On the Shitty Side of the Great Firewall: the Internet in China

by Timothy Chilman

email: timothychilman@yahoo.com

The Internet in China

A statue of Sun Tzu

In his classic work, The Art of War, Sun Tzu was all too clear regarding “the dangers from without and within.” Consequently, the Chinese government is rather cagey about anything not Han (ethnically Chinese) and particularly about the internet. Tension has heightened after the recent popular uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East, where social websites were employed to organize protest.

In the December 2009 issue of the Communist Party journal, Seeking Truth, Minister of Public Security, Meng Jianzhu, wrote: “The internet has become a primary method for the anti-China forces to infiltrate us and amplify destructive energy. This provides new challenges in maintaining state security and social stability.” A report published by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in July 2010 stated bluntly: ““Foreign social networking sites have become a tool for political subversion used by Western nations.”

The first thing to strike a user of the internet in China is that it is slow. This is partly due to congestion of networks in the country, partly because even at the speed of light it takes a noticeable period of time to travel from China to the United States and back, and partly because of government censorship. The Chinese government’s attempts to control the internet are a perfect proxy for its efforts to control people’s lives in every other way. The official name of what foreigners call the “Great Firewall” is the “Golden Shield Project”. Rebecca MacKinnon, an expert on Chinese censorship of the internet, call it “networked authoritarianism.”

The Internet in China

Optical fiber

Almost all internet traffic between China and the rest of the world passes through a tiny number of fiber-optic cables. Cables from Japan come to the Beijing-Qingdao-Tianjin area in the north and Shanghai on the central coast. Cables from Hong Kong come to Guangzhou in the south. The internet can be accessed by satellite, but this is slow and expensive. The importance of these choke points became apparent late in 2006, when an earthquake on the seabed near Taiwan cut some major cables. Months elapsed before transmissions to and from most of China reached their pre-quake levels.

The limited number of access points for traffic allows the Chinese government to accomplish something that would be more difficult in a developed country: the monitoring of all traffic. At each international gateway is a device known as a “tapper” or “network sniffer” which mirrors every passing packet of data, placing it on a government computer for analysis. Surveillance software is developed in-house by Chinese authorities. Chinese and foreign engineers who attempt to get around the Great Firewall testify that the work is good and continues to improve.

China’s few internet gateways cause problems even for companies avoiding controversial subjects and bare flesh. ILX Media Group, a Greensboro, N.C. Publisher of four Chinese-language medical journals, transmits content daily from the United States to China. It can take days for complex graphics to emerge from Beijing’s filters. China’s censorship is set to become much more complicated, because it is more difficult to examine video than to check text. In the meantime, the government is doing as much as it can to get companies to censor themselves.

The Internet in China

The website of the Los Angeles Times is blocked in China

Undesirable sites are blocked. While Twitter and Facebook carry social commentary, it could be argued that China is protecting domestic operators by banning them. There are the news outlets of ABC, the Los Angeles Times, and many others. Some are academic institutions like MIT and George Washington University. Feng Shui is heartily disapproved of by the Chinese government, and websites are blocked. Islamic websites are similarly treated. Anything to do with the government of Taiwan is out. Bans on Amnesty International and the Center for Anti-Communism are to be expected. All arms of the U.S. military are shunned.

The Internet in China

Red Lobster Seafood Restaurants: a hotbed of nefarious counter-revolutionary activity

Some decisions are less easy to understand. Exactly what problem does the government of China have with Red Lobster Seafood Restaurants (Recipes and Live Lobster Delivery)? Or the American Cancer Society? CKS International Airport? The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society? Charlotte.com – Your Guide to Charlotte is blocked. One wonders if there is something particularly counter-revolutionary occurring in North Carolina.

The government knows what people are looking at. Users who try often enough to reach disapproved-of websites will arouse the attention of the authorities. Chinese internet users, even in internet cafes, must sign in with their real names.

The Internet in China

Tiananmen Square today. Trying to find out about what happened there in 1989 online will not get you anywhere in China.

One study found 19,032 websites to be inaccessible from China. Search engine hits for certain keywords cannot be accessed, “like, with the name of the latest town with a coal mine disaster” as one Chinese a former journalism professor and software engineer put it. 90 of the first 100 sites returned by a search for “Tiananmen massacre” are blocked. Attempting to get news from outside China is unpredictable. There may be no problem using NPR one day, but the next, there is a feature about Tibet and the site is blocked.

In 2004, hackers discovered a list of 987 words banned by QQ, the top instant-messaging program in China. In the same year, phone companies were compelled to block text messages containing offending terms. Bloggers cannot create posts with words such as “freedom” in the title, but there is more leeway with the actual text.

