Dystopia Now: China‘s Great Firewall

Last updated: December 15, 2022
China’s great firewall
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“Quickness is the essence of war.”

How long does it take to make a politically subversive thought disappear? In today’s China, it can be as little as eight hours.

March 12, 2018. Shawn Zhang, a Chinese law student in Canada, posts a satirical image about the Chinese Communist Party’s decision to make Xi Jinping China’s President-for-life, which happened a day earlier. Shawn uploads the picture through a newly created anonymous account on Weibo and then retweets it. The image depicts Mr. Jinping “encased in glass and draped in a communist flag.”

Exactly eight hours and four minutes later, Shawn’s mother, who lives in China’s Zhejiang province, receives a phone call from the police. The security officer on the other end of the phone suggests that it “would be better” if her son deleted his image.

Rapid-response censorship

The censors’ reaction to Shawn Zhang’s post was so swift because he had already been flagged as a disruptive citizen. He was put on a watchlist earlier this year for tweeting an image of a Tibetan flag with a caption “Free Tibet,” as well as posting an answer about China’s disputed territory on Quora, both of which the Communist Party considers as dangerous opinions that undermine the authority of the Chinese state.

Being a Chinese citizen with a record of undesirable activity, Shawn was an automatic target for the largest online censorship apparatus in the world. A real-time suppression system on a scale so vast it’s difficult to fathom, let alone describe – the Great Firewall of China.

As 2018 draws to a close, the Great Firewall seems to approach the apex of its efficiency. Although not a foolproof, catch-all system some in the West might imagine it to be, the Firewall itself is but a part of the Chinese government’s shockingly effective strategy of societal control, as we’ll discover below.

Still, if we wish to understand the technology and methodology behind a system that helps the Communist Party keep more than 800 million internet users under control, we’ll have to make an attempt at dissecting the “whys” and “hows” of China’s Great Firewall. Needless to say, these are far from transparent.

The Byzantine organization of China’s censorship system is hardly perceptible to outsiders: its operations are clandestine, its technical decisions are made behind closed doors, and the true extent of its digital tendrils is likely known only to the highest echelons of China’s Ministry for Public Security and the Communist Party, if at all.

With that in mind, welcome to Part II of our Dystopia Now series, where we explore the Great Firewall of China: it’s origins, nature, and importance in the continuing survival of China’s totalitarian state.

Part I looked at the Chinese surveillance system, and how it involves not only Chinese citizens inside the country, but also possibly anyone, anywhere with a smartphone or computer.

Part III will look at how you can protect yourself when you’re outside of China, ensuring that your data isn’t being mined by Chinese-owned companies. Or, if you’re in China, we’ll show you how you can get around the state’s increasingly-sophisticated Great Firewall so that you can keep in touch with the rest of the world.


The origins of modern censorship in China

“In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity.”

Tiananmen tank man

Before we delve into the inner workings of China’s Great Firewall, we’ll need to put its creation into context. We’ll start with the decisive turning point in China’s recent history that led to the sudden rollback of the slowly reemerging political freedoms in the country.

This will help us understand why China’s gradual evolution towards its current surveillance and censorship model was almost inevitable, as well as essential for the continued survival of the Communist Party of China in the face of a world rapidly transformed by revolutionary technology.

Winds of change

Following Chairman Mao Zedong’s death in 1976, President Deng Xiaoping enacted the “Open Door” policy, which would kickstart China’s modernization by opening the country to foreign investment, as well as allowing limited privatization of state media. However, in the years following the implementation of these reforms, striking a balance between westernizing the economy while simultaneously keeping the Chinese public away from Western freedoms and ideals proved to be quite a struggle.

In Deng Xiaoping’s own words, “if you open the window for fresh air, you have to expect some flies to blow in.”

And “blow in” they did. In the spring of 1989, merely a decade since the beginning of the gradual liberalization of Chinese society, the reforms were about to reach their tragic conclusion.

Inspired by revolutions against Communist rule in Europe and dissatisfied with rising corruption and economic inequality, almost a million people gathered in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square to demand democracy, freedom of the press, and freedom of speech.

The massacre that “wasn’t”

“A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.”

Instead of trying to address the grievances of the peaceful pro-democracy demonstrators, the Chinese Communist party resolved to crush the protests by unleashing the army on the dissenting civilians, beginning the Tiananmen Square Massacre – a massive lethal crackdown in the center of Beijing that was also repeated in other cities throughout the country.

