Writing Behind “The Great Firewall”

September 2nd, 2013 by Eric

Image provided by gorancson.wordpress.com and/or lostlaowai.com

We have returned from our trip to China, and I expect we will be processing our experiences for many weeks and months to come — stay tuned. We are also taking advantage of the long Labor Day weekend to re-acquaint ourselves to our normal lives, which somehow seem just as foreign to us as our first days in Beijing, Xinjiang, or Chengdu.

One item of note that bears immediate reflection, however, is how difficult it was to even report our experiences to the RectorSite while we were in China even though we had Internet access almost everywhere we traveled except for the small towns in Xinjiang province. As we generally stayed in “Four Star” hotels (or better) catering to travelers — particularly Westerners — I can only explain this difficulty to the massive effort the Chinese Government continues to make to *FILTER* the Internet. The Chinese Government recognizes that they NEED the Internet to facilitate economic exchange with the rest of the world, and that it would be foolish as well as a public relations black mark if they completely disconnected their citizens from this worldwide network of ideas. However they really dislike it when their citizens are exposed, and/or are allowed to talk about certain ideas. Therefore they have constructed a “Great Firewall / Golden Shield Project” that sniffs out those ideas in all traffic within their borders — either entering the country from outside sources, or generated internally — and deletes them.

In addition, many Internet sites that are popular outside of China are completely blocked: Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, as well as many others. Instead, someone (the Government? private Entrepreneurs? Government owned companies?) has created Chinese based versions of each of them and EVERYONE who uses them knows that sensitive information on them is closely reviewed and deleted if deemed unacceptable.

Several services available outside of China ARE available inside as well, but it’s not without some “challenges.” The most publicity has been generated by Google’s relationship with the Chinese Government and their *requirements* for doing business behind the Great Firewall. Initially, Google refused to filter their search results, even for terms like “Tienanmen Square” and other areas critical of the present Chinese government. The, famously, they agreed to filter their search results for “Google.cn” but NOT for “Google.com.hk” which is provided by separate servers located on the island. The Chinese Government has allowed this bifurcated situation to persist ever since because even though any chinese citizen can get search results for anything using google.com.hk, links to the content behind sensitive items are NEVER returned to them. So they can see what they can’t see, but if any of them care about this, it just becomes “normal” and thus expect less from the Internet instead of demanding more.

I use Gmail to access all of my many email accounts, but it was incredibly obvious that although I was able to access my Gmail page through a browser, the Great Firewall would randomly block page requests throughout the process of looking at my inbox and then viewing mail. I am not exaggerating when I say that it took between 30 minutes and an hour to *just* see if I had new mail, and then read one or two of the messages using the Gmail browser, let alone respond to one of them. I had better luck configuring my laptop to use Thunderbird (a separate mail client application) to pick-up and read my mail — that happened as quickly as I would expect outside of China. However, it was IMPOSSIBLE to send mail to the Gmail server using Thunderbird. If I wanted to send out email, I *had* to use the purposefully frustrating browser based Gmail. It once took me over an hour of pressing “Send” many times and waiting before I could send out one message with one sentence in it. I just used this “hang-time” waiting for mail confirmation to do other off-line tasks that the Great Firewall could not interrupt.

Yahoo has famously agreed to ALL of the Chinese Governments censorship efforts for traffic it processes inside of China, which means that it’s easy and fast to use. However just recently the Government told Yahoo to shut-down its very popular email services, something that took effect while we were in China. It was interesting to note in one of the few issues of the China Daily newspaper (the Government media’s English language daily newspaper) that this was addressed in their (probably very popular) column called “Better Chinese / Better English” where words and phrases are translated and defined for the benefit of people learning both written languages. This was the entry under “Better English” in one edition in Chinese characters and English:

The service is scheduled to close on Aug. 19. Yahoo advises users of its free e-mail service in China to transfer their accounts to another provider such as Aliyun [Chinese based], and e-mail alternative offered by Alibaba [Yahoo and Google's China based competitor]. [Brackets inserted by me.]

Of course, at least at first, China could NOT do this filtering all by itself. We can thank Cisco Systems for providing China with all the necessary equipment and software to begin this massive effort. In exchange Cisco sales exploded in the 1990s and every Cisco stockholder enjoyed terrific growth on their investments as a direct result.

However, since then China has refined the equipment to such a degree that many industry analysts assume that the Chinese based telecommunications firms (specifically Huawei) have built their own equipment using Cisco technology, technology they are now selling around the world in competition with Cisco and other western firms, and it should be no surprise that Cisco’s stock has been stuck at $20 since the tech bubble burst in 2001.

Latest Developments in Chinese Censorship

Luckily the RectorSite has not yet been targeted by the Great Firewall. Back in 2009 I was able to post anything I wanted to the RectorSite for my friends and family outside of China to read about. Our few friends living in China, behind the Great Firewall, were also able to read those posts as well, though I did not have reason to write about anything more “sensitive” than our tourist-level view of the troubled but beautiful Xinjiang province in Western China. However, while we were traveling to Xinjiang provice we discovered that the Government had completely cut Xinjiang off from the Internet as well as from mobile phone access to anyone outside the province. The one area where we noticed that things “weren’t normal” was our inability to post pictures to a public image sharing site like Flickr. It didn’t “hang” but what you got when you tried to navigate to the home page to log-in was an unformatted page of useless HTML code that clearly came from the site, but somehow got mangled. This is something we occasionally see outside of China when something randomly interrupts an HTTP request. Usually you re-load the page and it displays the way you expected it to, and you move forward. No matter how many times we re-loaded while we were in China it never appeared the way it should have. No matter, I just sent all our stuff to the RectorSite and waited to create an on-line album when we got home.

