Internet censorship in the People's Republic of China
|This article is part of the series:
Politics and government of
the People's Republic of China
Internet censorship in the People's Republic of China is conducted under a wide variety of laws and administrative regulations. In accordance with these laws, more than sixty Internet regulations have been made by the government of the People's Republic of China (PRC), which have been implemented by provincial branches of state-owned ISPs, companies, and organizations. The apparatus of the PRC's Internet repression is considered more extensive and more advanced than in any other country in the world. The governmental authorities not only block website content but also monitor the Internet access of individuals.
Amnesty International notes that China “has the largest recorded number of imprisoned journalists and cyber-dissidents in the world.” The offences of which they are accused include communicating with groups abroad, signing online petitions, and calling for reform and an end to corruption. The escalation of the government's effort to neutralize critical online opinion comes after a series of large anti-Japanese, anti-pollution, anti-corruption protests, and ethnic riots, many of which were organized or publicized using instant messaging services, chat rooms, and text messages. The size of the Internet police is rumored at more than 30,000.
The political and ideological background of the Internet censorship is considered to be one of Deng Xiaoping's favorite sayings in the early 1980s: "If you open the window for fresh air, you have to expect some flies to blow in." The saying is related to a period of the economic reform of China that became known as the "socialist market economy". Superseding the political ideologies of the Cultural Revolution, the reform led China towards a market economy and opened up the market for foreign investors. Nonetheless the Communist Party of China has wished to protect its values and political ideas from "swatting flies" of other ideologies.
The Internet arrived in China in the year 1994 as an inevitable consequence of, and supporting tool for, the "socialist market economy." Since then, and with gradual increasing penetration, the Internet has become a common communication platform and an important tool for sharing information. In 1998 the Communist Party of China feared the China Democracy Party (CDP) would breed a powerful new network that the party elites might not be able to control. The CDP was immediately banned followed by arrests and imprisonment. That same year the "Golden Shield project" was started. The first part of the project lasted eight years and was completed in 2006. The second part began in 2006 and ended in 2008. On 6 December 2002, 300 people in charge of the Golden Shield project from 31 provinces and cities throughout China participated in a four-day inaugural “Comprehensive Exhibition on Chinese Information System”. At the exhibition, many western high-tech products including Internet security, video monitoring and human face recognition were purchased. It is estimated that around 30–50,000 police are employed in this gigantic project.
The government of the PRC defends its right to censor the internet by claiming that the country has the right to govern the internet according to its own rules inside its borders. The white paper, released in June 2010, called the internet “a crystallization of human wisdom.” But in the document the government lays out some of the reasons why its citizens cannot get access to all of that wisdom. It says it wants to curb the harmful effects of illegal information on state security, public interests and children. “Laws and regulations clearly prohibit the spread of information that contains content subverting state power, undermining national unity [or] infringing upon national honor and interests,” it says. Another section of the same white paper reaffirms the government's determination to govern the internet within its borders according to its own rules. "Within Chinese territory the internet is under the jurisdiction of Chinese sovereignty. The internet sovereignty of China should be respected and protected," it says. It adds that foreign individuals and firms can use the internet in China, but they must abide by the country's laws.
The central government of China started its Internet censorship with three regulations. The first regulation was called the Temporary Regulation for the Management of Computer Information Network International Connection. The regulation was passed in the 42nd Standing Convention of the State Council on 23 January 1996. It was formally announced on 1 February 1996, and updated again on 20 May 1997. The content of the first regulation states requires that Internet service providers be licensed and that Internet traffic go through ChinaNet, GBNet, CERNET or CSTNET. The second regulation was the Ordinance for Security Protection of Computer Information Systems. It was issued on 18 February 1994 by the State Council to give the responsibility of Internet security protection to the Ministry of Public Security.
