Al Jazeera Journalism Review

China outside
Beijing Zhengyang Gate Jianlou in Qianmen street in Beijing city, China [Nattee Chalermtiragool/Shutterstock]

Navigating the Great Firewall of China

International media is blacked out in China - and very few are willing to try to bypass the country’s Firewall  

 

Xu, a 25-year-old MA student at one of Beijing’s top universities, is currently completing an internship with a legal chambers. She has been tasked with examining existing laws on corporate social responsibility in countries in the Mekong area. Xu, who became a Communist Party member during her undergraduate years, hopes the internship will lead to employment when she graduates in June this year. 

She is facing stiff competition, as several other interns from top universities are competing for one vacancy.  Xu, originally from Henan,  works 10 hours a day in the office. In addition,  she has to keep up with her own studies for another five hours per day. 

Since her work involves looking into law in Southeast Asian countries, she is required to delve into English-language sources. The semi-lockdown in Beijing and mobility restrictions on campus have made it tricky for Xu to make use of her university's library. Furthermore, even with the wifi on campus and the virtual private network (VPN) provided by her university, Xu still can’t access relevant English websites. Her prestigious university has a Facebook page to communicate with international students who might not use Wechat or other Chinese channels, which depends on an internal VPN to function.

China 1
Newspapers at a stand in Beijing, China, on Friday, March 4, 2022. International media is blocked in China - and many don't want to read it anyway, for fear of seeing "Western smears" [Qilai Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images]

She has had to ask a Thai classmate, who has been living in Bangkok as she was unable to return to China due to the pandemic, to help her download materials in English.  Xu, who wishes to be referred to by her last name only, was afraid to install a random, non-authorised VPN which might give her the access she needs.

“I feel bad about bothering my friend all the time, but I am afraid of downloading the VPN by myself," she says.

Xu’s hesitation to bypass the Firewall to access information beyond what Chinese websites can offer is not uncommon among young people in China, where there are more than 1 billion Internet users. It is the same reason that international media is not accessed in China generally.

 

A legal grey area

China’s internet censorship system, also colloquially known as the “Great Firewall”, has been in place since 2000, when the Golden Shield Project (Jindun Gongcheng - 金盾工程) was launched by the Ministry of Public Security. 

It is a gargantuan mechanism of censorship and surveillance aimed at restricting content, identifying and locating individuals, and providing immediate access to personal records.

Initially, the Firewall served to block only a few anti-Communist Party Chinese-language websites, and it was relatively easy to circumvent. Gradually, however, more and more websites were blocked, and China’s “netizens” face more technical and political challenges if they attempt to scale the Firewall. Now that the Great Firewall also regulates inbound and outbound Internet traffic between China and the rest of the world, many major news outlets such as the BBC, CNN, the New York Times, the South China Morning Post, The Guardian etc are not accessible at all.

China 4
Beijing, China on New Year's Eve, December 31, 2022: People watch the light and projection show during the countdown celebration held at Shougang Park [Li Wenming/Qianlong.com/VCG via Getty Images]

While Chinese netizens enjoy high-speed and highly affordable Internet access, connections can be slowed down by sophisticated blocking and filtering systems, especially during sensitive times, such as National Congress. Freedom House, the human rights think tank, rates China as one of the world’s worst abusers of Internet freedoms. China has also been ranked 175th out of a total of 180 nations by the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) World Press Freedom Index 2022.

Article 6 of China’s Provisional Regulations of the PRC on the Management of International Networking of Computer Information Networks reads: Computer information networks conducting direct international networking shall use the international access channels provided by the national public telecommunications networks of the Ministry of Posts & Telecommunications. No units or individuals shall set up by themselves or use other access channels for international networking.

Article 14 of the same law states that failure to conform to Article 6 will lead to a warning or even a fine of CNY 15,000 ($2,100) or confiscation of “ill-gotten gains”, if the violation involves profit-making. 

However, the legality of individual use of VPNs, which can be detected by the Firewall, remains a grey area in China. VPNs have never been declared as completely forbidden in China. In addition, China has not consistently enforced laws that bar individual citizens from using VPNs. Furthermore, there are very few precedents of anyone being charged with a crime for using one.