On this visit it is clear that much fine tuning has been done to the Great Firewall. First, it does not even return a garbled page when you attempt to access the “wrong” thing — nothing returns. The “waiting for page” animation keeps spinning and spinning until your browser times out and tells you nothing could be found. In the meantime you will be able to access “acceptable” content and web pages without waiting or pauses.

In addition I realized that whenever I used “Xinjiang, Urumqi, Turpan, Toksun” or similar specific terms describing things of Xinjiang provice, I would experience the endless wait. But remove those terms from an email or a post to the RectorSite, and the text would be delivered without delay, and I would receive immediate confirmation that the email was sent, or the post was saved. I tried this many times with the same effect, so I know it wasn’t just a coincidence. In addition, when I posted the 40+ images from our visit to Xinjiang province, every single image went right through except for one: a beautiful Uighur traditional knife next to a pear that we had peeled with the knife. I tried to post it over and over, and it always resulted in the Endless Wait. Then I would post a (relatively) innocuous image, it went right through, tried to post the knife and pear again, and received the Endless Wait. So it appears that an image evaluation aspect has been added to the Great Firewall that can recognize at least basic shapes of things and will not allow the transfer of something with a knife in it.

I imagine that if we were brave enough to take a picture of one of the many assault rifle toting groups of soldiers we saw on the many street corners of Urumqi, it would have blocked those as well. Here’s the thing, though: we DIDN’T take ANY pictures of the armed Chinese troops monitoring the population of Xinjiang’s capital city because we were afraid that they might stop us and take our camera and at the very least confiscate or destroy the SD Card inside that had ALL of our China images on it. So we self-censored those images of our trip. We have none, and so we cannot illustrate what Urumqi really looks like. All we can do is show you the images of Urumqi and Xinjiang that the Government is NOT concerned about. So, in a way, you could say that we have taken our place on the Great Firewall, helping the Chinese Government tell only the story it wishes us to tell, and classifying as “myth” or “rumors” anything that we say but cannot document.

Any Chinese Internet user can use one of many techniques to circumvent the Great Firewall, to receive and exchange information that would otherwise be blocked, and most users are aware of this. However, the use of these “unauthorized services” is illegal and can be prosecuted, though it rarely is. In addition it requires some degree networking and computer skills that probably 90% of the people in any society would not possess, and these efforts are often eventually detected and blocked, forcing users to abandon one method, and invest time in created a new free pathway. I believe that the Government tolerates these holes because they know that very few people will actually use them (because of their technical difficulty and the work to maintain them), and those that do are probably doing many other things that will cause them to come to the attention of the security services — their tunneling under/over the Great Firewall then becomes only one of many things they can be prosecuted for, instead of the only thing). These few infoholes are, ultimately, a small itch to scratch on the Government’s butt.

In the course of writing this post (from the “safety” of my home in Monroe, ME) I encountered another blog entry from an Expat living in Shanghai. His take on Internet censorship is a bit different:

I can testify that the music services in China are much better and cheaper and easier to use than Spotify, and they have essentially all artists. These are no shady sites run by lowly criminals, but by the top global internet companies like Google and Baidu…There has been much writing in Europe about the Great Firewall of China, which is blocking foreign news and media. In fact, there was a lot of blocking back in the 1990s, for ideological/political purposes. However, now I think that most of the blocking is for commercial purposes…However, there has not been much writing about the Chinese abroad who have a VPN subscription to get IN TO China. With a VPN into the China-internet, they can enjoy the freedom and luxury of the China-only Internet Media Services.

Obviously China is not the only government filtering the information available to the people who use this powerful network, but outside of China and some other info-phobic Governments the filtering is NOT based on ideas but on unauthorized access to commercial products (as Mr. Christiansson asserts in this false equivalency). Some folks, undoubtedly, would argue about their *right* to the Fair Use of all intellectual property, regardless of its copyright status, or their ability to compensate the content creator when asked to do so. Many of these same people thing the modern copyright laws inherently restrict the free flow of information, and flout them on philosophical (as well as economic) grounds. I share some of these ideas, but I also sympathize with content creators and believe that they deserve fair compensation for their work, which is impossible when there is a total FREE flow of information on the Internet. But music and movies and high-resolution image files are not ideas in themselves — they are objects that contain ideas but are not typically the only way an idea can be represented. A house is an idea of shelter, but it generally takes skill and effort to design an effective structure as well as to create and assemble the building materials into the final sheltering object. I doubt anyone would argue that houses should be free to everyone who wants one. Unfortunately some governments fear the idea of something like shelter so much, they would deny their citizens access to it.

3 Responses to “Writing Behind “The Great Firewall””

  1. Doc B Says:

    We’ve got Taiwan near the top of our list of places to visit. From what I understand most of Taipei is blanketed in free wifi. Supposed to have good food too. Not sure if they censor their internet at all but pretty sure it’s not a fascist police state that oppresses minorities and freedom of expression.

  2. Eric Says:

    Dr. Bro–

    Actually Taiwan WAS a fascist police state that oppressed minorities and freedom of expression from 1950 to 1992 when martial law was finally lifted throughout the island. Luckily the Taiwanese have matured politically to the point where they understand and can embrace democracy. With regard to mainland China, please don’t assume that the very simple characterization of the government you hold characterizes all people in the country. We met a wide variety of people who hold a wide variety of views of their country, their government, and the world. I recommend that you read the trilogy of books on China by Peter Hessler if you are interested in understanding this incredible and diverse place.

  3. bookmarc Says:

    I read a long story in the New Yorker months or years ago about Google’s struggles with the Chinese government over internet censorship. You describe a partial solution. It is difficult to fully understand the censorship, but your personal examples are illuminating.

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