The Ordinance regulation further led to the Security Management Procedures in Internet Accessing issued by the Ministry of Public Security in December 1997. The regulation defines "harmful information" and "harmful activities" regarding internet usage. Section Five of the Computer Information Network and Internet Security, Protection, and Management Regulations approved by the State Council on 11 December 1997 states the following:
No unit or individual may use the Internet to create, replicate, retrieve, or transmit the following kinds of information:
- Inciting to resist or breaking the Constitution or laws or the implementation of administrative regulations;
- Inciting to overthrow the government or the socialist system;
- Inciting division of the country, harming national unification;
- Inciting hatred or discrimination among nationalities or harming the unity of the nationalities;
- Making falsehoods or distorting the truth, spreading rumors, destroying the order of society;
- Promoting feudal superstitions, sexually suggestive material, gambling, violence, murder;
- Terrorism or inciting others to criminal activity; openly insulting other people or distorting the truth to slander people;
- Injuring the reputation of state organizations;
- Other activities against the Constitution, laws or administrative regulations.
In September 2000, State Council Order No. 292 created the first content restrictions for internet content providers. China-based Web sites cannot link to overseas news Web sites or distribute news from overseas media without separate approval. Only “licensed print publishers” have the authority to deliver news online. Non-licensed Web sites that wish to broadcast news may only publish information already released publicly by other news media. These sites must obtain approval from state information offices and from the State Council Information Agency. Article 11 of this order mentions that “content providers are responsible for ensuring the legality of any information disseminated through their services”. Article 14 gives government officials full access to any kind of sensitive information they wish from providers of internet services.
In December 1997, Public Security minister Zhu Entao released new regulations to be enforced by the ministry that inflict fines for "defaming government agencies," "splitting the nation," and leaking "state secrets." Violators could face a fine up to 15.000 Yuan ($1800). Banning appears mostly coordinated and ad hoc, with some sites blocked, yet similar sites allowed or even blocked in one city and allowed in another. The blocks have often been lifted for special occasions. For example, The New York Times was unblocked when reporters in a private interview with CPC general secretary Jiang Zemin specifically asked about the block and he replied that he would look into the matter. During the APEC summit in Shanghai during 2001, normally blocked media sources such as CNN, NBC, and the Washington Post became accessible. Since 2001, the content controls have been further relaxed on a permanent basis, and all three of the sites previously mentioned are now accessible from mainland China. However, access to the New York Times was briefly re-blocked as of 20 December 2008, although it has been accessible for the first months of 2009 as of 17 May.
In the summer of 2005, the PRC purchased over 200 routers from an American company, Cisco Systems, that allowed the PRC government a more advanced technological censoring ability. In February 2006, Google made a significant concession to the Great Firewall of China, in exchange for equipment installation on Chinese soil, by blocking websites which the Chinese government deemed illegal. They reversed this policy in 2010, refusing to continue to censor results.
In May 2011, the State Council Information Office announced transfer of its offices which regulated the Internet to a new subordinate agency, the State Internet Information Office which would be responsible for regulating the Internet in the People's Republic of China. The relationship of the new agency to other agencies in the PRC which regulate the Internet was unclear from the announcement.
Internet censorship in the PRC has been called "a panopticon that encourages self-censorship through the perception that users are being watched." The enforcement (or threat of enforcement) of censorship creates a chilling effect where individuals and businesses willingly censor their own communications to avoid legal and economic repercussions. ISPs and other service providers are legally liable for customers' conduct. The service providers have assumed an editorial role with regard to customer content, thus became publishers, and legally responsible for libel and other torts committed by customers. Some hotels in China advise Internet users to obey local Chinese Internet access rules by leaving a list of Internet rules and guidelines near the computers. These rules, among other things, forbid linking to politically unacceptable messages, and inform Internet users that if they do, they will have to face legal consequences.
On 16 March 2002, the Internet Society of China, a self-governing Chinese Internet industry body, launched the Public Pledge on Self-Discipline for the Chinese Internet Industry, an agreement between the Chinese Internet industry regulator and companies that operate sites in China. In signing the agreement, web companies pledge to identify and prevent the transmission of information that Chinese authorities deem objectionable, including information that “breaks laws or spreads superstition or obscenity,” or that “may jeopardize state security and disrupt social stability.” As of 2006, the pledge had been signed by more than 3,000 entities operating websites in China.