Unlike the General Secretary of the soon-to-be-dissolved Soviet Union, however, China’s paramount leader Deng Xiaoping did not balk at the thousands of civilian deaths and ordered to continue the carnage until any and all resistance had been suppressed. This was a move that, with the whole world watching, could have been a potentially fatal blow for the Communist Government of the People’s Republic of China.

In the wake of at least 10.000 deaths, however, the Party re-emerged bruised, but not defeated.

The middle ground between a mass grave and an empty casket funeral

The tragic aftermath of the protests was a wake-up call. Not only for China’s bloodied democracy movement, but for the Communist Party as well. For hardliners in the government, the mere fact that a bunch of young students somehow managed to organize the potentially regime-ending protests was evidence enough that the Party’s Open Door policy had been too lenient.

To ensure such a challenge to the rule of the regime would never happen again, measures had to be taken. However, a wholesale repeal of political freedoms back to the times of Maoist era’s total terror was not an option. Such a massive rollback would only increase social instability and hurt the Party, as well as foreign investment, both in the short and long terms.

In order to maintain control without the state’s stability taking a hit, the Politburo had to find a balance between Mao’s ruthless, all-encompassing censorship, and Western-level openness.

Thus, China’s new method of censorship was not the draconian apparatus of mass persecution and imprisonment of decades past, but the much subtler (and, admittedly, much more successful) form control fit for a new century: the targeting of influencers and opinion leaders. By selectively singling out and silencing the “subversive” individuals who could potentially organize communities into action, the government could significantly “reduce the probability of collective action by clipping social ties whenever any collective movements are in evidence or expected.”

This new approach to censorship would prove to be a powerful model for controlling the revolutionary technology that would reach China just a handful of years later.

Laying the foundation: the Great Firewall’s birth certificate

“In peace, prepare for war.”

The Internet comes to China

On April 20, 1994, China was officially connected to the internet. However, as was the case with socialism, the newborn web in China was more of an “Internet with Chinese characteristics.”

Although the regime was aware that adopting the internet was a must if China was to catch up with or even overtake top Western economies, the fear of disruptive democratic values and ideas seeping into politically repressed and intermittently brutalized Chinese society via an open and uncensored means of communication was a serious concern. In other words, while the internet would be a crucial part of China’s future economy, its very existence would also “undermine the political stability of the state.”

Thus, the Chinese government was determined to establish blanket control over online content & communications the country’s citizens have access to. China’s Ministry of Public Security (MPS), the newly established branch of the government tasked to deal with this issue, immediately took action. By issuing sweeping regulations to deal with the new technology, as is bureaucratic tradition.

In 1996, the Chinese government passed two online censorship bills. The first required that all internet service providers in China be approved by the government, while the second regulation gave the responsibility of cybersecurity to the MPS. The latter also established the definitions “harmful activities” and “harmful information” concerning online activity.

In the following year, the Party issued a comprehensive set of regulations governing internet use. The key sections, Articles 4-6, state the following:

“Individuals are prohibited from using the Internet to: harm national security; disclose state secrets; or injure the interests of the state or society. Users are prohibited from using the Internet to create, replicate, retrieve, or transmit information that incites resistance to the PRC Constitution, laws, or administrative regulations; promotes the overthrow of the government or socialist system; undermines national unification; distorts the truth, spreads rumors, or destroys social order; or provides sexually suggestive material or encourages gambling, violence, or murder.”

Thus, the legal stage for China’s Great Firewall was set. All that was missing was the necessary technical infrastructure.

Shaping the Great Firewall

“Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.”

How China’s Great Firewall was born

Golden shield copy

Sometime in 1998, China’s Ministry of Public Security began developing the Golden Shield Project, colloquially known today as the Great Firewall of China. In 2000, during the Beijing Trade Show’s showcase Security China 2000, the surveillance system made its first public appearance.

While the early prototypes of the project were designed to enhance network security, the MPS promptly expanded the Shield to “include surveillance and censorship tools” and wanted to build a “comprehensive database-driven surveillance system that could access every citizen’s record as well as link national, regional, and local security together.”

Western bricks in the Wall

However, the Chinese government did not have the necessary technical capabilities to develop the Great Firewall on its own. After all, the China of the late 20th century was not yet the global industrial behemoth it is today.

China’s Ministry of Public Security had to look for help outside the country and combine the knowledge of local software engineers and research institutes with that of tech specialists and hardware manufacturers from the more technologically advanced Western countries.