Clones of banned Western websites have emerged. Digu, Fanou, and Jiwai are Twitter clones, and their success is attested to by the fact that the government blocked them in July 2009 after they were used to coordinate uprisings in Ürümqi, the capital city of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in northwestern China where hundreds of people died. Baidu is a search engine which is taking market share from Google. Renren.com, a Facebook clone, now has tens of millions of users. Alibaba is oft-compared to eBay, whose entry to the Chinese market failed. Youku and Tudou are video-sharing sites which have tens of millions of visitors a month.

Since the summer of 2005, bloggers have been required to either post their ramblings on commercial sites which use filters, or to register with the authorities. The Shanghai-based podcasting and video blogging service, Toodou.com, checks files prior to their posting, and users can always report anything counter-revolutionary or sexual. A majority of blogs in China are hosted by large, internet companies, which are perfectly aware that the government will hold them accountable for anything bad a blogger says.

A person seeking to bypass the Great Firewall can use the well-known and firmly established alternatives of a proxy server or virtual private network (VPN). The first connects a computer within China to another one overseas, which can transmit and receive data. This makes proceedings incredibly slow, but because it generally costs nothing to install and operate, it is the preferred option of Chinese students and hackers.

The Internet in China

The network map for one proxy server

A VPN is faster and generally more elegant. This creates an encrypted, private channel to an Internet server overseas. The Great Firewall is impotent, being unable to decipher the traffic. Every single foreign business in China uses a VPN. They are freely advertised, and private individuals can sign up. The cost is around $40 a year, slightly more than a dime a day for Americans but a week’s wages for a Chinese factory worker and a couple of days’ work for a young academic.

China could not afford to monitor all VPNs, although some of the more popular do get closed down. A milder version of the same problem would result from action against proxy servers. Encrypted email can also escape the Great Firewall. A secure web session can be established simply by typing “https:” rather than the customary “http:” The U.S. government has tested technology to allow people in totalitarian states to penetrate their governments’ firewalls.

The Internet in China

A book about samizdat publishing. China could well look forward to something similar.

Fax machines, samizdat publishing, and the Voice of America eventually brought an end to the Soviet Union, and it can be hoped that online chat rooms accessed through proxy servers and VPNs will do the same for Communist China.

Members of the public are encouraged to report unsavory material. Rewards of as much as 10,000 yuan ($1,500+) are available, so pornography is much searched-for. The propaganda arms of the government frequently dispatch instructions on what can and cannot be mentioned. The activist group Reporters without Borders, based in Paris, released a startling report by a Chinese internet technician who wrote under the pseudonym “Mr. Tao.” He gathered dozens of messages bestowed upon him and other internet technicians by the central government.

One, from the summer of 2006, came from the deputy director of the Beijing Internet Information Administrative Bureau, who said that the internet had been rife with articles and messages concerning the death of Shenzhen engineer, Hu Xinyu, from overwork. The message instructed all websites to cease posting articles about this topic and remove those that already existed.

The Internet in China

Most people in China remain blissfully unaware of any controversy surrounding the Three Gorges Dam

Government control means that subjects inconvenient to the regime do not exist in public discussion. Most Chinese people remain entirely unaware of international issues such as the controversy over the Three Gorges Dam.

The 30 or so Chinese firms with stock market listings have a combined value approaching $100bn. The biggest market online is for the provision of services to cellphones. China boasts more cellphone users than the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan, and Germany put together. More than half of these purchase pictures, jokes, and ringtones from entities such as Tom Online and KongZhong. Every download costs several cents, and most goes to the portal used. Multiplied by hundreds of millions of users, the remaining cents become a considerable fortune.

70 percent of the Chinese internet population is under 30, the opposite of the situation in the United States. Multiplayer games are therefore another large field, and these are so popular the government has begun to fret over their impact on the productivity of adults and the education of children. Import restrictions and a fear of piracy have hindered the progress in China of the large console makers Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo.

The Internet in China

The NetEase logo

Online gaming in China is, uniquely, more profitable than advertising. It is valued at $4bn, more than that in the United States. Chinese players in the tens of millions play a wide selection of games, from lone card games to multiplayer role-playing games. Several U.S.-listed, billion dollar companies have emerged, including Netease, Changyou, Perfect World, Giant Interactive, and Shanda Games. Tencent, the largest internet company in China and the third largest in the world, obtains a sizable portion of its profits from online gaming.

When the industry arose in 1999, all complex multiplayer games were imported, but a number of government programs promoted domestic gaming companies, which now take most of the available revenue. Strict regulations now explicitly protect domestic companies from competition. Foreign companies cannot sell their products in China without a local partner. Export incentives were recently given to Chinese game producers.

