These highlights are from the Kindle version of The Great Firewall of China: How to Build and Control an Alternative Version of the Internet by James Griffiths.
“We are currently experiencing the largest DDoS attack in Github’s history,” senior developer Jesse Newland wrote in a blog post almost twenty-four hours after the attack had begun.
In a paper co-authored with Bill Marczak and seven other researchers, published by the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, Weaver revealed the existence of a previously unknown Chinese cyber weapon: the Great Cannon. The Citizen Lab team were able to track the Great Cannon to the same infrastructure as the Great Firewall, the colossal censorship apparatus that blocks off China’s internet from the rest of the world, and controls what every user in the country can see or share.
For the Github attack, the Cannon co-opted the services of one of China’s most successful internet companies: Baidu. Exploiting a vulnerability in Baidu’s online advertising system, used by millions worldwide, the Cannon hijacked and redirected traffic to Github. Baidu, which denied any involvement in the attacks, was the fourth most visited site in the world at the time. When a user visited a site with Baidu’s ads running on it, that code would request information from the company’s servers in China. As the request was processed, the Cannon would intercept a small portion of it, and swap out Baidu’s code with its own, forcing the user’s browser to continuously load the two Github projects.
The values of an open and free internet risk being undermined by the collapse of Silicon Valley’s cyberlibertarian status quo.
Just as the Communist Party itself has proven adept at handling any crisis that it faces – from the self-inflicted disasters of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, to the Arab Spring and the 2008 financial crash – so have the censors adapted, and outwitted those who opposed them. The system they built – the most sophisticated in the world for controlling, filtering and surveilling the internet – has gone from strength to strength. Technology giants, both foreign and domestic, have been brought to heel, and those who won’t collaborate have been banished.
The internet is a liberatory technology not because it can help share information, but because it can help build solidarity. It’s why the Occupy movement spread across multiple countries, and how a small protest in Tunisia could spark a wave of pro-democracy demonstrations throughout the Arab world.
The number one target of censorship is not the Tiananmen Square massacre, or the banned religious movement Falun Gong, or news about official corruption, it is organisation outside the Party structure. Solidarity – such as that expressed by the hundreds of thousands of protesters in Beijing and other Chinese cities in 1989, or by the millions who took part in the Arab Spring – is the biggest threat to an authoritarian regime.
When the internet came to China in the 1990s, it did not threaten the country’s rulers because it risked undermining their control over information, but because it threatened to create a platform for organizing against them.
Terrifyingly, for the rest of the world, they have provided a blueprint for doing so for authoritarians elsewhere. And the censors are now taking their war against the internet overseas. Chinese diplomats are working at the United Nations and other international bodies to undermine and chip away at the norms and rules that underpin the global internet and help keep it free. State propagandists are extending their tentacles into Hollywood and the international media to control and suppress any criticism of China.
Despite the initial dejection over the sparse successes of the Umbrella Movement, it had a huge effect on Hong Kong politics, awakening a swath of young voters thought previously to be largely apathetic. Their influence was felt in parliamentary elections two years later, which saw a record turnout as more than 2 million voters in a city of just over 7 million returned a radically more pro-democracy and anti-Beijing legislature than ever before.
Twenty-five years earlier, another group of students gathered on the streets of a different Chinese city. The climate in Beijing in 1989 was similar to that in Hong Kong in the months before the Umbrella Movement, as young people gathered to debate political reform and plot the way forward. Just as the Hong Kong students were inspired by a freewheeling press and academic culture protected by the city’s constitution and guaranteed by the ‘one country, two systems’ agreement that underpinned it, the Tiananmen movement sprang from a remarkable period of openness and reflection in China. Many students who gathered on the square were inspired by the 1988 television programme ‘River Elegy’, which argued that China had become backward and oppressive and called for Western-style reform and modernization.
On 19 May, Zhao Ziyang, the popular reformist general secretary of the Party who advocated dialogue with the students, visited the square and apologized for having “come too late”. Zhao was soon sidelined by the hardliners and placed under house arrest. The next day, Premier Li Peng declared martial law in Beijing.
Hundreds were killed and thousands arrested as the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) cleared protesters from the streets of the Chinese capital with tanks and sniper rifles. As the smoke cleared over Tiananmen Square, the Party machinery went into overdrive, ensuring that similar protests could never happen again.
Zhao Ziyang stayed under house arrest in Beijing until his death in 2005.
In the years that followed, Tiananmen was stamped out of the historical record. Those who took part in it were obliged to forget, or face the consequences. They didn’t talk about the protests with their children, who never learned anything of them in school. Even among those who lived through 1989, counterfactuals and half-truths were common, as propaganda spread false accounts to poison the historical record and introduce uncertainty. The students were denounced as violent anarchists who had attacked and murdered soldiers.
If a user in Beijing is encrypting all their traffic and piping it through a VPN server based in California, they probably have something to hide from the censors. Although the Firewall cannot block the individual websites they are visiting, because it can’t see their traffic, it can slow or block their internet access entirely, or prevent them from connecting to the VPN servers next time they log on. More perniciously, it can also prompt a follow-up, a face-to-face interview by security agents, who may discover what exactly the user is trying to hide.
When a user in China tries to load a web page, their ISP pings a list of forbidden URLs and types of content. If the page is not banned, the request is passed to an internet access point (IAP), which handles routing traffic to servers all over China and around the world. It’s at this stage that packet inspection takes place, looking for keywords and suspicious flags. When the destination server sends the web-page data back to the user, it is inspected again. Only if it clears all these hurdles is the internet browser able to load anything.
When loading a forbidden website, users are presented with an error page similar to the one they see when a website is down, or their wifi connection has dropped, making it difficult to state unequivocally that something has been censored.