Use of service providers
Although the government does not have the physical resources to monitor all Internet chat rooms and forums, the threat of being shut down has caused Internet content providers to employ internal staff, colloquially known as "big mamas", who stop and remove forum comments which may be politically sensitive. In Shenzhen, these duties are partly taken over by a pair of police-created cartoon characters, Jingjing and Chacha, who help extend the online "police presence" of the Shenzhen authorities. These cartoons spread across the nation in 2007 reminding Internet users that they are being watched and should avoid posting "sensitive" or "harmful" material on the Internet.
However, Internet content providers have adopted some counter-strategies. One is to post politically sensitive stories and remove them only when the government complains. In the hours or days in which the story is available online, people read it, and by the time the story is taken down, the information is already public. One notable case in which this occurred was in response to a school explosion in 2001, when local officials tried to suppress the fact the explosion resulted from children illegally producing fireworks.
On 11 July 2003, the PRC government started granting licenses to businesses to open Internet cafe chains. Business analysts and foreign Internet operators regard the licenses as intended to clamp down on information deemed harmful to the PRC government. In July 2007, the city of Xiamen announced it would ban anonymous online postings after text messages and online communications were used to rally protests against a proposed chemical plant in the city. Internet users will be required to provide proof of identity when posting messages on the more than 100,000 Web sites registered in Xiamen.
Fines and short arrests are becoming an optional punishment to whoever expresses undesirable information through the different Internet formats, as this is seen as a risk to social stability.
In 2001, Wang Xiaoning and other Chinese activists were arrested and sentenced to 10 years in prison for using a Yahoo email account to post anonymous writing to an Internet mailing list. On 23 July 2008, the family of Liu Shaokun was notified that he had been sentenced to one year re-education through labor for “inciting a disturbance”. As a teacher in Sichuan province, he had taken photographs of collapsed schools and posted these photos online. On 18 July 2008, Huang Qi was formally arrested on suspicion of illegally possessing state secrets. Huang had spoken with the foreign press and posted information on his website about the plight of parents who had lost children in collapsed schools. Shi Tao, a Chinese journalist, used his Yahoo! email account to send a message to a U.S.-based pro-democracy website. In his email, he summarized a government order directing media organizations in China to downplay the upcoming 15th anniversary of the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy activists. Police arrested him in November 2004, charging him with "illegally providing state secrets to foreign entities." In April 2005, he was sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment and two years’ subsequent deprivation of his political rights.
The system blocks content by preventing IP addresses from being routed through. It consists of standard firewalls and proxy servers at the Internet gateways. The system also selectively engages in DNS poisoning when particular sites are requested. The government does not appear to be systematically examining Internet content, as this appears to be technically impractical. Researchers at the University of California, Davis and at the University of New Mexico said that the censorship system is not a true firewall since banned material is sometimes able to pass through several routers or through the entire system without being blocked. Details for some commonly used technical methods for censoring are:
|IP blocking||The access to a certain IP address is denied. If the target Web site is hosted in a shared hosting server, all Web sites on the same server will be blocked. This affects all IP protocols (mostly TCP) such as HTTP, FTP or POP. A typical circumvention method is to find proxies that have access to the target Web sites, but proxies may be jammed or blocked. Some large Web sites allocated additional IP addresses (for instance, an IPv6 address) to circumvent the block, but later the block may be extended to cover the new addresses.|
|DNS filtering and redirection||The DNS doesn't resolve domain names or returns incorrect IP addresses. This affects all IP protocols such as HTTP, FTP or POP. A typical circumvention method is to find a domain name server that resolves domain names correctly, but domain name servers are subject to blockage as well, especially IP blocking. Another workaround is to bypass DNS if the IP address is obtainable from other sources and is not blocked. Examples are modifying the Hosts file or typing the IP address instead of the domain name in a Web browser.|
|URL filtering||Scan the requested Uniform Resource Locator (URL) string for target keywords regardless of the domain name specified in the URL. This affects the Hypertext Transfer Protocol. Typical circumvention methods are to use escaped characters in the URL, or to use encrypted protocols such as VPN and SSL.|
