More on the Great Firewall

 By Shamus Mar 6, 2007 16 comments

In the comments of yesterday’s post on the China Firewall, dishuiguanyin left a detailed comment here that gives some perspective from how thins work from within China. I thought this was so interesting that I’m quoting it here:

I’ve lived in China for ten years, and I still find it very hard to explain the Great Firewall properly, but that’s not going to stop me from trying. Apologies for tl;dr, but maybe someone is interested in a perspective from within the Great Firewall.

1. The two main ISP providers in China use slightly different blocking software/techniques. Thus, it is frequently possible for a site to be blocked for those using China Telecom but visible when using China Unicom. Leads to much fun and confusion.

2. The Great Firewall is constantly evolving. Sites appear, disappear and re-appear all the time.

3. It’s not like there are thousands of censors sitting around scanning the internet for any mention of banned or dangerous topics. If your site mentions politics, democracy, or even economic theories (including the economic validity of communism) they don’t care, especially if you post on multiple topics. The Chinese government is well aware that there are huge range of perspectives in world, and they aren’t stupid enough to try to protect their citizens from this fact. They are secure in the knowledge that any Chinese citizen who can read and debate politics, religion or economics in English must be highly-educated, and thus belong to the most indoctrinated segment of society (political theory plays an important role in education at all levels from kindergarten to post-graduate studies).

4. However, if you happen to hit on a particularly sensitive topic, for example the suppression of peasant riots in Dongzhou, Guangdong while that suppression is still going on, then you will find yourself blocked. At least while the post remains on the front page. The government is worried about specific contradictions to their official reports being offered up by bloggers and internet pundits.
Highly specific challenges are considered dangerous, not general ones.

5. That said, some topics will get a blanket ban. Temporary if your website covers a variety of topics, permanent if your website is focused. Permanent bans are in place on: Free Tib*t, F*lun G*ng, and Hum*n Rights W*tch amongst others. (You’ll notice that I’m even nervous about typing those words into the comments here.)

6. Mainstream foreign news sources are barely censored at all. Ok, so we can’t access the bbc.co.uk/news/ page (I think that’s a grudge ban, as the CCP has never forgiven the BBC for their ‘The Dying Rooms’ documentary in 1996), but we can download and listen to all BBC radio broadcasts. I can read a huge variety of news, analysis and comment about China online through The Guardian, The Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post and many others. I could even view that video of Tibetan refugees being shot trying to cross the border a few months ago – suppressed in the Chinese media – by going to a Canadian news site (CBC.com maybe?)

7. Traditionally, the CCP has seen blogs as dangerous. Nobody is regulating them, anyone could write about anything, they don’t have time to read them all, etc. They’ve tended to deal with this by banning blogging platforms. However, that strategy appears to be being refined nowadays. Geocities was banned for years, but has recently reappeared. The same goes for blogspot and typepad. Blog-city was originally visible, then it was banned for about a year, then it reappeared. Blogware was visible, but was banned about six months ago. The same goes for wordpress. Livejournal disappeared behind the firewall four days ago – on Saturday.
I used to blog on blog-city, when that was banned I moved to blogware, when that was banned I moved to livejournal. Now LJ’s banned and I’m starting to get a bit annoyed.
The best rule of thumb is: if you have your own domain name (as Shamus does) then you’re pretty safe from the firewall. If you blog on a url provided by one of the platforms you could easily find yourself disappearing.

8. Right now the National People’s Congress is meeting in Beijing. This is traditionally the time of year when internet controls are at their tightest. Thus, I’m hoping that the current LJ block will prove to be a temporary one and disappear once the meeting is over, because I really don’t want to have to migrate my blog again.

(For the incredulous, I checked the IP of this comment and it does indeed come from China, for what that’s worth.)

Thanks so much to dishuiguanyin for the interesting perspective.

1624 comments. (That's 10 in Hexadecimal.)


  1. After babbling away so much, I’m glad you were interested! (Apologies for the grammar errors that I missed. They’re much more apparent when in bold italics.)

    Something else I should maybe add:
    I’m an expat and British citizen. The expats like me use proxies all the time. The local Chinese citizens are either a) unaware of the existance of proxies, or b) aware, but unwilling to use them. Some fear they might get into trouble for using proxies. This is possible, but highly unlikely unless they use information they’ve found outside the Great Firewall to inform their posting within it. Others, while they might be a bit ambiguous about the extent of the blocking, feel that the government is doing it in order to protect them, and their society, from unrest and dangerous influences (remember they’re indoctrinated from a very young age to believe that the Party is always right and has their best interests at heart).

  2. [...] Via Twenty Sided, an interesting discussion on the Great Firewall from someone within its [...]

  3. Very intersting information, indeed.

    Since I’m hosted by Yahoo, which a year or so made some huge deal with China, I’m probably safe from blocking. Considering my content is pretty trivial helps, too.

  4. China is still a dictatorship fact of the day:…

    (can you tell I read too much Stitch in haste?)

    You have probably heard about the …

  5. Another thing which I bet will get you on the blacklist is saying anything approving about Taiwanese independence.

    I wonder if the reason I never ended up on the blacklist is because I never used any of the classic blogging tools? (CityDesk never made the big time.)