In 2001, the Canada-based International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development estimated that China was buying as much as $20 billion worth of telecoms equipment every year,19 mostly from US firms, and accounting for up to 25 per cent of the global market. In the words of internet historians Tim Wu and Jack Goldsmith, the Great Firewall was originally built “with American bricks”.
“Nobody questions the authority and the right of a corporation to very tightly manage and control and monitor the communications in and out of a company’s network,” Robinson said. “That tech had been built from the very beginning to serve the market of corporate customers. All China did was turn on those switches for the entire country.”
A state visit by US President Bill Clinton was thought to be the perfect time to push the boundaries even further, and so Wang and two others walked into the government building near Hangzhou’s famous West Lake and attempted to register, legally and openly, a new political organization: the China Democracy Party (CDP). As the stunned registrar was refusing to accept the registration and ushering them out of the building, the new party’s manifesto was posted online and sent out to the hundreds of thousands of Da Cankao subscribers around the country. Wang was swiftly arrested and the CDP banned, but in the months that followed, other dissidents set up regional branches of the Party throughout the country, and continued to organize online. In November, members took it a step further and sought permission from the State Council to form a ‘national preparatory committee’ ahead of a formal Party congress. This was too much for the authorities, and a crackdown was ordered. Dozens of CDP members were arrested, and in December 1998, Wang Youcai and two other leaders, Xu Wendi and Qin Yongmin, were imprisoned on charges of “endangering state security”. Wang would not be released until 2004. With characteristic disregard for foreign opinion, Premier Li Peng told a German newspaper matter of factly: “If a group is designed to negate the leadership of the Communist Party, then it will not be allowed to exist.”
When China joins the World Trade Organization, by 2005 it will eliminate tariffs on information technology products, making the tools of communication even cheaper, better and more widely available. We know how much the internet has changed America, and we are already an open society. Imagine how much it could change China.” Clinton paused for applause. “Now there’s no question China has been trying to crack down on the internet – good luck,” he said, his eyebrows arched, to laughs from the crowd, as he neared the punchline. “That’s sort of like trying to nail jello to the wall.”
Falun Gong founder Li Hongzhi’s books were banned, as was disseminating copies of his speeches or other Falun Gong material. Online, positive references to Falun Gong were scrubbed and all of the group’s websites were blocked by the Great Firewall. Early studies of Chinese internet censorship found that terms and websites relating to Falun Gong were among the most filtered, along with the homepages of human rights organizations. Such was the verboten nature of any mention of Falun Gong that the group became something of a baseline measure of censorship, mentioned in seemingly every article about the Great Firewall.
Falun Gong began in Jilin in China’s far north-east, on the border with North Korea, in late 1992. Once part of the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo, industrialization policies started by Tokyo were enthusiastically adopted by the Party once it came to power, and the province, along with neighboring Heilongjiang and Liaoning, became China’s factory belt, home to much of the country’s heavy industry.
Under Communism, hundreds of thousands of workers in the province had ‘iron rice bowl’ jobs with state enterprises: guaranteed employment, housing, and social benefits.
Under Communism, hundreds of thousands of workers in the province had ‘iron rice bowl’ jobs with state enterprises: guaranteed employment, housing, and social benefits. Under Deng Xiaoping’s reforms, however, as China moved towards market capitalism, the iron rice bowls were broken, and thousands were left without work, forced to compete in the new privatized economy.
The loss of their jobs and healthcare left many in the region dejected and disillusioned, and Jilin became a hotbed for new religious movements, traditional medicine revivalists, and snake oil salesmen. Li Hongzhi mixed elements of all of these when he invented Falun Gong, which emerged out of a surge in enthusiasm for qigong in the 1980s and 1990s that saw hundreds of prospective masters battling it out for followers. Elements of qigong date back to ancient China, but the practice itself was invented and popularised in the 1950s, before being integrated into the developing field of ‘traditional Chinese medicine’ promoted by the Party as a substitute for its abandoned promise of free healthcare for all. The term refers to the practice of cultivating or balancing one’s qi, a life force or energy flow, using yoga-like exercises and clean living, and by following various spiritual teachings.
Li began teaching his version of qigong in Jilin in the early 1990s, before moving to Beijing as his fame grew. He named his movement Falun Gong to reflect its Buddhist elements, such as the dharma wheel, or falun. By the end of 1992, Li and his teachings had been endorsed by the official China Qigong Science Research Society (CQRS), and he began touring the country, giving lectures and establishing practice centers and training schools.
Qigong masters frequently made absurd claims and performed supposedly miraculous feats that were little more than magic tricks. During the boom, qigong rallies and teaching sessions resembled those of televangelists in the US, replete with practitioners dissolving into fits of reverence and claiming to be healed of long-term ailments. Many of the tricks performed by qigong masters were similar to those of self-proclaimed psychics in the West, such as bending spoons or breaking bricks with their heads.
Despite his bombastic claims about Falun Gong giving followers supernatural abilities, Li largely avoided the demonstration of these powers himself, unlike other qigong masters who frequently performed magic tricks and faith healing in public.
The Beijing protest did not spark a reconciliation with the government; instead, a huge crackdown was launched, along with a propaganda campaign the like of which had not been seen since the heights of the Cultural Revolution. In the decade after 1999, hundreds of thousands of Falun Gong practitioners were detained or arrested across China, suffering abuse and torture. Hundreds more were executed, often extrajudicially, or died as a result of their treatment in custody.
Almost two decades later, one of the most prominent sections on Minghui, a major Falun Gong website, was still devoted to debunking the “self-immolation hoax”, which it said “remains the single most influential factor in garnering disgust or hatred toward Falun Gong among the Chinese people”. Whether state agents orchestrated the incident, as Falun Gong practitioners claim, or the protesters were acting out of desperation and a misunderstanding of a faith that banned suicide, it was a huge win for the government. The Tiananmen incident helped create the caricature common today of Falun Gong practitioners as crazy, brainwashed cultists capable of anything.