|Packet filtering||Terminate TCP packet transmissions when a certain number of controversial keywords are detected. This can be effective with many TCP protocols such as HTTP, FTP or POP, but Search engine pages are more likely to be censored. Typical circumvention methods are to use encrypted protocols such as VPN and SSL, to escape the HTML content, or reducing the TCP/IP stack's MTU, thus reducing the amount of text contained in a given packet.|
|Man-in-the-middle attack||GFW can use a root certificate from CNNIC, which is found in most operating systems and browsers, to make a MITM attack. On 26 Jan 2013, the Github SSL certificate was replaced with a self-signed certificate in China by, generally believed, the GFW.|
|TCP connection reset||If a previous TCP connection is blocked by the filter, future connection attempts from both sides will also be blocked for up to 30 minutes. Depending on the location of the block, other users or Web sites may be also blocked if the communications are routed to the location of the block. A circumvention method is to ignore the reset packet sent by the firewall.|
|VPN blocking||Starting late 2012, GFW is able to "learn, discover and block" the encrypted communications methods used by a number of different Virtual Private Network (VPN) systems. China Unicom, one of the biggest telecoms providers in the country, is now killing connections where a VPN is detected, according to one company with a number of users in China.|
Other reported methods have included:
|Network enumeration||It has been reported that unknown entities within China, likely with deep packet inspection (DPI) capabilities, have initiated unsolicited TCP/IP connections to computers within the United States for the purported purpose of network enumeration of services, in particular TLS/SSL and Tor (anonymity network) services, with the aim of facilitating IP blocking.|
The Golden Shield Project is owned by the Ministry of Public Security of the People's Republic of China (MPS). It started in 1998, began processing in November 2003, and the first part of the project passed the national inspection on 16 November 2006 in Beijing. According to MPS, its purpose is to construct a communication network and computer information system for police to improve their capability and efficiency. By 2002 the preliminary work of the Golden Shield Project had cost US$800 million (equivalent to RMB 5,000 million or €620 million). Greg Walton, a free lance researcher, said that the aim of the Golden Shield is to establish a "gigantic online database" that would include "speech and face recognition, closed-circuit television... [and] credit records" as well as traditional Internet use records.
A notice issued by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology on 19 May stated that, as of 1 July 2009, manufacturers must ship machines to be sold in mainland China with the Green Dam Youth Escort software. On 14 August 2009, Li Yizhong, minister of industry and information technology, announced that computer manufacturers and retailers were no longer obliged to ship the software with new computers for home or business use, but that schools, Internet cafes and other public use computers would still be required to run the software.
A senior official of the Internet Affairs Bureau of the State Council Information Office said the software's only purpose was "to filter pornography on the Internet". The general manager of Jinhui, which developed Green Dam, said: "Our software is simply not capable of spying on Internet users, it is only a filter." Human rights advocates in China have criticized the software for being "a thinly concealed attempt by the government to expand censorship". Online polls conducted on Sina, Netease, Tencent, Sohu, and Southern Metropolis Daily revealed over 70% rejection of the software by netizens. However, Xinhua commented that "support [for Green Dam] largely stems from end users, opposing opinions primarily come from a minority of media outlets and businesses".
Targets of censorship
According to a Harvard study, at least 18,000 websites are blocked from within mainland China. Out of the Top 100 Global Websites, 12 are currently. The PRC-sponsored news agency, Xinhua, stated that censorship targets only "superstitious, pornographic, violence-related, gambling, and other harmful information." On the other hand, websites centered on the following political topics are often censored: Falun Gong,police brutality, Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, freedom of speech, democracy,Taiwan independence,Tibetan independence movement, and the Tuidang movement. Foreign media websites such as BBC News, Yahoo! Hong Kong and the Voice of America are occasionally blocked.
A 2012 study of social media sites by other Harvard researchers found that 13% of Internet posts were blocked. The blocking focused mainly on any form of collective action (anything from false rumors driving riots to protest organizers to large parties for fun), pornography, and criticism of the censors. However, significant criticisms of the government were not blocked when made separately from calls for collective action.