Piracy is obviated by giving games away. Players must pay to use a game, and often also purchase add-ons such as game accessories. The largest providers of Shanda and Netease have acquired millions of customers for their games World of Legend and Fantasy Westward Journey, which are aimed at teenagers and adults in one case and children in the other.

The Internet in China

Credit cards are not widely used in China

Online gaming has been responsible for the creation of an online payment system in a country with few credit cards and nearly no concept of recurring subscription fees. In the absence of a credit card, payment can be made by debit card, top-up card, or Paypal-esque online payment services, most notably Tencent’s Tenpay and Alibaba’s Alipay. China Mobile’s recent purchase of shares in the Shanghai Pudong Development Bank is widely seen as a strategic move to improve online payment.

E-commerce was worth more than $530bn in 2009, and will be worth more than in the United States within five years. Advertisers spent $3bn online in 2009, and the figure is expected to grow by 30 percent a year. This, however, is disproportionately small, being only 15 percent as much as in the United States and compared to the $88bn value of advertising on television or in newspapers and magazines.

The Internet in China

Video of British soccer matches is available in China

While proper news is tightly controlled, a steady stream of features, gossip, and tittilating stories is offered by sites such as Sohu and Sina. A touch of propaganda is often apparent, although there is also a visible attempt to test the boundaries of what is permissible. Video can be had of British soccer matches and American professional basketball league games. This is packaged with streamed advertisements, another business which is expanding in China.

The Internet in China

The mascot of the QQ instant messaging service

The most dynamic area is that of online communities, many run by Tencent. Amongst the services of this website are QQ instant messaging and a MySpace-ish social networking site. Basic services are free, but users must fork out for add-ons such as more storage space. Often, the users of these services are people who have no siblings as a result of China’s one child policy, and seek friendship through an electrical cable. Online chat sites, bulletin boards, and instant messaging are much more widely used than email.

May 4 is significant in Chinese history, as on that day in 1919, Beijing university students began protests which coalesced into an intellectual movement which championed, amongst other things, democratic reform. So it was somewhat ironic that on that day in 2011, the Chinese government announced the creation of the State Internet Information Office, a tool of state repression.

This agency has been set up under Information Minister Wang Chen, and takes responsibility for the internet from a selection of lower-ranking, mutually elbow-jabbing organizations in different government ministries. Anyone wishing to establish a website must meet regulators and furnish identification. The office has the power to “investigate and punish” websites that violate Chinese law. The Office will take a role in management of domain names and IP addresses, and direct the development of online gaming, video, audio and publishing.

The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology said this organization was necessary to tackle pornography online, something of which state media have complained. The government disclosed that 5,000 people were arrested last year for viewing internet porn and 9,000 websites were deleted for displaying sexual images or other “harmful information.” Others see it as just more government censorship. Websites have registered overseas to avoid the controls.

The number of people online in China has passed the 477 million mark. More than half use microblogs, and the internet is now a major sounding board for the populace. For a long time, the Chinese government employed little old ladies rooted to spots in alleyways who cataloged the appearance of anything deemed suspicious. In the 21st century, the government now employs 30,000 censors to police the internet, compared to the CIA’s roster of 16,000 people. In particular, it has dispatched an army of “web commentators” to spread the government’s message.

These people put forward pro-government arguments online, and are often paid to do so. The phenomenon of the “wu mao” (50 cent) net commentator arose around five years ago, when blogs first became popular in China. Jeremy Goldkorn, editor of the Chinese media website Danwei.org, said, “It is very mysterious… These people don’t talk to the media! Everyone is just guessing.” The high profile, independent Chinese blogger Li Ming says the number of web commentators must be “at least in the tens of thousands.” In Match 2011, Salil Shetty, secretary general of Amnesty International, said that countries such as Iran and China were devoting “considerable resources into pro-government blogs.”

Renaud de Spent, an expert on the internet in China who is based in Beijing, said that it is likely that most were students “doing a basic cut-and-paste job,” a mindless task on a par with telemarketing. It is possible that students are hoping to improve their chances of obtaining much-coveted party membership.

If events on the internet take a turn toward politically sensitive subjects, abuse, or sex, the Chinese government deploys Jing Jing and Cha Cha. These adorable, smiling, animated cops materialize alongside slogans of “Advance harmony” and “Don’t accept vulgar content.” One is male and the other, female. “Jing” and “cha” form the word “police” in Chinese. Clicking on either character brings a user to a page where he or she can communicate with real police.