Google launched a Chinese-language version of its search engine in 2000, a year after the company was founded. Right away, it ran into problems with the Great Firewall, and was often slow or inaccessible as the censors tried to push users towards domestic search engines that did not include results for sensitive topics such as the Tiananmen Square massacre or Falun Gong. But Google’s Chinese site was never fully blocked, and despite major hurdles, by 2002 the company controlled about 25 per cent of the Chinese market, a level of success never achieved by other foreign search engines.
Google launched a Chinese-language version of its search engine in 2000, a year after the company was founded.7 Right away, it ran into problems with the Great Firewall, and was often slow or inaccessible as the censors tried to push users towards domestic search engines that did not include results for sensitive topics such as the Tiananmen Square massacre or Falun Gong. But Google’s Chinese site was never fully blocked, and despite major hurdles, by 2002 the company controlled about 25 per cent of the Chinese market, a level of success never achieved by other foreign search engines.
In August of that year, however, Google was blocked for two weeks, and it was completely banned the following year. Brin told reporters he thought the ban “might have been at the instigation of a competitor”, and although he did not name any names, many others pointed the finger at Baidu.
In April 2004, Shi Tao was working for the Contemporary Business News in Changsha, Hunan province. Square-jawed and bespectacled, with thick black hair parted in the middle, the thirty-five-year-old often pushed the boundaries of what was permitted at a state-controlled newspaper, pursuing corruption cases and other sensitive issues.
He was called into a staff meeting on 20 April and advised, along with all the other reporters, of a censorship notice the paper had received from the Party’s central propaganda bureau. It warned against covering any potential protests or other activity around the Tiananmen anniversary, or mentioning the historical event at all. Shi was outraged, and after most of his colleagues had gone home that night, he logged into his personal Yahoo account and emailed his notes from the meeting to the administrators of the New York-based dissident site Democracy Forum.
While Shi’s notes were posted under the pseudonym 198964, thanks to surveillance methods built into the Great Firewall itself, and Shi’s and the website administrators’ own lack of security awareness, the authorities were able to track an email to Democracy Forum that most likely contained the post in question. While they knew the address, they could not link it to a particular person, and so they turned to Yahoo, demanding the company turn over information about the account holder. According to a lawsuit Shi and others later filed against the company, which Yahoo eventually settled, the data provided not only included the contents of the email itself and Shi’s identity as the account holder, but also showed that he had logged on from his workplace at the time the incriminating email was sent.
April 2005, he was sentenced to ten years in prison for leaking state secrets. In the judgment, the court referenced “account holder information” furnished by Yahoo as helping to prove Shi’s guilt.
Internet censorship in China is both pervasive and unobtrusive. Pervasive, because everything that is published or discussed online is subject to the whims of the censors and can be deleted at a moment’s notice; and unobtrusive because the regime’s efforts to control what makes it onto the Chinese internet and to popularize alternative domestic versions of banned services have been so successful that most people are unaware of, or unconcerned by, the borders of their digital world.
The censorship that the vast majority of Chinese internet users experience is carried out not by the government but by the websites and internet services they visit. As journalist Rebecca MacKinnon argues in Consent of the Networked, these internet companies are “the stewards and handmaidens, the tools and enforcers, of China’s inner layer of internet censorship”.
Most internet businesses in China, particularly social media and others that allow user-generated content, employ teams of hundreds of in-house censors, who are generally far more vigilant and draconian than their government overseers in order to protect their own backs, and those of their employers.
In January 2006, the internet surveillance division of the Shenzhen public security bureau (PSB) introduced the world to Jingjing and Chacha, two cartoon police officers with big, manga-style eyes designed to “let all internet users know that the internet is not a place beyond the law”.
Along with deletion notices and banned keywords, Jingjing and Chacha form part of what China expert Perry Link, writing about thought control in Chinese academia, dubbed the “anaconda in the chandelier”.
Normally the great snake doesn’t move. It doesn’t have to. It feels no need to be clear about its prohibitions. Its constant silent message is “You yourself decide,” after which, more often than not, everyone in its shadow makes his or her large and small adjustments – all quite “naturally.” The Soviet Union, where Stalin’s notion of “engineering the soul” was first pursued, in practice fell far short of what the Chinese Communists have achieved in psychological engineering.
Nothing will attract the attention of the censors and security services like calls for solidarity or collective action, and it is here where the true boundaries of the Chinese internet lie. An influential Harvard study found that, far from simply deleting or blocking specific content, the goal of the Chinese internet controls is “to reduce the probability of collective action by clipping social ties whenever any collective movements are in evidence or expected”.
In March 2017, during a meeting of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), a mostly useless Party rubber-stamp body that is supposed to advise on legislation, delegate Luo Fuhe complained that continued censorship risked harming the country’s economic and scientific progress by hampering researchers’ access to information and slowing down internet speeds. The censors’ reaction was immediate: “All websites, please find and delete reports and posts on Luo Fuhe’s ‘proposal to improve and increase speed of access to foreign websites’ as soon as possible,” said a leaked order.
In the early 2000s, the man tasked with overseeing Xinhua’s evolving role was Lu Wei, a young newcomer to the Party who would go on to become one of the pivotal figures in Xi Jinping’s clampdown on the internet.
Since its formation, Xinhua has served two roles, both as a traditional, albeit highly controlled, newswire and as a secret intelligence-gathering apparatus, with reporters across China and overseas filing dispatches back to Party headquarters for the eyes of only the highest-ranking officials.