Nortel logo

Almost as soon as the Ministry put out the word, several Western tech giants answered the call. Chief among these was Nortel Networks, one of the largest telco corporations in Canada at the time. The Canadian technology provider began an R&D collaboration with Tsinghua University and was the company that lead the development of “China’s networking capability” to build up the fledgling project infrastructure.

Sun micro systems and cisco logoHowever, Nortel wasn’t the only Western company to assist China in developing the Golden Shield Project. Some of the largest Western tech corporations had a hand in laying the foundation for the Great Firewall as well. China’s internet infrastructure was built on routers and firewalls provided by Cisco Systems, while Sun Microsystems put together the computer networks that “linked all 33 provincial police departments.”

The supervillain’s final form?

Although the first generation of the Great Firewall, developed through China’s collaboration with Western companies, was a relatively rudimentary domestic filter that only blocked specific domain names and server IP addresses, in 20 years the Golden Shield Project has grown to be the largest and most advanced state surveillance and censorship system in the world, propped up by countless automated systems and millions of active operatives.

That said, how does the Golden Shield Project actually function? Have its capabilities already surpassed those of the Ingsoc from George Orwell’s 1984? Will merely googling the word “democracy” inevitably land you in a Communist reeducation camp? Well, it depends.

After all, as most internet-savvy Chinese citizens are aware, all it takes to “climb over the wall” is to buy a VPN subscription. However, as we shall soon discover, even a colossal censorship & surveillance system that could be bypassed almost effortlessly can still be immensely effective.

Censorship now: How the Great Firewall of China works

Great Firewall of China

“The Revolution will be complete when the language is perfect.”

Since every internet service provider (ISP) in China has to obtain a license from the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) in order to operate, it’s safe to assume that the MIIT is able to monitor most of the internet traffic coming in and out of China through the Great Firewall. However, not every method the Ministry employs to control and manipulate the Chinese web is technical in nature.

To get the full picture of how the Party manages to hold the Chinese online population in its virtual grasp, let’s take a look at the active measures it takes to prevent any instances of digital dissent from getting out of hand.

The usual suspects: blocking, filtering, and DNS poisoning

First and foremost, the Great Firewall outright blocks undesirable Western web domains such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube on the IP address level.

Other online content is blocked or selectively filtered based on sensitive keywords: for example, if a page on your website contains the word “Tiananmen” in it, that page or your entire website (if it doesn’t follow the Potemkin’s village model) is probably blocked.

The developers behind the Great Firewall also seem quite fond of a technique called DNS poisoning. When you attempt to access a website, your computer will first have to contact the site’s domain name system (DNS) server and make a request for its IP address. If the website (e.g. YouTube) you’re trying to connect to is blacklisted by the Chinese government, the Great Firewall will provide the website with “poisoned” DNS records that will divert your connection to an incorrect or censored address, which will make the website inaccessible.

The danger of DNS poisoning is that it can cause the corrupted addresses to spread between different DNS servers. In fact, the Great Firewall’s DNS poisoning shenanigans caused a virtual censorship spillover across China’s borders in 2010 and temporarily redirected American Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube users to servers in China, resulting in a panic among cybersecurity experts in the US.

Other methods used by China’s censorship system involve real-time deep packet inspection. When scanning for potentially threatening content, the Great Firewall examines and flags unencrypted packets of data being exchanged between online entities. On China’s social networks like WeChat and Weibo, posts and topics of conversations that contain politically sensitive keywords such as “Winnie the Pooh,” “Falun Gong,” and “June 4,” or even remotely suspicious phrases like “get together” and “meet up,” are automatically logged and recorded for review and sent to censors for “political analysis.”

Smart censorship

“Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected.”

To browse local, block global

China’s decision to block most major Western news media, social networks, and Web 2.0 platforms gave rise to the creation of their domestic replicas such as Weibo, WeChat and Youku. Capitalizing on the corporate vacuum created by state censorship, these local alternatives have quickly monopolized the China’s online media market and are now almost universally used by the country’s citizens.

Naturally, most if not all of these home-grown copycat websites and apps have been developed with built-in access for government censors and vulnerabilities to state surveillance technologies, making China’s online censorship loop almost inescapable to less technically savvy individuals.

Extending the know-how: the crackdown on VPNs in China

Until relatively recently, Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) were one of the cheapest and most effective ways for China’s residents to effectively bypass online censorship.

However, as early as 2012, the Great Firewall was reported as being “able to learn, discover and block the encrypted communications methods used by a number of different VPN systems” by identifying potentially VPN-like traffic and disconnecting local users from foreign servers. In other words, China’s government is aiming to eliminate unsanctioned VPN use on its side of the Great Firewall.