The Great Firewall can be circumvented. One who does so from the bedroom office of her Shanghai apartment is a woman who uses the pseudonym Xiaomi online. She leads an alliance of translators from all over the world who produce Mandarin versions of works of Western scholarship and journalism which are banned on the Chinese internet.

Documents translated vary from The Limits of Authoritarian Resilience, an analysis of the Chinese Communist Party that appeared in the Journal of Democracy seven years ago to a recent New York Times interview with Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google.

Translations appear on a public Google Docs page and a blog. Links are sent to the nigh-on 4,000 people who follow @Xiaomi2020 on Twitter, the 1,170 who follow her on Google Buzz, and yet more on five Chinese clones of Twitter. While Twitter and Blogspot are blocked in China, anyone can access Google Docs – at least for the moment. The government blocked Google Docs in 2010 but acquiesced to protest from universities and companies.

After posting, Xiaomi’s translations are frequently reposted 10,000 or more times to blogs and discussion sites. They survive for differing lengths of time before the hosting service self-censors and takes them down. Since every post is likely to be read and forwarded by a number of people, the total readership could well be several times higher.

While the threat of Chinese cyberwarfare is much-trumpeted, and its government has been accused of being behind a recent cyberattack on the largest defense contractor, Lockheed and extensive spear-phishing of Gmail users. China is, however, more vulnerable in this respect. Chinese network security is execrable. Thousands of networks are vulnerable to the most trivial attack.

Dillon Beresford, a security researcher for the testing firm NSS labs, spent seven hours a day crawling government networks for 18 months. He used free tools such as Netcat, Metasploit, and Google Translate. He says that 40 percent of passwords are either all numeric or all lower case characters, which is not hard to defeat. There is little two factor authentication, as is found ever more often in the West.

Often, software in China is developed by Chinese companies. Western products, including open source platforms, are disdained because they might include a back door. The disadvantage of this approach is that there is no whole community that crawls over programs, searching for bugs and rectifying them. What back doors exist were left by Chinese developers in IPS, firewalls, and routers, which can be found and exploited. China is expanding so rapidly that there are not enough people to maintain infrastructure. In the United States, private and government sites are often connected, and there are many eyes on any one network, hence mistakes are discovered and reported. This does not happen in China.

There is no website for the Ministry of Cryptography or the ministry of State Security, but they contract their work to universities, where classified information can be obtained. Students make VPN connections to the People’s Liberation Army.

The Internet in China

If you get sent to a labor camp in China, you may well end up playing World of Warcraft.

In the Chinese equivalent of the Gulag Archipelago, prisoners dig trenches and break rocks by day and cast spells, slay demons, and battle goblins by night. “Gold farming” is the acquisition and sale of game currency or items in online, multiplayer games. Time-poor Western users are eager to pay real money for game money, for that enchanted armor or really big sword. The China Internet Center reports that nearly $1.94bn of virtual currency was traded in China in 2008, and the number is rising. It is estimated that 80 percent of all the gold farmers in the world reside in China – 100,000 souls. Prisoners say they have made RMB5,000-6,000 ($770-$920) in a day, not that they see any of it. It was considerably more valuable than physical labor.

The Internet in China

In China, as everywhere else, the internet facilitates the piracy of fils

As in the West, that internet facilitates piracy of games, music, television shows, and films. While state censors do a very good job at suppressing content that could cause political problems, they have been unable to staunch the flow of pirated foreign media. Action by the government will not result from Western entreaties, but possibly from the realization that freely-available foreign content retards development of domestic media providers.

Even under the tightest online restrictions in the world, Chinese people feel freer than at any other time in history. Previously, there was no space for any form of discussion. The internet in China still manages to be vibrant and critical. Cases of injustice have been highlighted, as testified by the Chinese noun, Lǐ Gāng. He was deputy chief of the Baoding City Public Security Bureau, and father of Li Qiming. In October 2010, Qiming hit two girls, killing one, while driving under the influence in the campus of Heibei University. He attempted to drive away, but was detained by witnesses. When confronted, he dared the onlookers to sue him, saying, “我爸是李刚” (“My Dad is Li Gang!”). The name is now synonymous with escaping the law thanks to government connections.

The Chinese government has detained artists, lawyers, activists, and online commentators. People have been jailed for expressing privately online what would be seen in the West as innocuous comment. But the Chinese government will have a hard time checking all incoming video and cannot close all VPNs and proxy servers. Encrypted traffic is waved on through. Chinese software development is hindered by a lack of review. There are not enough people to manage all electronic infrastructure. It is just possible to hope that this is one tiger which cannot be ridden.


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0 thoughts on “On the Shitty Side of the Great Firewall: the Internet in China

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