Lu also served as personal spin doctor for Wen Jiabao, who became China’s premier in 2003. During his tenure, ‘Grandpa Wen’ carefully cultivated a ‘man of the people’ image, with the bespectacled sexagenarian posing for photographs after one natural disaster wearing a waterproof jacket and carrying a bullhorn to direct rescue workers. A former protégé of the purged liberal reformer Zhao Ziyang, Wen also gently departed from Party lines on some issues, serving as the good cop to other leaders’ bad cop and giving the impression of dissent, or at least debate, at the top. His liberal inclinations never seemed to have much of an effect on policy, however, and dissident Yu Jie spoke for many when he released his book-length denunciation of Wen: China’s Best Actor.
The Party issued dozens of new regulations, including provisions which stated that the purpose of news websites was not to inform the public but to “serve socialism” and “safeguard the nation’s interests and public interest”. Online content was to be “healthy” and “civilized” and help raise “the quality of the nation”.
On 11 December 2001, China joined the World Trade Organization (WTO). It was hailed as a victory for reform and opening, but having achieved a goal they had spent decades working towards, acquiescing to onerous demands from the US and the WTO, the Party now doubled down on internal controls. The following year, Google was blocked outright for the first time, as investment in the Golden Shield project reached $770 million, with an estimated 30,000 security officers working within the censorship apparatus. A 2002 study by researchers at Harvard found that China had the most restricted internet in the world.
One of the first people to notice the uptick in censorship was Li Hongkuan, as it became harder and harder for people to access Da Cankao.
“I had this belief, this vision, from the beginning: I believe the free flow of information will overthrow the dictatorship in China ultimately,” he said. “I thought it would come quicker, somehow China struggled on. Membership of the World Trade Organization saved the Chinese regime; they became so rich and invested so heavily in the Great Firewall that it delayed the effectiveness of the free flow of information to overthrow the regime.”
DynaWeb, and its successor software FreeGate, took this approach and supersized it, giving users access to dozens, if not hundreds, of proxy servers running concurrently. If one was blocked or otherwise inaccessible, the software switched the user to another without their knowledge.
As journalist Evgeny Morozov wrote in a damning takedown of the ‘Twitter Revolution’ myth, on the eve of the protests, less than 0.027 per cent of the population was on Twitter, and many of the most popular ‘Iranian’ Twitter accounts during the uprising were people tweeting from the diaspora, sharing information sent to them by relatives and friends on the ground. Twitter was used to publicise the protests, but mostly in the West, in English.
One group of Iranians were paying attention to Twitter, however: the censors. From the beginning, they were suspicious about the motives of this Silicon Valley firm, which all the usual suspects in the Western media were holding up as instigator and guardian of the protests roiling the nation.
In a hugely misguided move, a twenty-seven-year-old State Department official, Jared Cohen, emailed Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey to request that the company delay a scheduled global maintenance period that would have seen the service go offline for a few hours. In an even stranger move, the State Department then publicised that it had done so, with Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs P. J. Crowley telling The New York Times that “this was just a call to say: ‘it appears Twitter is playing an important role at a crucial time in Iran. Could you keep it going?’”
For those looking for evidence of US involvement in the Iranian protests, the admission that the US had directly intervened to keep Twitter online was pretty damning, and it was seized upon by the censors in Tehran, Beijing and elsewhere as evidence of why these American social media companies could not be trusted.
“Red Guards just off the train from Beijing,” writes historian James Millward, “knew and thought little of traditional Uyghur culture.” They shared this with Jiang Qing, Mao’s wife and one of the leaders of the Cultural Revolution. Jiang was quoted as saying she “despised” Xinjiang and openly regarded minorities as “foreign invaders and aliens”. The Guards reveled in destroying Uyghur culture: ancient customs were banned, Muslim graveyards desecrated, Qur’ans burned, and mosques turned into pigsties.
In 2009, the Xuri Toy Factory in Shaoguan’s central Wujiang district employed around 16,000 migrant workers. Mostly in their teens or early twenties, they lived in cramped dorms, working long hours and sending much of their meagre paycheques home.
In May, a new group of workers arrived at the factory. They did not fit in with the other employees. They dressed differently, their skin was darker, and many had beards. Most did not speak Mandarin, and none were Han. The almost 800 men and women were Uyghurs. They had travelled 3,800 kilometres from Shufu county, near Kashgar and the border with Tajikistan, to make toys for export overseas, part of a government plan to develop their home area by sending migrants out to the coastal provinces.
From the beginning, the Shufu workers were kept at a distance from their new colleagues: housed in separate dormitories and placed in all-Uyghur teams. One official justified the segregation on the grounds that Uyghurs had “different living and eating habits” to Han workers. This separation only served to deepen the suspicion with which the Han workers viewed their new colleagues.
Late in the evening of 25 June, as Shaoguan sweltered in the muggy summer heat, Huang Cuilian, a nineteen-year-old trainee line worker, was making her way back to her dormitory after a night out with friends. Huang had been at the factory for only a few weeks, and in the dark she missed her building and stumbled inside another of the identical blocks. As she walked to what she thought was her room, Huang found several young Uyghur men sitting on their beds. Perhaps influenced by the rape rumours, or simply shocked to suddenly be alone in a room full of strange men, she screamed and ran out of the door.
At around 11pm, a mob formed carrying knives and iron rods pulled from bed frames. Hundreds of Han men converged on the Uyghur dormitory, smashing windows and hurling rubbish through the holes. Inside the building, Uyghur and Han workers fought in the corridors as others attempted to barricade themselves in their rooms or flee into the hills behind the factory grounds. Any Uyghurs unlucky enough to be caught outside the dormitory were savagely beaten and left for dead. “People were so vicious, they just kept beating the dead bodies,” one witness said later.
The demonstration started peacefully. Early in the afternoon of 5 July 2009, several hundred Uyghur university students converged on People’s Square in central Urumqi, carrying the Chinese flag and signs reading ‘We are Chinese citizens’.