China 2
A woman reads on her phone at Beijing Capital International Airport in Beijing, China, on Friday, December 30, 2022. Foreign media is inaccessible on the internet in China, unless you use a specialist VPN, which most people are reluctant to do [Bloomberg via Getty Images]

However, China has passed cybersecurity laws in recent years that transfer more control to the state. In 2017, China launched a 14-month campaign to crack down on unauthorised VPNs. 

In 2021, the Cyberspace Administration of China, the Internet watchdog of the country, introduced another set of draft regulations to penalise individual and institutional users for bypassing China’s “Great Firewall”, which exemplifies the country's toughest attempt to outlaw VPNs. In particular, individuals and entities are not allowed to provide “internet access, server hosting, technical support and dissemination of information on how to bypass cross-border data security gateways”.

 

‘I do not want to hear the West smearing China’

Living in a dormitory on campus, Xu has no choice but to use her university's network, which she logs into with her student ID. Xu has so far refrained from installing a VPN on her own computer. 

“My life is stressful. I just want to lead a peaceful life", she says.

In order to advance her career in the state sector, Xu is acutely aware that she must not “make any mistake”.

“Working for the state is the safest choice. You see, the pandemic made me realise it would be better to be on the government payroll,” says Xu.

But this is not the only reason why she is not interested in trying to try bypassing the wall. 

“I do not want to hear the West smearing China”, said Xu.

This is a common viewpoint in China. An article  on the website of the National University of Defense Technology, Hunan Province, describes “bypassing the wall" as “willingly putting yourself in the political trap set by the enemy" or “capitulating yourself to their hunting ground". 

China 5
This Chinese article describes “bypassing the wall" as “willingly putting yourself in the political trap set by the enemy" or “capitulating yourself to their hunting ground" - the "enemy" being foreign media websites.

State-owned outlets also warn domestic netizens of the penalty for those who dare to jump the Firewall to access sites “fraught with fake news” about the Chinese government. 

In 2019, many outlets reported the two cases of young men installing unapproved VPNs on their mobile phones to access foreign websites with pornographic content. The two men  received a warning from local police and had to pay unspecified administrative fines. 

“Many overseas websites have some bad information, such as propagating feudal superstition, obscenity, gambling, violence, murder, terror, instigating crime; damaging the credibility of state organs, etc, resulting in the spread of bad information, of which the consequences will be disastrous”, reads an article from Zhimen, a state-owned news outlet. 

China 6
This article on the website of Zhimen, a state-owned news outlet in China, warns against reading foreign media websites, which it views as promoting dangerous anti-China propaganda.

 

‘Jumping the Firewall’ - it’s not worth it

Hui Hui, an English major in Beijing, admits downloading a VPN to explore academic resources. Hui is confident that bypassing the Firewall will not not pose a problem, because she is not keen to explore news in English. 

“I do not bother to look at politics, so I will be fine," says Hui. 

Filippo, who asked to use his English name, a young Chinese professional from Chengdu province working in the field of fashion, had access to Google and Facebook for the first time in 2014, when he had the opportunity to attend an exchange programme in the Czech Republic. 

Since coming back to China, he has had to use a VPN to keep in touch with his international friends and reach out to his clients. Filippo says he is using a non-Chinese VPN service paid for by his company, because free VPNs “are weak and erratic” most of the time, since the top-down blocking apparatus “is too strong”. 

“If I do not get a VPN, I cannot keep up with fashion trends in the world", said Filippo. 

Like Hui, Filippo says using a VPN, commonly known as “jumping the Firewall” (fanqiang - 翻墙) or “breaking the net” (po-wang - 破网), is an open secret in the private sector, but might be dangerous for those who want to read about current affairs from Western perspectives. 

“My job has nothing to do with politics, so I am safe," says Filippo. 

China 3
Facebook website is seen on a computer screen using a VPN to get around internet blocks in this photo arranged in Beijing, China, in 2011 [Nelson Ching/Bloomberg via Getty Images]

Jia, who asked to use a pseudonym, is a graduate student at the Police Academy of Hubei. Jia says that his university specifically forbids their students from trying to download VPNs. This rule is communicated to all freshman students on their first day at university. 

