No End in Sight for China’s Censorship?

The season for ramped-up censorship and force-fed nationalism by the powers that be in China has arrived, coinciding with the recent military parade in Beijing and extending through to National Day on October 1.

Apart from seemingly random yet increasingly frequent censorship efforts over the last few years, late summer and early fall always ensures renewed government measures to stoke patriotic feelings and tell the masses what is in their best interest. This is in part because of the anniversaries of Japan’s surrender in World War II (September 2) and of the founding of the People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1949.

Communist party of China

These efforts come in the form of watchdogs monitoring chatter on the massively popular micro-blogging site Weibo, along with more steps taken to dictate what China-based journalists write about. There have also been aggressive moves to block numerous VPN services. The official reason given for such practices is the “promotion of” more positive discussion on events or issues concerning China (and its communist party) and the “protection of” the people from possibly corrupting influences or lack or morals, etc., in particular those stemming from western cultures.

Concerning Weibo, there is a list of censored keyword search terms and it is always changing—Quartz comments on the term “parade” as an example that was added to the list a few weeks back, leading up to the September 3rd parade. Free Weibo is a website which publishes censored Weibo posts. In addition to “parade” (and countless others), also appearing is a post with a photo of a notice (allegedly) put up by authorities around residential buildings that are located next to the street where the parade took place. The paper ordered residents to lock their windows and to not even look through their windows as the action marched on by.

Enjoy the parade, folks, but don’t you dare watch it up close. Stick to the coverage and commentary of the event on TV.

Concerning VPNs, the latest crackdown has thrown a curveball to those using Astrill to access the net via its iOS app. So, for users who have it on their iPhones or iPads, you are shit out of luck at the moment unless you have other active VPN services to relay on. TechCrunch reports that the blockage does not seem to be affecting Astrill’s VPN services on other devices and the company has already sent out a notice that it should be able to get around this issue after implementing an updated app for iOS 9 software. This may not provide Astrill users with a whole lot of confidence as this service, along with Golden Frog and StrongVPN, were already targeted and severely disrupted back in January.

Apart from big-name VPN services that are popular in China, numerous “underground” VPN/proxy services have also been targeted and shut down throughout 2015. And most are aware that Gmail was targeted as well—in June and again in late December of 2014—with access being completely cut off even through IMAP and POP applications.

Perhaps this ongoing trend has led to Google’s acceptance of the fact that they will never get a piece of the market in China unless they agree to offer services which are “tailor censored” to China’s specifications. Reports last week reflect this change of stance on censorship with Google showing real interest in launching a Chinese version of its Google Play app store (possibly within a few months) as a way to tap into the massive market in China.

As for what the near future holds, VPN services may have to step up their game more than ever if they want to beat the system and stay ahead of China’s censors. This may prove especially true if Google does indeed gain a foothold in the country again (by kowtowing to authorities).

One of the co-founders of GreatFire, a website devoted to monitoring Internet censorship in China, told TechCrunch, “I think that the crackdown on information control has really accelerated since Xi Jinping took power. There have always been crackdowns on circumvention tools but I think it is clear that today the authorities are moving against all of them. No circumvention tool is safe.”

There has to be a breaking point, though. No matter how much denial these regulators live in, an incredible amount of people and businesses in China rely on unblocked Internet access just for day-to-day functioning and communication. That is the on-the-ground reality, despite the theory behind why censorship is good for Chinese society.

Cyber security expert Qin An told China’s state-run Global Times, “Authorities apparently cannot ignore those services as they affect our cyberspace sovereignty. For instance, a shortcut has to be blocked since it could be used for some ulterior purposes although it might affect others who use it in a right way.” In a surprise to no one anywhere, other Chinese cyber analysts have added to this sentiment stating, “Cyber services should observe the network governance of the country for safety.”

To find out more from those who vocally oppose these ongoing censorship campaigns, GreatFire interviewed Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales. Below is an excerpt of the conversation:

Q: If you sat down with China’s cyber czar (Lu Wei, the head of the Cyberspace Administration of China) what would you say to him?

A: The same thing I have said to his predecessors and to similar authorities in other countries around the world: you are on the wrong side of history. Actually, in China, because the usual excuse for censorship is that it promotes a harmonious society, I tend to lead with a discussion about how the censorship program leads to disharmony. I want to push them to rethink their principles from scratch.

Until the Cyberspace Administration of China gets their heads out of their asses, many in China may be in for a rough few years of crappy Internet access, coupled with an ever increasing frustration of trying to reach the outside world online.