One Guangdong official threw fuel on the fire by dismissing the violence in Shaoguan as being like a spat “between husband and wife”. According to Human Rights Watch, “many Uyghurs in Xinjiang saw the footage as emblematic of the discrimination they suffered within China, and of the government’s unwillingness to protect them”.
That fury spilled over now, as protesters began attacking the police in earnest. Overwhelmed by the crowd, which by now numbered well over a thousand, the police pulled back. Gangs of rioters rampaged through the streets south of the Grand Bazaar, armed with clubs, knives and stones. They randomly attacked and in many cases beat to death any Han they found in the streets, including women and elderly people, and set cars, houses and shops on fire.
While the police were initially slow to react, the censors were not. Within hours of the violence breaking out, all phone, text messaging and internet services in Xinjiang were cut off. As the PLA entered Urumqi, reports and videos emerging from the riots were being scrubbed from Chinese websites, forums and social media.
Provincial authorities wasted no time in finding the true culprits behind the riots, which they said had been “instigated and directed from abroad, and carried out by outlaws in the country”. Party secretary Wang Lequan took it a step further, shifting the blame to one organisation, and one person: Rebiya Kadeer. The riots, Wang said, were a “profound lesson in blood” which revealed the “violent and terrorist nature” of Rebiya’s World Uyghur Congress (WUC).
Pinning the unrest on Rebiya and the WUC served two purposes. It recast the riots within the familiar lens of separatism: the WUC, while a completely non-violent organization, does call for a democratic solution to the ‘East Turkestan question’, which is tantamount in Beijing’s eyes to calling for Xinjiang independence. Casting blame outside China for inspiring the riots – which shattered the tenuous peace between Uyghurs and Han in Xinjiang, devastated tourism, and threatened the region’s economy.
All governments have been accused of exploiting moments of national trauma to push through unpopular policies, be it in the name of national security, reconciliation, or just because they hope no one is paying attention. In China, where the censors and security services are hugely powerful, there is rarely an incident the answer to which is not more censorship, more control. Such was the case in Xinjiang. In response to half a day of rioting, more than 20 million people in China’s largest administrative region were left without access to the internet, long-distance phone calls or text messaging for almost a year.
All governments have been accused of exploiting moments of national trauma to push through unpopular policies, be it in the name of national security, reconciliation, or just because they hope no one is paying attention. In China, where the censors and security services are hugely powerful, there is rarely an incident the answer to which is not more censorship, more control. Such was the case in Xinjiang. In response to half a day of rioting, more than 20 million people in China’s largest administrative region were left without access to the internet, long-distance phone calls or text messaging for almost a year.* The internet blackout began with no warning.
In July 2010, Diyarim founder Dilshat Perhat and two other prominent Uyghur website administrators – Nureli and Nijat Azat – were jailed for “endangering state security”. The loss of these websites, along with millions of forum posts, articles, photos and videos, was a “cataclysmic event” for the Uyghur internet, one from which it has never truly recovered.64 According to a report by the Uyghur Human Rights Project, following the restoration of limited internet services in 2010, “a clear divide emerged between those who used the internet before 2009 and those who did not”. A repository of knowledge – about art, music, poetry, religion and contemporary politics – was lost.
The year 2009 did not turn out to be a good one for Google China. It saw both the twentieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, and the sixtieth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, and the censors were on high alert.
In March, YouTube, which had long been subject to intermittent blocks and throttling, was banned completely, after activists shared videos of police beating protesters during ethnic unrest in Tibet.
In March, YouTube, which had long been subject to intermittent blocks and throttling, was banned completely, after activists shared videos of police beating protesters during ethnic unrest in Tibet.7 In June, after the argument over the .com link had barely died down, the censors again complained that Google’s filters weren’t stringent enough, with the Foreign Ministry singling the search engine out for spreading “large amounts of vulgar content that is lascivious and pornographic, seriously violating China’s relevant laws and regulations”. Complaints that Chinese search engines and web portals were just as lousy with porn went unheeded. The authorities announced ‘punitive measures’ – a temporary block of the site.8 Even when access was restored, Google often loaded far slower than Baidu, driving more users to its Chinese rival.
In December 2009, as Google’s terrible year was coming to a close, the company’s security team made a startling discovery: hackers had compromised some of Google’s most important systems, and, what’s more, they had been inside for months, operating undetected and siphoning off terabytes of data.
The attackers targeted the team responsible for Google’s password management system, Gaia. This system unified all of Google’s various services, giving users just one login and keeping everything in sync. By compromising it, the hackers would have access to potentially millions of accounts worldwide, able to read users’ emails and documents, and see files they had shared.
Using logs that showed where the attackers sent information from within Google’s servers, they were able to build a picture of who was behind the attack and what they were targeting. They were horrified to discover that the attackers had not just compromised the company’s core systems, but had also broken into the individual Gmail accounts of Chinese and Tibetan dissidents, including artist Ai Weiwei and Tenzin Seldon, a twenty-year-old regional coordinator of Students for a Free Tibet.19 This and other clues pointed to the attack coming from China, while the sophistication of it, as well as the resources poured in to keep it going for months on end, suggested it was the work of a state-sponsored group.
Security researchers at Symantec later dubbed the group ‘Elderwood’ and revealed that it had targeted dozens of other US companies, including Yahoo, Adobe, weapons manufacturer Northrop Grumman, and Dow Chemical.
Beginning in 2007, Chinese trains, previously a “symbol of backwardness”, were replaced by sleek, gleaming white carriages capable of traveling upwards of 200 kilometers an hour. In the decade that followed, the government spent hundreds of billions of dollars to criss-cross the country with high-speed lines, building the largest such network globally. In 2017, more than 20,000 kilometres of track was in service, more than the rest of the world’s high-speed rail systems combined.
On 23 July 2011, this symbol of the new China received a devastating blow. At 8.30pm on a Saturday, driver Pan Yiheng was guiding a train full of tourists headed from Beijing to the southern coastal city of Fuzhou.
