What is the Great Firewall of China?
In short, The Great Firewall of China is a technological firewall and sophisticated computerized internet detection system enabling online censorship and control of its own citizens by the Chinese government. This is to regulate and monitor internet access within the country to prevent activity and dissent from people whom the Chinese government calls ‘dissident elements’ (i.e. anyone who doesn’t agree with their policies).
The Great Firewall operates by employing a combination of technical and legislative measures to filter and block internet traffic such as social media platforms, email, streaming services and the like.
Despite China’s modernization over the last few decades to become a first-world superpower from a third-world rural local agro-economic country, its government is still known for extensive repression of its citizens, not least in terms of access to information from inside the Chinese state itself and extramurally.
For complex historical and contemporary reasons, the non-democratic Chinese regime maintains strict control over its citizens’ internet access via a system known as ‘The Great Firewall of China’. This digital boundary takes its nickname from the brick-and-mortar ancient monument, The Great Wall of China, which was constructed in the 7th century BC, being extended throughout history as recently as the 17th century AD. It stretches in various interconnected sections on the country’s northern border with Mongolia and totals some 20,000 kilometers in length from its various protrusions and meanderings over the centuries.
The digital firewall prevents not the invasion of Mongol hordes like its physical counterpart but the flow of data and global communication throughout China from outside the country. This cyber-censorship policy has obvious implications for allowing freedom of thought and expression across China.
Officially called the ‘Golden Shield Project,’ the first blockage of burgeoning internet traffic was instigated in around 2003. The primary goal of the barrier is to prevent Chinese citizens from accessing foreign news agencies, social media platforms, and websites, most of which the Chinese government labels as subversive. After all, you don’t want a country of some one-and-a-half billion people suddenly wanting free and fair elections and a system of social justice instigated!
The firewall uses a complex combination of advanced online security and analytical techniques to block access to specific websites and IP addresses. It carefully picks up keywords from Baidu, China’s most popular search engine, and also scans many others. Any online activities or content that might break government policy can be detected.
Such comprehensive and zero-tolerance policies enable the Chinese government to exert close control over any information that Chinese citizens might access, thereby controlling the population’s outlook as a whole – limiting their exposure to alternative versions of international reality.
Break on through the firewall at your peril!
Punishments for breaking through or circumventing the firewall are harsh. For example, according to Wikipedia, in 2017, a Uyghur University student at Xinjiang University, Mehmut Memtimin, was sentenced to 13 years in prison simply for using a virtual private network (VPN).
Does China block access to Google?
Yes, China blocks access to Google and many other services, including Gmail, Google Drive, Google Maps et al. Interestingly, Google was in fact one of the most popular search engines in China until 2010, when Google stopped censoring its search results in accordance with Chinese government requests. Consequently, the Chinese government blocked access to the company’s products, leading to the rise of Baidu as the most popular alternative.
How do I get the Internet in China?
To access the Internet in China, as anywhere else in the world, you would need an Internet service provider (ISP). China has various private and state-owned ISPs providing connections to both business and residential users alike. China Telecom, the largest state-owned ISP in the world, has around 55 million subscribers, followed closely by the similarly state-controlled China Unicom, with just over 40 million customers.
The process of obtaining an Internet connection is similar to that in other countries, whereby people sign up for a plan with an ISP of their choice and set up a modem and router.
Why is YouTube blocked in China?
YouTube is blocked in China for a variety of reasons, mostly based on the strict content control of any internet-based service provider exerted by the Chinese government. As YouTube hosts hundreds of thousands of user-generated videos and audio clips, the task of filtering the politically sensitive from the innocuous would be too much, even for the might of the Chinese government’s censorship engines.
In short, it’s much easier to ban an entire platform than try to cherry-pick the cute cat videos from the instructions on how to fire-bomb an entire neighborhood!
In order to satisfy the Chinese populace’s hunger for entertaining video clips of people dancing around in dragon suits and cooking WonTon soup, there are alternative platforms such as Youku and Tudou.
Is Yahoo blocked in China?
Take a wild guess! Unsurprisingly, Yahoo is also among the plethora of foreign websites banned by the Chinese government. Even though Yahoo’s popularity has waned over the last decade, losing out to Google, its services, including its famous Yahoo email, remain inaccessible to the general Chinese population.
Can you access US websites in China?
Not unless you want to go to jail for a long time. Most US-based websites and platforms are blocked by China’s Great Firewall. In fact, Twitter, (now known as ‘X’) Instagram, Facebook, and many other social media vehicles are blocked – along with access to the UK’s BBC. WhatsApp, with its end-to-end encryption facility, is also banned in China. Clearly, these restrictions significantly affect the ability of Chinese people to learn what is going on both inside and outside their borders.
Most interestingly, during the highly significant Hong Kong student uprisings between 2019 and 2020, it was well known that most subversives (or ‘people’, as we call them in the West) were accessing the news about what was happening on their own doorsteps by circumventing geo-restricted content and accessing BBC news in the United Kingdom.
How to bypass Internet restrictions in China
First off, if you’re a Chinese resident reading this, you’ve probably already worked out how to do so! You must be aware of the harsh penalties for flouting China’s internet access laws, so we don’t need to remind you that it’s highly illegal. The Chinese government takes internet censorship very seriously and employs various technical measures to detect any attempts to circumvent the firewall.
Of course, like any technology barrier, the Great Firewall can always be defeated, and some Chinese people might use virtual private networks (VPNs) to access foreign online content. VPNs create encrypted tunnels connecting to servers located outside China, thereby making it seem as though they are accessing the web from a different location. However, it’s important to remember that the Chinese government actively monitors VPN usage. Furthermore many VPN services are regularly blocked, or they may well be unreliable in China.
Let’s not forget also that some police and governmental authorities might set up their own VPNs, ostensibly dissident hotbeds, while actually they are perfect human Venus fly traps, to coax unwary ‘subversives’ into signing themselves up for the government’s biggest online watch-list.
How can I access Chinese websites from outside China?
Accessing Chinese websites from outside China isn’t generally restricted by the Great Firewall. Incoming traffic doesn’t represent a threat to the regime so long as it’s not email or readable content, so just viewing a Chinese website isn’t difficult nor illegal.
However, certain Chinese websites may have geographically restricted content where a VPN with a Chinese server presence could help to access that content from outside the country’s borders.
In conclusion, as the international digital environment evolves, so too must the policies and practices of all governmental agencies. The internet and associated technologies democratize everything, especially in terms of internet access to learn new ways of living.
For example, at one time, if you needed to stop a tap from dripping, the chances are that you’d have to call a plumber to your home to change the internal mechanism of your taps. Nowadays, a quick five-minute YouTube video watch shows how easy it is to do it yourself.
Likewise, as internet access technology becomes less traceable and more widespread, even nations like North Korea will eventually have to acknowledge that they need to allow people freedom of expression. If it’s easy to access the internet untraceable, people are going to do it.
There’s little doubt, however, that the ongoing struggle between information control and the desire for the Chinese people’s freedom of expression and worldwide internet access will continue to be a significant feature of their lives for the foreseeable future.