Blog: The great firewall of China

1st June 2017
Post by Andrew

As the Digital Officer at Free Tibet, I spend much of my time in the online world. A large part of my job is taking the news and information we receive about Tibet and getting it out to the world via our website and social media channels. However, one of the most frustrating things about this work is knowing that it is unlikely anyone in Tibet will ever read a word of it.

China’s internet censorship system (nicknamed The Great Firewall of China) is the most sophisticated in the world. Unlike a system such as North Korea’s, which simply blocks access to all content except the few websites established by the regime, China’s firewall in many ways gives the illusion of a free and open internet, while allowing the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to remain in control.

Ever since the internet became available in China it has been protected by software that the government calls the “Golden Shield”. This system has both censorship and surveillance capabilities and blocks thousands of websites that the CCP has determined to be too dangerous for public consumption. If you run a newspaper that writes articles about human rights abuses in China, don’t expect anyone in China to be able to visit your website. If you are celebrity that calls openly for a free Tibet, you will now be invisible to Chinese netizens. And of course, Free Tibet’s website is totally unreachable under this system (you can check to see if your favourite website is blocked in China at https://en.greatfire.org/analyzer).

But what about social media? Since you can never know what a member of the general public will post, how can you keep track of what is ‘safe’ and what is not? China errs on the side of caution here and simply blocks all international social media services. These are then usually replaced by Chinese-owned, government-approved alternatives which must adhere to strict rules and regulations. You cannot access FacebookTwitter or Instagram in China, but why not consider creating an account on Weibo or WeChat? Instead of YouTube, view your Communist Party approved videos on YoukuGoogle may not work, but there is a great range of controversy-free results on China’s favourite search engine, Baidu. These channels are then closely monitored and supervised by the CCP who have the ability to control and filter what appears on them.

For example, see the following image published in a report by The Citizen Lab earlier this year:

Here we can see that any messages containing all three key terms “Dalai Lama” “Tibetan” and “Kalachakra” are specifically blocked on China’s WeChat network. While we don’t know for sure exactly what and how much China controls and monitors social media, this example is highly illustrative.

China’s firewall in many ways gives the illusion of a free and open internet, while allowing the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to remain in control.

Another clue comes from a recent story regarding Facebook. Publications such as The New York Times and The Verge are reporting that Facebook is currently working on some controversial new software with the goal of allowing them to enter the Chinese market. These new tools would allow Facebook or, more crucially, a third party, to censor which content appears on news feeds with unprecedented levels of control.

Facebook has always adhered to the laws and regulations of the countries in which it operates. This includes censorship requests, but these have so far been isolated cases – a specific post would have to be noticed by the government and reported to Facebook who would then manually remove it. For example, in Pakistan, Facebook will remove posts at the request of the authorities where they violate the nation’s blasphemy laws. You can see a full list of all government requests made to Facebook, including content removal, on their website.

These new tools would allow Facebook or, more crucially, a third party, to censor which content appears on news feeds with unprecedented levels of control.

The proposed new system, however, would be much more powerful and pervasive. It would allow the CCP to censor content en masse before it is even published, blocking posts with certain keywords, links to specific URLs, or content from certain individuals or geographic locations. Can you imagine if every message you wrote which was critical of your government just vanished the moment you pressed the send button? This is a power which, personally, I find extremely unsettling - noting that if this is what it is going to take for Facebook to get into China then it likely mirrors and potentially enhances the capabilities they already have within the Chinese-owned social media sites in use today.

For me, the availability of a free and open internet is vitally important in any modern society. The ability to instantly access this repository of nearly unlimited information, and communicate and organise easily, is the great equalizer in a world where knowledge is power. China’s system allows them to take control of that resource and bend it to meet their own needs, shifting the power balance away from the people and towards the status quo. Nobody really knows how long the Great Firewall will last but recent reports indicate that the CCP is looking to further expand its capabilities and restrictions.

Can you imagine if every message you wrote which was critical of your government just vanished the moment you pressed the send button?

For the moment at least, there doesn’t seem to be much of a movement to “tear down that wall” from within China. Maybe that's because you just don't miss what you've never had. Perhaps Chinese internet users don’t long for Facebook or Google any more than we miss Weibo or Baidu. On the other hand, how would such a movement even begin to form? When every anti-firewall social media post or news story is invisible, and every protest runs the risk of a prison sentence, these are hardly fertile grounds for grassroots campaigning.

As a final note, I would like to point out that every time our research partner Tibet Watch receives information about human rights violations in Tibet, their sources must face these same risks. Every communication could be monitored and has the potential to endanger their freedom and even their lives. That is why it is so important that we make the most of every piece of news we are able to get our hands on, and transmit them out to as wide an audience as possible. People in Tibet want their stories to be heard and are risking it all to get them to you.

About the author: Andrew is the Digital Officer at Free Tibet. He works across our website and other online channels - including our 150,000-strong Facebook community - helping to make sure as many people hear the truth about Tibet as possible. When he manages to come offline and spend time in the real world, he enjoys playing guitar and performing with his band.