Forty people were killed in the accident, with almost 200 more injured. It was the third deadliest high-speed rail disaster in history, and the first fatal crash to befall China’s gaotie network. And yet, within twenty-four hours, the line was back in service. Several of the carriages were buried in the fields where they fell, and the incident did not make the front pages of the following day’s national newspapers.
It did make the internet. Within hours, posts about the crash flooded Weibo, a Twitter-style microblogging site. At first, people mostly posted messages of shock and grief, hope for those trapped in the crippled trains, and sympathy for their families. This soon turned to anger when word got out that officials had ordered several of the downed train cars to be broken up and buried in the fields where they lay, just hours into the rescue operation.
“Whether you believe it or not, I do.” This led to howls of outrage and disgust online that were only amplified when a two-year-old girl was found alive in the wreckage hours after the official search had stopped (Wang said it was “a miracle”).
This led to howls of outrage and disgust online that were only amplified when a two-year-old girl was found alive in the wreckage hours after the official search had stopped (Wang said it was “a miracle”).
The failure of Weibo as a free-speech platform is instructive in a number of ways. It spelled out once and for all the Party’s inability to tolerate even constructive criticism, and exposed a host of new, previously invisible red lines of public debate.
This army of in-house censors numbered in the hundreds, keeping a careful watch for speech that transcended the bounds of acceptability. Insulting a corrupt official whose downfall had been publicized by state media was OK, but suggesting that a still serving cadre was on the take, or even giving examples of graft, definitely wasn’t. Especially verboten was any discussion that veered towards collective action, such as protests or strikes.
In the wake of the Unit 61398 indictments and the OPM hack, President Barack Obama hosted Chinese leader Xi Jinping at the White House, where the two men signed a major bilateral agreement promising “that neither country’s government will conduct or knowingly support cyber-enabled theft of intellectual property, including trade secrets or other confidential information”. The deal was a big diplomatic win for Obama as he neared the end of his second term, one of the few concessions he scored from an increasingly assertive China despite his much vaunted ‘pivot to Asia’ and attempts to contain Chinese ambitions in the South China Sea.
Coming of age during the Cultural Revolution, religion, culture and history were replaced by Mao. After the ideology that dominated their lives wreaked havoc on the country, plunging it into starvation, murder and civil war, they were left with nothing.
Badiucao became a member of the ‘Reincarnation Party’, a group of popular Weibo users engaged in a game of cat and mouse with the censors. “We were doing the same thing as the Dalai Lama, rebirth again and again,” he said. @Badiucao2 became @Badiucao3 and 4, as he registered scores of accounts at the same time, ready to switch to a new one as soon as its predecessor was deleted. But the censors weren’t deterred, and the tactic soon became ineffective. As Xi Jinping and his chief censor Lu Wei spelled out a zero tolerance approach to dissent, Weibo’s time as a platform for even partially free debate was coming to an end. Real-name identification requirements were put in place, tying accounts to mobile phone numbers or government IDs, making registration more time consuming and difficult.
The censors were successful in muzzling Weibo, but this did not kill it as a business. Today it is more popular than ever, having pivoted from focusing on news to courting celebrities and China’s huge entertainment industry. As a forum for free speech it is a shadow of what it once was, however, and Weibo’s failure in this regard shows the power of the censors to stamp out any threat. The platform once seemed impossible to crack down on or truly control, and yet it has been almost completely neutered. In late 2017, Weibo vowed to clean up its act even further, and ensure that content posted did not “disrupt China’s socialist core values”.
For internet users outside China, the fate of the Weibo generation is a warning: that platforms which appear to be freewheeling and unassailable are far more fragile than they seem, and that governments, should they wish to, can rein almost anyone in.
Despite the inventors of the internet being spread around the world and of multiple nationalities, in the beginning, the technology was unequivocally American. Many of the technology’s founders worked at the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in Arlington, Virginia, and it was there that Arpanet, a precursor to the modern internet, was invented.
China, as it cements ever greater control over the internet at home, would seek to have its policies reflected at the UN level. The doctrine of cyber-sovereignty, which also emerged during the 2010s, not only serves to legitimise China’s actions to a domestic audience and put a sheen of political theory on self-interested censorship, but also to expound Chinese-style internet governance overseas, reducing threats to the Great Firewall and preventing criticism or official international censure.
Since 2016, Beijing has ramped up its push for “ideological security” within these key tech firms, urging them to strengthen their “Party-building” efforts. Nominally private companies have been encouraged to set up Party committees in the manner of state-owned enterprises, and to increase their genuflection to the Party line on key issues.
“Now that Chinese internet companies have benefited from the absence of foreign competition in the domestic market, they are ready to head overseas, having internalized China’s norms around internet sovereignty, censorship and surveillance”.
Two years after the Dubai debacle, Touré’s replacement, Zhao Houlin, was elected unopposed as the new head of the ITU. Zhao, a sixty-four-year-old telecoms engineer, was nominated for the position by China’s MIIT. In the run-up to WCIT, Zhao had advocated for a greater government role in internet naming and numbering. Speaking after his election, he was clear in his belief that the ITU had a role in internet governance, but prevaricated over how important it was to protect freedom of speech online, saying that member states “don’t have a common interpretation of what censorship means”. If Touré was Moscow’s man at the ITU, Zhao was now Beijing’s.
His appointment could not have come at a better time for Beijing, which was just ramping up its promotion of a new doctrine: cyber-sovereignty. A month after Zhao began his job, Chinese censorship tsar Lu Wei wrote in an op-ed for the Huffington Post that “cyber sovereignty must rule the global internet”.