A lot of larger Japanese websites were blocked during the afternoon of 15 June 2012 (UTC+08:00) to the morning of 17 June 2012 (UTC+08:00), such as Google Japan, Yahoo! Japan, Amazon Japan, Excite, Yomiuri News, Sponichi News and Nikkei BP Japan.
One part of the block is to filter the search results of certain terms on Chinese search engines. These Chinese search engines include both international ones (for example, yahoo.com.cn and Google China) as well as domestic ones (for example, Baidu). Attempting to search for censored keywords in these Chinese search engines will yield few or no results. Previously, google.cn displayed the following at the bottom of the page: "According to the local laws, regulations and policies, part of the searching result is not shown." As was the case when searching for information about the 2011 uprising in Egypt. When Google did business in the country, it set up computer systems inside China that try to access Web sites outside the country. If a site is inaccessible, then it is added to Google China's blacklist.
In addition, a connection containing intensive censored terms may also be closed by The Great Firewall, and cannot be reestablished for several minutes. This affects all network connections including HTTP and POP, but the reset is more likely to occur during searching. Before the search engines censored themselves, many search engines had been blocked, namely Google and AltaVista. Technorati, a search engine for blogs, has been blocked. Different search engines implement the mandated censorship in different ways. For example, the search engine Bing is reported to censor search results from searches conducted in simplified Chinese characters (used in the PRC), but not in traditional Chinese characters (used in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau).
In September 2007, some data centers were shut down indiscriminately for providing interactive features such as blogs and forums. CBS reports an estimate that half the interactive sites hosted in China were blocked.
Coinciding with the twentieth anniversary of the government suppression of the pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square, the government ordered Internet portals, forums and discussion groups to shut down their servers for maintenance between 3 and 6 June. The day before the mass shut-down, Chinese users of Twitter, Hotmail and Flickr, among others, reported a widespread inability to access these services.
Social media websites
In the second half of 2009, the social networking sites Facebook and Twitter were blocked, presumably because of containing social or political commentary (similar to LiveJournal in the above list). An example is the commentary on the July 2009 Ürümqi riots. Another reason suggested for the block is that activists can utilize them to organize themselves.
After the 2011 Wenzhou train collision, the government started emphasizing the danger in spreading 'false rumors' (yaoyan), making the permissive usage of Weibo and social networks a public debate.
In 2012, First Monday published an article on "political content censorship in social media, i.e., the active deletion of messages published by individuals." This academic study, which received extensive media coverage, accumulated a dataset of 56 million messages sent on Sina Weibo from June through September 2011, and statistically analyzed them three months later, finding 212,583 deletions out of 1.3 million sampled, more than 16 percent. The study revealed that censors quickly deleted words with politically controversial meanings (e.g., qingci 请辞 "asking someone to resign" referring to calls for Railway Minister Sheng Guangzu to resign after the Wenzhou train collision on 23 July 2011), and also that the rate of message deletion was regionally anomalous (compare censorship rates of 53% in Tibet and 52% in Qinghai with 12% in Beijing and 11.4% in Shanghai).
Foreign content providers such as Yahoo!, AOL, and Skype must abide by PRC government wishes, including having internal content monitors, in order to be able to operate within mainland China. Also, in accordance with mainland Chinese laws, Microsoft began to censor the content of its blog service Windows Live Spaces, arguing that continuing to provide Internet services is more beneficial to the Chinese.Michael Anti is a famous Chinese journalist whose blog on Windows Live Spaces was censored by Microsoft. In an April 2006 e-mail panel discussion Rebecca MacKinnon, who reported from China for nine years as a Beijing bureau chief for CNN, said: "... many bloggers said he [Anti] was a necessary sacrifice so that the majority of Chinese can continue to have an online space to express themselves as they choose. So the point is, compromises are being made at every level of society because nobody has the expectation of political freedom anyway."
The Chinese version of MySpace, launched in April 2007, has many censorship-related differences from other international versions of the service. Discussion forums on topics such as religion and politics are absent and a filtering system that prevents the posting of content about politically sensitive topics has been added. Users are also given the ability to report the "misconduct" of other users for offenses including "endangering national security, leaking state secrets, subverting the government, undermining national unity, spreading rumors or disturbing the social order."