  6. Shamus, read your “webmaster” email.

  7. Strangeite says:

    My family runs a Bluegrass music festival in Kentucky. It is the oldest continuously run family festival in the country and has a very good reputation in the Bluegrass world. However for some reason China has blocked our website (www.festivalofthebluegrass.com), even though we have Chinese visitors every year who attend the festival. My in-laws own a series of newspapers in South Dakota but they are available. I find it interesting that news outlets are safe but a website dedicated to Bluegrass music is considered dangerous.

  8. pdwalker says:

    The “Great Firewall” also tends to do things like block certain DNS lookups to certain addresses.

    Dynamic DNS providers are frequently a target.

  9. Rebecca says:

    Well, I’d better be careful not to write anything about fr** T*bet.

  10. Antiquated Tory says:

    Censorship is a funny thing. I had a Chinese friend who was a big fan of Catch 22, which she read when studying English. She says that she doubts the censors could understand the book; anything subtle or complicated in a foreign language is likely to be approved.
    Another friend of mine says Catch 22 was his favorite book back when he was Executive Officer for a MIG-21PIF squadron in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic’s Air Force. All kinds of odd stories about the inconsistencies in internal security policy he told me from back then.

  11. AngiePen says:

    About the political indoctrination thing, there were a lot of students from China at my college and once in a Poli Sci class (comparative politics), the instructor was talking about this subject and engaged the half dozen or so who were in the class. They all agreed that no one takes the political classes too seriously, that it’s a good place to do math homework, etc. We can hope that the students at my school (who were trusted enough to be allowed to come to the US for higher education and therefore are probably considered very low-risk for cultural and political contamination from their government’s POV) are typical and that in another generation or two the results of the Chinese indoctrinative education working about as well as ours :P will result in things loosening up a bit more.

    Angie

  12. Michael says:

    First, I can vouch for dishuiguanyin’s authenticity since I know who she is. Second, most of what she says about the Great Firewall is true. What she doesn’t say about the Great Firewall stems only from technical ignorance — she’s not a computer-oriented person. (For example it is trivial to poke holes in the Great Firewall and almost anybody who’s interested in doing so — Chinese or expat — knows how to do so and does so frequently.)

    What she says that isn’t true, however, is the bit about the censors. I suspect that this, too, stems from ignorance. There are, in fact, thousands of censors steaming all over the web looking for questionable content to block. Estimates place this at about 30,000 such censors. (For obvious reasons it is difficult to get an accurate number.)

    The problem — and the reason why these thousands of censors are so ineffective — is one buried deep in Chinese culture and in the nature of the Internet. The latter is an obvious one: the web is growing faster than a “mere” 30,000 can keep up with. For every web site that gets inspected in detail, twenty pop up.

    But even if the Chinese had a million such censors the Great Firewall would remain a laughable joke. This is because the censors in question have no real incentive to actually be good at their jobs. The people who evaluate their work, you see, have no idea of what the Internet is and what its potential is. It is easy to do a half-assed job as a net censor and garner kudos aplenty from your bosses. Since most communication in China is top-down, there’s no way for the fact that the Great Firewall is a total farce to make its way up the chain short of the occasional accidental stumbling-across of “bad” material. The result is a firewall that only protects the stupid from seeing what other stupid people don’t want them to see. Anybody with more than three spare brain cells to rub together is merrily seeing whatever they like.

  13. Insanodag says:

    Just a clarification: The Dying Rooms was shown on Channel 4, not BBC. The main reason for blocking BBC News is that it provides news in chinese.

  14. Daniel says:

    The great firewall is not difficult to circumvent but still remains a pain in the pigu. find out sites that have nothing to do with anything are blocked and you still can get all the porn you want. I am a bit miffed about it now because every time I want to go to a favorite site of mine I have to go thru a proxy and also have to log in every time.

    Saudi Arabia has a greater wall. I lived there for a while and well the net was so slow and to boot they were so busy trying to keep you from seeing a nipple that the internet was close to useless because so many sites are blocked.

  15. Noumenon says:

    “Well, I’d better be careful not to write anything about fr** T*bet.”

    They’ll probably let it go if you try, “F*** T*bet.”

  16. Michael says:

    Daniel says: The great firewall is not difficult to circumvent but still remains a pain in the pigu. find out sites that have nothing to do with anything are blocked and you still can get all the porn you want. I am a bit miffed about it now because every time I want to go to a favorite site of mine I have to go thru a proxy and also have to log in every time.

    Find better proxies. I use a proxy that cannot be spotted by the Great Firewall, cannot be blocked without being spotted (short of blocking any and all encrypted content web-wide) and allows me to see whatever I want, wherever I want, whenever I want. (And no, I’m not talking about TOR — TOR’s a good idea, but needs a few million more nodes to be actually usable.) And even the speed is reasonable for anything but massive download sessions.

    Use Firefox with a decent proxy switcher added on and you’re laughing. The Great Firewall is a joke.

2 Trackbacks

  1. [...] Via Twenty Sided, an interesting discussion on the Great Firewall from someone within its [...]

  2. By Dean's World on March 6, 2007 at 11:51 am

    China is still a dictatorship fact of the day:…

    (can you tell I read too much Stitch in haste?)

    You have probably heard about the …

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