Great Firewall of China

By | Updated Oct 13, 2017 1:45 AM UTC

So much for the lofty goals of the internet, breaking down information barriers and fomenting the free flow of ideas across the globe. China’s online population of 731 million gets a highly restricted internet, one that doesn’t include access to Google, Facebook, YouTube or the New York Times. There’s little coverage of the 1989 student protests in Tiananmen Square. Even Winnie the Pooh got temporarily banned. China is able to control such a vast ocean of content through the largest system of censorship in the world, aptly known as the Great Firewall of China. It’s a joint effort between government censors and technology and telecommunications companies that are compelled to enforce the state’s rules. The stakes go beyond China, which is setting an example that other authoritarian countries can imitate.

The Situation

While strict censorship is nothing new in one-party China, President Xi Jinping has tightened the online crackdown, particularly around the time of politically sensitive events like the death of Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo in July. Ahead of the Communist Party Congress in October, China began blocking Facebook Inc.’s WhatsApp messaging service and extended a clampdown on virtual private networks, a commonly used method to circumvent the Great Firewall. Securing China’s “cyber sovereignty,” or protecting the country’s internet from undue foreign influence, is one of Xi’s avowed goals. Recent moves to restrict online freedoms include measures that all but eliminate the ability to post social media anonymously, making app store owners responsible for how customers use their purchases and ordering online portals to stop news reporting. Pooh’s temporary banishment came after bloggers depicted Xi as the cartoon bear. Meantime, foreign companies that want to operate on the mainland are forced to adopt practices often seen as invasive abroad. Apple Inc., which publicly fought efforts by the U.S. government to create backdoors into its products, has quietly deleted apps and built local data centers in line with Chinese government requirements. All this contributes to China having the least online freedom on the planet, according to rights group Freedom House

Data for chart here.

The Background

China hasn’t always had tight restrictions. When the web formally arrived in 1994, it was relatively free and seen as an extension of the Open Door policy of tapping Western knowledge to reform the economy. As its popularity grew, the government yielded to a sentiment expressed by former leader Deng Xiaoping: When you open the window, the flies come in. From 2000, the foundations of the Great Firewall were laid with the introduction of the Golden Shield Project, a database-driven surveillance system capable of accessing every citizen’s record and connecting China's security organizations. Now, the government employs at least 50,000 people to enforce censorship, barring websites it disapproves of and forcing search engines to filter out content considered harmful. There’s also an army of social-media influencers who, by one estimate, post 500 million pro-government comments a year. Crucially, the authorities make companies responsible for the content they show, even that generated by users, a practice that encourages self-censorship in a country where the state licenses all media. With an almost captive local market, China’s tech giants — Tencent Holdings Ltd. and Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. — have flourished, in the process becoming important taxpayers in China. At the other extreme, Greatfire.org, a non-profit group that opposes censorship, has created mirrored sites and a browser to get around the controls.

The Argument

Most countries impose some sort of cyber control, like banning websites that promote hate. With more than half its 1.4 billion people online, China argues that the restrictions are mostly about maintaining social order and safeguarding national security. Proponents cite the worrying control over news flow exerted by the likes of Google and Facebook as a reason for the state to adopt an active role. Critics say China’s Great Firewall reflects its paranoia over the internet’s potential to spread opposition to one-party rule. As well as impeding freedom of speech, China’s approach constrains it economically, they say, by stifling innovation, preventing the exchange of important ideas and cutting access to services used by businesses like Google Cloud. Academics cannot access Google Scholar, used globally by colleges to share work. More broadly, critics fear if Russia and other like-minded countries follow China’s example and succeed in imposing restrictions on their citizens and global online companies, the vision behind the founding of the internet — an unfettered global exchange of information — could be seriously scaled back.

The Reference Shelf

  • Stanford University’s Torfox project details the Great Wall’s history.
  • Freedom House assesses China’s internet freedom.
  • QuickTakes on China’s virtual private networks and Xi Jinping.
  • Bloomberg profiles Greatfire.org.
  • China’s technology restrictions explained and another story on censorship.
  • Bloomberg View’s Adam Minter says China risks alienating its middle class by raising the Great Firewall too high.
  • Bloomberg Gadfly’s Tim Culpan considers Apple’s decision to remove VPN apps in China, as does Bloomberg View’s Tyler Cowen.

First published Oct. 12, 2017

To contact Bloomberg News staff for this QuickTake:
Lulu Yilun Chen in Hong Kong at ychen447@bloomberg.net
David Ramli in Beijing at dramli1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake:
Grant Clark at gclark@bloomberg.net