Inside China’s Great Firewall

Shanghai skyline as the sun sets. The image was taken from high up and looks down over the city.

Categories: Technology

Photo by Usukhbayar Gankhuyag on Unsplash

17 September 2018


From the outside looking in, China’s internet landscape can look unnecessarily restricted and censored. However, the situation on the inside of the country’s famous firewall may be quite different from how it is often portrayed in the media. In fact, the censorship model is starting to be replicated in other parts of the world, even in areas independent of the influence of Beijing. So, what is the infamous firewall, and why is it spreading?

The Great Firewall of China

After the Internet arrived in China in 1994, the government quickly took steps to control the way people could use it. Initially, it was reserved for use by academics and officials, but soon opened up to the public. Later on, Beijing imposed laws to criminalise online postings that it believed could harm national security. When travelling to China today, visitors will quickly notice that many websites they regularly visit are unavailable.

Popular services such as Google, news services such as The Wall Street Journal or the BBC, and most foreign social networks such as Facebook are blocked in the country, making it difficult for visitors to keep up with current affairs and communicate with friends. This extreme censorship is known, informally, as the Great Firewall of China.

Various individuals have found a workaround for getting to those all-important news and email services whilst inside the borders of China – VPNs. A VPN allows you to circumvent the security systems, but it comes at a price. Special software is often needed to access these networks, and for most people, it simply isn’t worth the money to pay a regular subscription for them. Additionally, the government is now cracking down on the use of VPNs throughout the country, having recently made high-profile supplier arrests.

China is also employing other, more offensive censorship tools, above and beyond the firewall, namely, the ‘Great Cannon’. This ‘cannon’ attempts to control certain websites through targeted DDoS attacks – intercepting foreign website traffic and redirecting it to flood the target site. It was first used in 2015, targeting two anti-censorship organisations through the coding website GitHub. The attack rendered GitHub unresponsive for several days. It was a clear demonstration that the Chinese government is prepared to go to extreme lengths to control how the internet is used.

Connected society

Despite the Chinese government’s blacklisting of major websites creating the perception of a sparse digital culture, within the Chinese firewall there is a highly developed digital landscape far ahead of many major cities around the world. At the recent Cloudflare Internet Summit in London, Samm Sacks, an expert on China’s cyber landscape from CSIS, shared her experience of the country’s connected culture. She described apps unique to China, one of which appeared to be “a combination of Uber, Overstock, Yelp and Groupon, all in one,” and portrayed a culture in which technology was viewed as enabling, rather than restrictive.

Having recently lost her ATM card on arriving in the country, Samm described how easy it was to survive without it. In what is essentially a cashless society, Chinese people have become accustomed to using digital apps to pay for everything from train tickets to utilities. Visitors to the major cities are easy to spot because they are often the only people still using Chinese Yuan, the national currency.

A digital future

Despite incredible developments in fintech and an increasingly connected society, China’s internet penetration rates remain relatively low, at about 55%. Compared to over 84% in the USA, China still has a way to go in getting rural locations connected to the internet. Within the major cities of China, however, the digital environment is becoming increasingly complex, and the firewall is rising to keep up with developments. With some of the most advanced cybersecurity infrastructure in the world, the Chinese government is exerting its influence over its partners to follow its example. In Tanzania, China’s largest trade partner country, Chinese officials are now advising the government on censorship tools that parallel China’s level of content control.

Worldwide changes

Alongside its stringent security systems, China is also pioneering one of the most comprehensive regulatory legal systems in the world to police digital content. And other countries are taking note. Cybersecurity legislation developed to enforce the government’s restrictions is now being replicated independently in other parts of the world. Vietnam has just passed their first cybersecurity law, and it holds many similarities with the legislation in China. Russia has also developed a similar model to China’s, independent of Beijing.

With the rise of international cybercrime, it seems that many areas of the world are recognising a need for greater control over the internet. The system in China is starting to become an alternative to the open internet that is often seen as the norm. Meanwhile, there are reports that Google may be making moves towards extending their services back into China, after years of the search engine being banned. Sources report that the company are looking to develop a new version of their search engine, which blacklists banned websites and search terms about human rights, democracy and religion.

When considering the digital environment in China, it certainly looks like the firewall is here to stay, and government control is ever-tightening with the crackdown on VPNs and introduction of the Great Cannon. However, within the firewall is a thriving online culture and a powerful system now being replicated by many countries around the world.

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