It may seem that decades of tireless work by the developers of the Great Firewall had finally paid off. That said, certain VPN services are able to circumvent its detection to this day. This opening might have been left intentionally in order to keep international companies from considering an exit from China due to censorship, since most foreign companies operating in the country require VPN services to access data stored outside the country, including search engines, news sites, and social media.

However, this year saw an increasing number of multinational corporations in China feeling the effects of the crackdown on unofficial VPN use. It remains to be seen how many such businesses will continue to accept compromised security as a cost of operating in the country in the future.

With that in mind, we can’t help but notice a pattern here: considering how successful the state-sponsored domestic copycat takeover of China’s online services turned out to be, is the VPN industry destined to suffer the same fate in the future?

The following seems to point towards a positive answer. And it might come sooner than later.

The rise of the state-sanctioned VPN

In early 2017, China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology announced a ban on all unlicensed VPNs in China, potentially paving a way for state-sanctioned VPNs like China Unicom to gradually monopolize the VPN market as well. Needless to say, these “licensed” VPNs will log the user’s online activity and provide government agents with access to all of their data. How can we be sure? Let’s call it an educated guess.

official VPN logos

As if all that wasn’t enough, China’s VPN antics continue to surprise, in the “jump-scare-induced heart attack” sense of the word. According to recent reports, a whopping half of top free mobile-only VPN apps on Google’s Play Store have ties to China. Which suggests that China’s online censorship and corporate espionage efforts are even more extensive than previously thought.

Taking human nature into account: throttling undesirable traffic

Cynically speaking, human beings tend to be predictable, particularly on the societal level. If they weren’t, economic and sociological prediction models simply wouldn’t work.

While Western corporations tend to exploit our predictability to boost consumerist culture, China’s state capitalist technocrats take advantage of certain tendencies of human nature by relying on the dwindling limits of our patience created by the rapid acceleration of online technology to make dissent… simply inconvenient.

Loading wheel

All it takes for the average person to stop using an undesirable online service is to make that service appear to work worse than the state-approved competition. Which is a tactic called “friction” the Chinese authorities use to achieve shockingly effective results.

After all, making certain websites slower to load or harder to use makes people less likely to visit them the next time around. Several consecutive times of staring at the buffering wheel for too long could be all it takes for someone to drop a foreign service in favor of a faster local alternative.

Sure, a staunch political activist will probably make the effort to jump through the government’s hoops, but the trick is that your average “human asset” simply won’t bother.

A wall is just a pile of bricks if not manned by guards

“Management of many is the same as management of few. It is a matter of organization.”

In 2018, it would be naïve to presume that a single wall of digital barriers, however complex, could be sufficient to maintain unshakeable control of 800+ million internet users. To make sure a mountain of software code is not the sole barrier that separates a docile online population from a billion-strong rebel breeding ground, any sensible dictatorship would keep a full alphabet of backup strategies in case plan A goes wrong.

This is why the Great Firewall of China is (presumably) only a part of the greater scope of the Golden Shield Project. However, to look at the Great Firewall out of the context of its parent system is to omit the actual extent of China’s online censorship complex. Or, in other words, miss a tropical rainforest the size of the Amazon for a single palm tree.

One of the major aspects that make the Golden Shield Project so successful is the tireless conscious effort of millions of people in addition to the automated algorithms of the Great Firewall.

Before we conclude this part of our Dystopia Now series, let’s take a look at the inhuman scale of the human (no pun intended) resources China employs to complement the Great Firewall.

Bureaucracy. Bureaucracy never changes


Given China’s billion-strong population and the state capitalist model of its economy, it’s only natural that the government is able to employ millions of people in every one of its economic sectors. Online censorship is no exception.

Hundreds of thousands of China’s government workers are tasked with monitoring and filtering online content and informing their superiors about anything that can be judged as potentially harmful to the political stability of the state. Unlike companies operating in democratic states that (at least publicly) strive to adhere to the notion of due process, many Chinese businesses are mandated by the Chinese government to grant back-end access to censors on their websites.

This type of relatively overt surveillance, of course, is hardly unexpected. But it only gets more insidious from there.

The 50-cent army

Although state-employed internet trolls are nothing new in 2018, those operating on China’s payroll date as far back as 2004.

