ‘nuclear bomb’.[xv]

Screenshot of a blocked website in China.


Such arbitrary targeting can make the vital process of information gathering highly cumbersome. One Oxford postgraduate student complains of his difficulties researching online in Beijing using Google, still functional in mainland China via Hong Kong:
“The most annoying thing for me is the way it's reactive. You can often search Google for a sensitive term and results will start to appear- and then suddenly the connection will drop, and Google is unusable (for anything) for a few minutes. Google image searches do this a lot- it's possible to get things, but it makes it a very start-stop process. One search that never, ever brings up results at all is anything containing a top leader's (I think including everyone in the Politburo) surname. This is very annoying for me as, again, it paralyses Google each time and I'm constantly looking up names I come across doing research. And, let's face it, there is not a big range of surnames in China... For names it has to be either a VPN or [heavily censored Chinese engine] Baidu.”[xvi]

Many Chinese web-users also despair of information restriction, as seen from comments made at the time of Google’s announcement that it was closing its .cn search engine.  “For most Chinese, Google is the only access to real information abroad. Most Chinese college students need academic information and Google is their only choice,”[xvii] said one. Another was more foreboding: “China is one step nearer a closed door. Closure will lead to backwardness, and those who are backward will be beaten up. This is the lesson that our predecessors have learned with bloodshed. It is a tragedy for the whole nation."[xviii]

Like any firewall, its application can often have unintended results. On a national scale, however, this can cause severe disruption, such as intermittent failures sending electronic mail.[xix] Even attempts to target pornography have proven to inflict collateral damage on legitimate and legal businesses[xx]. Not even a medium-term total suspension of internet services is unheard of, with seven million users being entirely cut off from web access for the ten months which followed 2009’s Xinjiang riots[xxi]. The BBC reported businesses having to travel long-distances to gain internet access.

What evidence there is of public opinion towards internet censorship in China suggests that there is at best lukewarm support for the actions currently taken. A 2005 survey conducted by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences concluded that while online measures to protect public order were popular, only 12% of interviewees supported ‘political censorship’. In a country where millions of youths are fast becoming tech-savvy, the fight back can be equally sophisticated, such as the response of hackers to recent internet café closures in which the business interests of an official were targeted in revenge.[xxii] The report given to the 2006 US Congressional hearing previously mentioned firmly stated its belief that “with the media under state supervision, the Internet is an attractive forum for organizing and articulating these preferences, and could thus serve as the medium for the pluralization of the Chinese political system, either within a co-opted space permitted by the Chinese Communist Party or in direct opposition.[xxiii]” With currently an estimated 300 million internet users and growing[xxiv], this could prove disastrous for the CCP.

It is clear that the Chinese government have not yet lost the appetite for battle. Besides accusations of suppressing free speech for ideological or self-serving motives, there do seem some less contentious reasons for doing so. Official Kuo Xiao Wei explained to the BBC in 2006 that "with 56 ethnic minorities, we can't risk one slandering another"[xxv] – precisely what is thought to have stoked widespread violence and destruction in Xinjiang province three years later[xxvi]. Similarly, on-line measures were taken in the aftermath of 2005’s unauthorised and politically embarrassing anti-Japanese protests which had used the internet to organise[xxvii]. Recent moves have included closing several popular Chinese-based torrent-sharing sites and introducing requirements for internet café users to swipe smart ID cards for their identity to be recorded.

Images of alpacas (the mud horse) are used as
a coded attack on government censorship in China.


In balance to this zeal to control, however, remains the major headache that the pressures on the Great Firewall are far from static. In 2010, Amazon released its Kendle 3G e-reader with its surprise ability to bypass the entire system of internet censorship within China’s political borders.[xxviii]  Perhaps more significant is that new methods to protest are being created all the time. One of the more amusing examples is the viral spread of fictitious creatures with names to mock the absurdity of the censors[xxix]. It may seem odd to those without a grasp of the Chinese language yet in a language where verbal puns have had a major impact on philosophy, medicine and superstition, the battle between  ‘Grass Mud Horse’ (representing obscenity) against the ‘River Crab’ (similar in sound to ‘harmony’, a scorning knock to the standard state excuse for censorship) have put the Chinese censors on edge. With much of the Internet increasingly written in Chinese characters, soon to be unleashed in domain names[xxx], keyword filtering may not be able to keep up with a language where wordplay and switching characters for others with a similar phonetic sound can effectively infer subtle meaning and allude to banned topics.

The truth is that, whether it provides on-balance a positive or negative impact on China’s political and economic development, heavy web-censorship in China is a political reality which is increasingly sophisticated and is expected to remain for the foreseeable future. It is equally clear that the Chinese authorities are engaged in a costly and likely unwinnable war with those who seek to use the internet for political ends which the CCP wish to suppress. On Murdoch’s project to give the People’s Daily an online presence, his man-on-the-ground Bruce Dover wrote, “the shutters were up and no matter how hard they try, Chinese hardliners will never, ever succeed in getting the shutters down again – not completely anyway”[xxxi]. Just as the invading Qing emperors slipped into China through that other Great Wall, ultimately it seems, the world will slip into China via the Internet.

The unknowable question is this: given the need to balance security against public support, the detrimental impact on business and the benefits of a free-flow of knowledge just how far shut are China’s leaders able to draw them in the near future? The ambitious yet ill-fated Green Dam Youth Escort, a project which sought to have all computers sold within China built with filtering software pre-installed, was abandoned last year in the face of 80% public opposition[xxxii] – a fact suggesting that the Chinese authorities are unwilling to push censorship as far as they would like.

Update: The Guardian newspaper is running an interesting series of articles on web-censorship, including this heartfelt op-ed by dissident artist Ai WeiWei, whose outspoken attacks on the repressive and outmoded nature of the Chinese Communist Party recently saw him enduring torture and house-arrest at the hands of the authorities.
Ai makes this interesting analogy: "China may seem quite successful in its controls, but it has only raised the water level. It's like building a dam: it thinks there is more water so it will build it higher. But every drop of water is still in there. It doesn't understand how to let the pressure out. It builds up a way to maintain control and push the problem to the next generation."

[v] First hand communication with author. Full version available on request.
[vi] First hand communication with author. Full version available on request.
[xiii] Information on Wikipedia verified true as of January 20th 2011.
[xvi] First hand communication with author. Full version available on request.
[xxxi] Rupert’s Adventures in China: How Murdoch Lost a Fortune and Found a Wife, Bruce Dover, Mainstream Publishing Company Ltd, Edinburgh, 2008.

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