“The magistrates are free to burn down houses, while the common people are forbidden to light lamps” was a proverb that many netizens were reaching for earlier this month, after the creator of some of China’s strictest internet controls circumvented his own restrictions during a speech at the Harbin Institute of Technology.
Fang Binxing, the so-called father of China’s Great Firewall, wanted to access a South Korean government website as part of his public talk on “defining cyber space security”.
But as is often the case when trying to access overseas websites from China, he found it was blocked. Luckily for him, Fang had the knowledge to dodge the restrictions. He set up a virtual private network, or VPN, on the spot and went on to access other unapproved websites like Facebook and Twitter. Less fortunately for Fang someone in the audience snapped a photo of the moment and posted it on weibo. Word quickly got out that the head of the recently launched CyberSecurity Association of China was bending the rules.
Fang was lecturing about why countries need firewalls and wanted to demonstrate that South Korea has a system in place which blocks links to some pornographic websites, as well as content from North Korea. But the backstory meant little to China’s netizens. “Isn’t what he did illegal?” asked one irritated netizen. “The students at Harbin Tech are lucky: they just got instructed on how to set up a VPN by the very best,” joked another.
Fang is no stranger to circumventing the Great Firewall. “I have six VPNs on my home computer,” he told an interviewer in 2011. “But I only try them to test which side wins: the GFW [Great Firewall] or the VPN. I’m not interested in reading messy information like some of that anti-government stuff.”
Nor is he unaccustomed to netizen rage. Messages that he posted on his weibo wishing a happy Chinese New Year three years ago were soon showered with abuse, and Fang even had to suspend his weibo account in its early days when he came under sustained attack from disgruntled internet users.
“[Expletive] you 404 times” was one of the more creative insults from people familiar with the Great Firewall’s practice of blocking pages with messages mentioning a “404 error” (see WiC108).
Internet freedom in China continues to be heavily restricted and the country came dead last in the latest report from American watchdog Freedom House on online liberty. (That said, North Korea was not included in the review.) Last week the United States Trade Representative also labelled the internet controls as a trade barrier. “Outright blocking of websites appears to have worsened over the past year, with eight of the top 25 most trafficked global sites now blocked in China,” it said.
Sometimes the reason for websites being blocked is all too clear – magazines like The Economist and TIME saw their IP addresses throttled last week for running cover stories that compared Xi Jinping to Mao Zedong.
Often there is no discernible political reason why a website is on the banned list. For example, your correspondent couldn’t get access to Britain’s National Health Service this week, while the US Trade Representative report has reported that the website of “a major US homeware chain” was also blocked.
The anti-censorship group Greatfire.org says that a quarter of the web pages, domains, encrypted sites, online searches and IP addresses that it monitors are now blocked in China – up 14% from when Xi Jinping became the nation’s leader.
This week, however, the Global Times hit back at critics of the Great Firewall saying it had successfully “quelled Western intentions to penetrate China ideologically”.
“History will positively assess the key role of the system. But it does not mean it will exist forever. As time goes by, it may not be needed when China and the West share an equal footing in terms of soft power,” it reassured.
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