Some media have suggested that China's Internet censorship of foreign websites may also be a means of forcing mainland Chinese users to rely on China's own e-commerce industry, thus self-insulating their economy from the dominance of international corporations. On 7 November 2005 an alliance of investors and researchers representing 26 companies in the U.S., Europe and Australia with over US $21 billion in joint assets announced that they were urging businesses to protect freedom of expression and pledged to monitor technology companies that do business in countries violating human rights, such as China. On 21 December 2005 the UN, OSCE and OAS special mandates on freedom of expression called on Internet corporations to "work together ... to resist official attempts to control or restrict use of the Internet." Google finally responded when attacked by hackers rumoured to be hired by the Chinese government by threatening to pull out of China (Newsweek)
Internet censorship in China is circumvented by determined parties by using proxy servers outside the firewall.VPN and SSH connections to outside mainland China are not blocked, so users may circumvent all of the censorship and monitoring of the Great Firewall if they have a secure connection method to a computer outside mainland China. However, disruptions of VPN services have been reported.Rupert Murdoch famously proclaimed that advances in communications technology posed an “unambiguous threat to totalitarian regimes everywhere” and Ai Weiwei argued that the Chinese “leaders must understand it's not possible for them to control the Internet unless they shut it off".
As the Great Firewall of China gets more sophisticated, the users are getting increasingly creative in the ways they elude the censorship such as by using analogies to discuss topics. Furthermore, users are becoming increasingly open in their mockery of them by actively using homophones to avoid censorship. Deleted sites have "been harmonized", indicating CPC general secretary Hu Jintao's Internet censorship under the big picture of creating a "Socialist Harmonious Society". For example, censors are referred to as "river crabs", because in Chinese those two words together form a homophone for "harmony". Since free hosting blog services like Blogger and Wordpress.com frequently face blockage, some China-focused services explicitly offer to change a blog's IP address within 30 minutes if it is blocked by the authorities. In July 2006, researchers at Cambridge University claim to have defeated the firewall by ignoring the TCP reset packets.
The Tor anonymity network was and is subject to blocking by China's Great Firewall. The Tor website is blocked when accessed over HTTP but it is reachable over HTTPS so it is possible for users to download the Tor Browser Bundle. The Tor network maintains a public list of approximately 3000 relays which are almost all blocked. In addition to the public relays, Tor maintains so called bridges which are non-public relays. Their purpose is to help censored users reach the Tor network. The Great Firewall is dynamically blocking these bridges by looking for their TLS fingerprint. According to a research paper published in April 2012, the block can be circumvented by using packet fragmentation or the Tor obfsproxy bundle in combination with private obfsproxy bridges.
Psiphon is also used.
It was common in the past to use Google's cache feature to view blocked websites. However, this feature of Google seems to be under some level of blocking, as access is now erratic and does not work for blocked websites. Currently the block is mostly circumvented by using proxy servers outside the firewall, and is not difficult to carry out for those determined to do so. Some well-known proxy servers have also been blocked. Some Chinese citizens used the Google mirror elgooG after China blocked Google.
Moreover, net surfers come up with many more technical ways to get around with the Great Wall of China. Steganography is a "practice of embedding useful data in what looks like something irrelevant. The text of a document can be broken into its constituent bytes, which are added to the pixels of an apparently innocent picture. The effect is barely visible on the picture, but the recipient can extract it with the right software".
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|Wikibooks has a book on the topic of: Transwiki:Bypassing the Great Firewall of China|
- greatfire.org Keywords and URLs censored on the Chinese Internet
- Cyberpolice.cn (网络违法犯罪举报网站) – Ministry of Public Security P.R. China Information & Network Security (Chinese)
- ifanqiang.com : A site that lists and collects all blocked websites by GFW. (Chinese)
- Internet Enemies: China, Reporters Without Borders
- Freedom on the Net 2011: China-Freedom House: Freedom on the Net Report
- Battle Lines in the Chinese Blogosphere: Keyword control as a tactic in managing mass incidents – The Finnish Institute of International Affairs
- Jimmy Wales talks about the internet censorship in China