“We are not allowed to scale the Firewall”, said Jia, simply. 

Max (not his real name), is a Beijing-based civil servant working for a Chinese ministry as a translator. In 2014, Max, who is originally from Shandong province, attended a language enrichment programme in Italy under the full scholarship of the mainland Chinese government. It was his first trip abroad, and he had the chance to access non-Chinese news outlets and social media for the first time. 

“I only had a year of freedom," says Max. “Now, I am cut off from the rest of the world." 

As part of his commitment to the civil service, Max will not be able to go overseas for personal reasons. Nor is he allowed to use a VPN at work or at home. 

Max says that if he was ever found out “climbing the wall without permission”,  he would be in serious trouble.

He adds that he feels upset about being unable to keep in touch with his international friends, but “it is the price I have to pay” in order to achieve a stable career in Beijing, with a Beijing household registration and other generous benefits associated with his civil service position. 

“We do not really know what the punishment would be, because nobody, at least from what I know, has ever dared to break the rule”, says Max. “Even the thought of downloading it [a VPN] has not crossed my mind”. 

 

More Articles

Are Podcasts the Future of African Broadcasting?

The surge of podcasts across Africa is a burgeoning trend, encompassing a wide array of themes and subjects, and swiftly expanding across various nations.

Derick Matsengarwodzi
Derick Matsengarwodzi Published on: 11 Jul, 2024
Video Volunteers: How India’s Marginalised Groups Tell Their Own Stories

Video creators like Rohini Pawar and Shabnam Begum have transcended societal challenges by producing influential videos with Video Volunteers, highlighting social issues within marginalized communities. Their work exemplifies the transformative power of storytelling in fostering grassroots change and empowerment across India.

Hanan Zaffa
Hanan Zaffar, Jyoti Thakur Published on: 3 Jul, 2024
Climate Journalism in Vietnam's Censored Landscape

In Vietnam, climate journalists face challenges due to censorship and restrictions on press freedom, making it difficult to report environmental issues accurately. Despite these obstacles, there are still journalists working to cover climate stories creatively and effectively, highlighting the importance of climate journalism in addressing environmental concerns.

AJR Contributor Published on: 26 Jun, 2024
Challenges of Investigating Subculture Stories in Japan as a Foreign Correspondent

Japan's vibrant subcultures and feminist activists challenge the reductive narratives often portrayed in Western media. To understand this dynamic society authentically, journalists must approach their reporting with patience, commitment, and empathy, shedding preconceptions and engaging deeply with the nuances of Japanese culture.

Johann Fleuri
Johann Fleuri Published on: 24 Jun, 2024
Covering the War on Gaza: As a Journalist, Mother, and Displaced Person

What takes precedence: feeding a hungry child or providing professional coverage of a genocidal war? Journalist Marah Al Wadiya shares her story of balancing motherhood, displacement, psychological turmoil, and the relentless struggle to find safety in an unsafe region.

Marah Al Wadiya
Marah Al Wadiya Published on: 29 May, 2024
Fighting Misinformation and Disinformation to Foster Social Governance in Africa

Experts in Africa are using various digital media tools to raise awareness and combat the increasing usage of misinformation and disinformation to manipulate social governance.

Derick Matsengarwodzi
Derick Matsengarwodzi Published on: 22 May, 2024
"I Am Still Alive!": The Resilient Voices of Gaza's Journalists

The Israeli occupation has escalated from targeting journalists to intimidating and killing their families. Hisham Zaqqout, Al Jazeera's correspondent in Gaza talks about his experience covering the war and the delicate balance between family obligations and professional duty.

Hisham Zakkout Published on: 15 May, 2024
Under Fire: The Perilous Reality for Journalists in Gaza's War Zone

Journalists lack safety equipment and legal protection, highlighting the challenges faced by journalists in Gaza. While Israel denies responsibility for targeting journalists, the lack of international intervention leaves journalists in Gaza exposed to daily danger.

Linda Shalash
Linda Shalash Published on: 9 May, 2024
Elections and Misinformation – India Case Study

Realities are hidden behind memes and political satire in the battle for truth in the digital age. Explore how misinformation is influencing political decisions and impacting first-time voters, especially in India's 2024 elections, and how journalists fact-check and address fake news, revealing the true impact of misinformation and AI-generated content.

