Foreign Policy Blogs

Tear Down This Firewall: Challenging Internet Censorship in China

Internet censorship in China (Image credit: Tech in Asia)

Image credit: Tech in Asia

Chinese government censorship is a core concern for democracy promotion efforts in China. All media in China, including newspapers, television, and the internet, are strictly controlled by the Chinese government for the very purpose of preventing democracy promotion. There may be little that democracy advocates can do to challenge the government’s control over traditional domestic media. The internet, as a powerful global medium, is an entirely different matter.

The “Great Firewall of China,” as the government’s internet censorship regime is known, blocks Chinese internet users from accessing disapproved websites. These currently include Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, many foreign news sites, and anything related to democracy or human rights in China. The Great Firewall is easily breached, however, through the use of proxy servers and virtual public networks (VPNs) with servers outside of China. Many foreign expats in China use a VPN to access blocked websites and avoid Chinese government surveillance, as do Chinese internet users with knowledge and means of access.

Most Chinese users, unfortunately, lack the knowledge and means of access needed for bypassing government censorship, since that information itself is censored. The better, more reliable, and more secure overseas VPNs used by expats also require payment by Visa-linked or other overseas credit or debit cards, which most Chinese citizens don’t have. Chinese bank cards are linked to the domestic Union Pay system, which can’t be used for online purchases outside of China.

Combating internet censorship in China and helping Chinese internet users evade government censorship and surveillance has been identified as an important goal for U.S. foreign policy. The Congressional Research Service published detailed reports on this matter in 2010 and 2012. In 2010 a group of five U.S. senators publicly urged the State Department to step up support of organizations working to help users in China and other countries circumvent internet restrictions.

In 2013 the Broadcasting Board of Governors published an anti-censorship fact sheet outlining various tools for circumventing internet censorship, Freedom House published a report on methods of internet control used by the Chinese government and a review of censorship circumvention tools available to users in China and other countries, and the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs published an evaluation of U.S. government initiatives on Chinese censorship. Further information on internet censorship, counter-censorship efforts, and censorship circumvention tools for Chinese users may be found at the OpenNet Initiative, Electronic  Frontier Foundation, China Digital Times, Radio Free Asia and Floss Manuals.

Netroots cyberactivist groups have also made efforts to help Chinese internet users break through the Great Firewall. Prominent among these is GreatFire, which monitors and provides updates on Chinese government censorship, and creates cloud-hosted mirror sites for those blocked in China. GreatFire’s sister site, FreeWeibo, allows users to search for terms blocked on Chinese microblog site Weibo, the government-censored equivalent of Twitter in China. Global hacktivist group Anonymous has also made efforts to extend its reach into China, pledging to take down the Great Firewall, hacking hundreds of Chinese government websites, and even helping to expose Chinese military hackers who had penetrated U.S. computer systems.

GreatFire, FreeWeibo, and the Anonymous China page at Twitter are, of course, all blocked in China. The latter has seen no activity in over a year. Groups like this also operate on a volunteer basis with limited resources, which limits their impact in China.

Official U.S. efforts to help Chinese internet users circumvent government censorship have also had limited impact, perhaps because they haven’t been pursued aggressively enough or with sufficient resources, or perhaps because America’s own democracy promotion efforts have been harmed by revelations of U.S. global surveillance activities and other recent blows to America’s image around the world. Chinese internet users might be reticent about using censorship circumvention tools provided by a government they also fear might be spying on them.

America’s global image is hardly beyond repair, however, and there are many non-governmental groups such as those mentioned above with which the U.S. government could coordinate democracy promotion and internet freedom efforts in China and other countries. America possesses soft-power resources that, if fully employed, the Great Firewall of China would find difficult to withstand.



Mark C. Eades

Mark C. Eades is an Asia-based writer, educator, and independent researcher. Located in Shanghai, China from 2009 to 2015, he now splits his time between the United States and various locations in Asia. He has spent a total of seven years in China since his first visit in 1991, and has taught at Fudan University, Shanghai International Studies University, and in the private sector in Shanghai. He is also widely traveled throughout East and Southeast Asia. His educational background includes a Bachelor of Arts in Social Science and a Master of Arts in Humanities from San Francisco State University with extensive coursework in Asia-Pacific studies. His previous publications include articles on China and Sino-US relations in U.S. News & World Report, Asia Times, Christian Science Monitor, USA Today, and Atlantic Community. Twitter: @MC_Eades

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