For more than a decade, the online commentators known as “wu mao dang” (or the “50-cent party”, after the amount of money the government paid for each online post”) have been drowning out political dissent in an ocean of pro-government messages. They are recruited by the regime to guide online discussions on social networks in “politically acceptable directions and report comments that did not follow Chinese law.”

However, the goal of these government operatives is not only to convince the population to follow the party line but also to make citizens more likely to quit their attempts to find accurate information in a sea of contradictions.

Singling out opinion leaders

Which brings us to the politically engaged citizens we mentioned earlier in our article.

Contrary to Western assumptions, Chinese citizens are actually able to express their dissenting opinions online. But not congregate based on those opinions. In other words, you’re allowed to voice your concerns as long as you don’t attempt to lead the disaffected. And those that do are swiftly dealt with, either by convincing them to self-censor as in the case of Shawn Zhang, or by employing harsher methods, such as jail time or a sudden disappearance, among others.

Make no mistake though: the opinions of average Chinese citizens that are contrary to those mandated by the state are still tracked, of course. But the actual purpose of allowing people to personally criticize the government’s inadequacies is to gather current popular sentiment in order to monitor and study the needs of China’s population, as well as gather comments about state officials to make timely staff decisions in case of corruption scandals.

An internet populace that censors itself

Perhaps counterintuitively for some, the bulk of the internet censorship system in China does not rely on technical infrastructure and the vigilance of government operatives alone.

As is the case in most societies governed by repressive regimes, the threat of possible legal repercussions makes most individuals actively avoid potential misbehavior and censor themselves in fear of an imminent response from law enforcement. Such behavior is not only expected from individual Chinese citizens but extends to domestic businesses as well.

In today’s China, local companies are legally responsible for regulating their own content, and failure to do so may lead to financial penalties or even “shutdowns,” in addition to simply drawing the regime’s unwanted ire. Which is why the majority of large businesses in China employ teams of content regulation enforcement specialists as part of their official staff to monitor and edit content that may contain phrases or subjects banned by the government.

After all, why expend more resources than absolutely necessary when the population itself can do the work?

Is there no escape?

“The wall just got ten feet higher”

All of the above might paint quite a dreary portrait of the censorship monolith that is the Great Firewall of China. When technology is propped up by a society that is conditioned to value economic and political stability over the notions of individual liberty and freedom of thought, it might seem that China’s online censorship not only works but is actually bulletproof. An in some respects, it might be.

As you’ve probably noticed, there seems to be no large-scale televised demonstrations or uprisings against the Chinese government that would actually pose a threat to the Communist Party’s regime.

For the time being, the online society in China appears to be stable and docile, just as the Big Brother intended.

However, to paraphrase Jeff Goldblum – the “incredibly talented yet willing puppet of the Imperialist West’s entertainment-industrial complex” – “freedom, uh, finds a way.

If you’re a democratically-minded Chinese citizen looking for ways to “climb over the wall,” or a foreigner on the other side of the Great Firewall looking to get a peek at the goings on in the Celestial Kingdom, don’t worry – we’ve got you covered.

Stay tuned for Part III, where we’ll look at practical ways anyone, anywhere, inside and outside of China, can get around government surveillance and censorship.

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  1. Evolve

    All of this ridiculousness is why I will never, ever set foot in China, and I do my very best not to give them any money whatsoever. It’s difficult – you have to check every label – but it’s worth it, because what this country does is PURE EVIL.

  2. Marcelo

    This world has had its share of dictatorships, wars and lust for power and still some don’t seem to have learned anything from this. There are still people who would just like to control everything in a certain region. I wonder where we would be as a species if everyone worked for the common good: the improvement of human kind.

  3. ohchie5Aek

    China’s censorship apparatus reminds me of George Orwell’s 1984. Winston’s job was to go through news that didn’t fit with the party’s current dialogue and delete or change the news. As US citizens, we should be aware of the danger of allowing ourselves to fall into the same trap. It happens slowly, one bit of privacy taken away at a time, until we suddenly realize we no longer have control our lives.

  4. Konrad Strauss Author

    We can only hope that human rights will one day become a priority for China as its economic prosperity continues to rise. For now, however, all signs seem to point towards ever-increasing mass surveillance efforts.

  5. Lakeesha Henderson

    This preview is more or less the story of China on one page. One of the striking fact I can see here is that Chinese people are still suffering under communism which is sad in this day and age when people are expected to be free to express their own opinion without fear of being punished by the government. This is sad indeed and even though China has really developed nowadays shouldn’t they think about the fundamental human rights of their citizens and maintain it?

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