Wuzhen does not look like the type of place where world-changing proclamations are made. Tiny by Chinese standards, with a population of less than 60,000, the centuries-old town lies a two-hour drive from Shanghai. Picturesque and peaceful, tourists take wedding photos and selfies on its ancient stone bridges and in front of its pavilions and canal houses. In recent years, Wuzhen has attracted a different sort of crowd. Wearing suits and travelling business class, politicians and technologists from across China have flocked to the town for the annual World Internet Conference, the first of which was dubbed China’s “online coming-out party”.
The irony of such an event being hosted by the world’s most prolific internet censor was not lost on ordinary Chinese, who nicknamed the Wuzhen meeting the Local Area Network Conference, in reference to the LAN protocols that allow computers to connect to each other, but not the outside world.
Cyber-sovereignty seeks to establish an international, as opposed to global, internet. Instead of the world wide web as we know it, countries would each maintain their own national internet, by force if necessary, with the border controls and immigration standards they see fit. The doctrine risks turning the entire world into China, where people use a mirror image of the internet, resembling that outside the Great Firewall, but skewed and misshapen. Within the Firewall, buttressed by legions of censors and protectionist laws, Chinese internet users search on Baidu rather than Google, they share news and photos on WeChat, not Facebook, and shop with Alibaba, not Amazon. As Lu Wei, then the head of China’s state information office and the country’s top censor, told guests at a Lunar New Year banquet in 2015, “Only through my own proper management of my own internet, and your own proper management of your own internet … can the online space be truly safe, more orderly and more beautiful.”
Corporations such as Huawei, the telecoms giant founded by former People’s Liberation Army engineer Ren Zhengfei, were invited to sell the censorship technology needed to turn Russia’s internet into a mirror of China’s.
Western media, while joyously boosting the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, repeatedly emphasized the role of Twitter and Facebook in the protests, further confirming to Kremlin minds the danger of these Western technologies to its own control. As if to underline this, Alec Ross, an adviser to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, praised the internet in a speech in London as a catalyst for the Arab Spring, saying: “Dictatorships are now more vulnerable than they have ever been before.” Displaying an obliviousness to how his words would be received in Moscow or Beijing that was characteristic of Clinton’s internet freedom policy, Ross added: “The Che Guevara of the 21st century is the network.”
Facebook messenger was blocked in 2009, the South Korean app Line in 2015, and finally WhatsApp in 2017, along with several secure messaging apps, leaving WeChat as the only real alternative.
In Xinjiang, a forty-nine-year-old Muslim man, Huang Shike, was arrested after forming a group on the app to discuss the Qur’an. He was later jailed for two years for having violated laws about using the internet to discuss religion. Users have also been charged with insulting Xi Jinping and other top officials in private WeChat messages.
I have spoken to many journalists in China who are deeply suspicious of Tencent, but still have to use WeChat because, if they didn’t, they simply could not get in touch with sources.
I have spoken to many journalists in China who are deeply suspicious of Tencent, but still have to use WeChat because, if they didn’t, they simply could not get in touch with sources. In my own experience, I have tried to convince sources to switch to a different app to discuss sensitive topics, only to face pushback because doing so can be very difficult: most secure messaging apps are not available on Chinese app stores, and using them requires jumping the Great Firewall. This attitude is helped by the widespread belief, among sources and fellow journalists, that they are likely to already be compromised by Chinese government hackers, or could easily be were they to be targeted. For those using Chinese-made phones and non-Apple operating systems, this is probably true. A UN employee who works on internet policy, talking to me anonymously, said that his unit was instructed not to use Android devices, so great was the risk of being compromised by Chinese apps.
China is pervasive in Africa. Across the continent, Chinese entrepreneurs have opened shops and businesses, Chinese companies are building hotels, hospitals and roads, and Chinese products are for sale.8 Chinese state media, first under the banner of CCTV International and then the Voice of China, invested heavily in programming for African audiences, spreading Chinese soft power and lauding Beijing’s commitment to the continent and ‘win-win solutions’.
The continent, small Chinatowns have sprung up around embassies and consulates, catering to diplomats and other government workers, and to the employees of Chinese firms such as Huawei, ZTE and Eximbank, and ‘soft power’ institutions such as the Confucius Institute, which provides subsidised language and culture classes. Driving from Jomo Kenyatta International Airport along a busy highway into Nairobi a few years ago, I was reminded of traveling between cities in China, such was the frequency of Chinese-language signs on building sites at the side of the road and the familiar logos of massive state-owned enterprises and Chinese banks.
There are many misconceptions and half-truths about China’s role in Africa. The impression a casual reader can get from a lot of coverage in the West is that Beijing suddenly became interested in the continent and began ramping up investment and aid in the last decade or so, muscling aside traditional donors and former colonial powers to take a seat at the African table. This ignores a long connection between the Chinese Communist Party and African revolutionary and anti-colonial movements, and the millions of dollars that have been flowing from China to the continent since the early 1960s.
Many Chinese-funded infrastructure projects have largely been built by workers imported from China, who sent the money back home, stopping it from benefiting local communities. This also prevented a transfer of knowledge and technology that would enable the creation of native industries to compete with the Chinese companies, even in terms of maintaining and running the projects supposedly built for the benefit of the host country.
It is important to critique China’s role in Africa, highlighting Beijing’s missteps and the negative effects of its policies on the continent, particularly as China evolves into a true superpower. However, criticism of Chinese policies should not be misconstrued as an implicit endorsement of the policies sought by Western nations, nor should democratic governments have their failures overlooked or be held to a lower standard than Beijing.
In particular, those complaining that Beijing is propping up pariah regimes like those of Zimbabwe or Sudan often ignore the massive damage done by US, British or French support for dictators and autocrats across Africa, not to mention active military engagement on the continent. For every Robert Mugabe helped along by Beijing, there is a Muammar Gaddafi, who was held up as an important ally in the ‘War on Terror’ before Washington and London intervened militarily to enable his overthrow, plunging Libya into chaos. Beijing’s support during President Omar al-Bashir’s genocide in Darfur was reprehensible, but so was France’s aid for the Hutu majority government in Rwanda as tens of thousands of Tutsis were being murdered in the street.
The internet in Africa is a key example. Western tech firms have invested heavily on the continent, with lofty rhetoric about empowering the ‘next billion’ users and spreading the benefits of the internet to every corner of the globe. By and large, however, such investment has been self-serving, such as Facebook’s Internet.org, which allows users to get online for free, but only within Facebook’s walled garden, locking them in as customers and pushing a version of the internet that is all Facebook and nothing else. A completely corporate-controlled, private internet is just as dangerous to online freedoms as one policed by government censors – just ask breastfeeding mothers, cartoonists, trans activists, and anyone else who has fallen foul of Facebook’s prudish in-house censors. Other Western companies have happily sold tools to autocratic regimes to help them surveil and spy on their populations, running roughshod over their rights and enabling political repression.
The key danger of the Great Firewall is that, by its very existence, it acts as a daily proof of concept for authoritarians and dictators the world over: proof that the internet can be regulated and brought to heel. This risk has been accentuated in recent years by China’s active role in exporting both the tools of censorship and the political rhetoric for justifying it.
On 13 January 2012, the Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence (CMI) launched operation Fungua Macho – ‘Open your eyes’ in Swahili. A week later, in a secret memo to the president that was leaked to the media, his spies boasted that they had begun vacuuming up “hordes of data” on matters seen “as a threat to national interests”.
The initiative, which dramatically ramped up domestic surveillance of Ugandan opposition activists, journalists, and even allies of the government, showed how the powers once only available to sprawling surveillance monoliths like the US National Security Agency can increasingly be bought out of the box from Chinese, European and American firms.
Huawei – which has deep ties to the People’s Liberation Army and the Chinese state – had previously landed a lucrative contract to build a national fibre-optic backbone, and was also consulted by the government to provide surveillance and telecommunications monitoring tools. Just as Huawei replaced Cisco and other US firms in providing internet-filtering technology at home, it has slowly muscled out Western competitors in Africa. Huawei’s government connections are such that when it launched its ‘going global’ initiatives, it received a $10 billion line of credit from the China Development Bank, controlled by the State Council.
In 2017, Huawei earned 15 per cent of its global revenue in Africa, according to the Financial Times. Huawei has also provided monitoring and censorship tools to the governments of Zambia, Ethiopia and Zimbabwe, among others.
As Nyanzi put it to me: “China is a poisonous knife that we have to peel our food with.”
On 25 April, the Chinese Civil Aviation Administration (CAAA) sent a letter to thirty-six foreign air carriers demanding they identify Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan as parts of China, in a move that was later denounced by the White House as “Orwellian nonsense” but largely followed by companies terrified of alienating customers in the world’s second-largest aviation market.
In the years since the Github attack, a new, far more alarming trend has developed: the exporting of Chinese internet censorship itself. The technologies behind the Great Firewall have spread to Russia and other Chinese allies, and countries in Africa, South America and Asia have adopted internet control policies expounded by Beijing, often with the active assistance of Chinese officials and corporations.
At a stultifyingly dull tech conference in Shanghai in 2015, I sat in a glitzy ballroom as an executive from Twitter attempted to pitch the platform to Chinese businesses and boasted about its global reach, even as the Great Firewall prevented all of us in the audience from using the app. The following year, Twitter hired its first ever managing director for China, Kathy Chen, a former employee of the People’s Liberation Army and China’s Ministry of Public Security, who in her first act as company executive posted a public message to Chinese state media saying: “Let’s work together to tell great China story to the world!” Chen left the company eight months later after Twitter struggled to make any headway and moved its China ad sales team to Singapore.
No company has been more shameless in its attempts to woo Beijing than Facebook. Founder Mark Zuckerberg has posed for photos running in the Beijing smog, given employees copies of Xi Jinping’s On the Governance of China, and even reportedly asked Xi to name his first child (Xi declined). According to The New York Times, Facebook also developed a confidential internal tool to suppress posts from appearing in users’ news feeds in specific countries, which employees who spoke to the paper said was designed to help Facebook get into China.
Time and again, Silicon Valley has shown that it cannot be trusted to put users’ rights and privacy above profit. As far back as 2013, the Snowden revelations showed how many firms were willingly passing on user data to the US National Security Agency and other state security services; the same companies only introduced encryption and greater privacy protections afterwards due to concerns that users could decamp en masse for other platforms.
As this book went to print, news emerged that Google had been developing a secret app for the Chinese market, codenamed Dragonfly. According to journalist Ryan Gallagher, who broke the story, the Android search tool would automatically identify and filter websites blocked by the Great Firewall, and it had been demonstrated to officials within the Chinese government.
When Google originally exited China, Sergey Brin was presented as the main driver of that move. The son of Soviet refugees, he was held up as the moral weathervane of the company. Yet, in a staff meeting after the Dragonfly report, Brin, now head of Google parent Alphabet, claimed not to know about the project. This seemed unbelievable to many observers, not least to Downey, who wrote: “It was Sergey Brin who boldly drove the withdrawal from China; yet now Google is using Sergey’s yacht’s name as code for its secret project to build AI-based censorship into Google search. Google has changed.”
We are at a pivotal moment in internet history. There are currently two major visions for how the technology should work: the libertarian, ‘information wants to be free’ fantasy, which enabled the growth of huge tech monopolies that abuse our data, control our expression and endanger our privacy; and the hyper-controlled Chinese model, where the state acts as the ultimate arbiter of what can and should be said, for our own good and its perpetual power. True change will only come when we develop an alternative vision, one of a user-controlled, transparent and democratic internet built around the technology’s original promises – of freedom, education and international solidarity – not the pursuit of profit or top-down control.