Safina
Safina Nabi Published on: 30 Apr, 2024
Amid Increasing Pressure, Journalists in India Practice More Self-Censorship

In a country where nearly 970 million people are participating in a crucial general election, the state of journalism in India is under scrutiny. Journalists face harassment, self-censorship, and attacks, especially under the current Modi-led government. Mainstream media also practices self-censorship to avoid repercussions. The future of journalism in India appears uncertain, but hope lies in the resilience of independent media outlets.

Hanan Zaffa
Hanan Zaffar, Jyoti Thakur Published on: 25 Apr, 2024
The Privilege and Burden of Conflict Reporting in Nigeria: Navigating the Emotional Toll

The internal struggle and moral dilemmas faced by a conflict reporter, as they grapple with the overwhelming nature of the tragedies they witness and the sense of helplessness in the face of such immense suffering. It ultimately underscores the vital role of conflict journalism in preserving historical memory and giving a voice to the voiceless.

Hauwa Shaffii Nuhu
Hauwa Shaffii Nuhu Published on: 17 Apr, 2024
Journalism in chains in Cameroon

Investigative journalists in Cameroon sometimes use treacherous means to navigate the numerous challenges that hamper the practice of their profession: the absence of the Freedom of Information Act, the criminalisation of press offenses, and the scare of the overly-broad anti-terrorism law.

Nalova Akua
Nalova Akua Published on: 12 Apr, 2024
The Perils of Journalism and the Rise of Citizen Media in Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia's media landscape is grim, with low rankings for internet and press freedom across the region. While citizen journalism has risen to fill the gaps, journalists - both professional and citizen - face significant risks due to government crackdowns and the collusion between tech companies and authorities to enable censorship and surveillance.

AJR Contributor Published on: 6 Apr, 2024
Silenced Voices: The Battle for Free Expression Amid India’s Farmer’s Protest

The Indian government's use of legal mechanisms to suppress dissenting voices and news reports raises questions about transparency and freedom of expression. The challenges faced by independent media in India indicate a broader narrative of controlling the narrative and stifling dissenting voices.

Suvrat Arora
Suvrat Arora Published on: 17 Mar, 2024
Targeting Truth: Assault on Female Journalists in Gaza

For female journalists in Palestine, celebrating international women's rights this year must take a backseat, as they continue facing the harsh realities of conflict. March 8th will carry little celebration for them, as they grapple with the severe risks of violence, mass displacement, and the vulnerability of abandonment amidst an ongoing humanitarian crisis. Their focus remains on bearing witness to human suffering and sharing stories of resilience from the frontlines, despite the personal dangers involved in their work.

Fatima Bashir
Fatima Bashir Published on: 14 Mar, 2024
A Woman's Journey Reporting on Pakistan's Thrilling Cholistan Desert Jeep Rally

A Woman's Voice in the Desert: Navigating the Spotlight

Anam Hussain
Anam Hussain Published on: 8 Mar, 2024
Breaking Barriers: The Rise of Citizen Journalists in India's Fight for Media Inclusion

Grassroots journalists from marginalized communities in India, including Dalits and Muslims, are challenging mainstream media narratives and bringing attention to underreported issues through digital outlets like The Mooknayak.

Hanan Zaffa
Hanan Zaffar, Jyoti Thakur Published on: 3 Mar, 2024
Why Journalists are Speaking out Against Western Media Bias in Reporting on Israel-Palestine

Over 1500 journalists from various US news organizations have signed an open letter criticizing the Western media's coverage of Israel's actions against Palestinians. They accuse newsrooms of dehumanizing rhetoric, bias, and the use of inflammatory language that reinforces stereotypes, lack of context, misinformation, biased language, and the focus on certain perspectives while diminishing others. They call for more accurate and critical coverage, the use of well-defined terms like "apartheid" and "ethnic cleansing," and the inclusion of Palestinian voices in reporting.

Belle de Jong journalist
Belle de Jong Published on: 26 Feb, 2024
Silenced Voices and Digital Resilience: The Case of Quds Network

Unrecognized journalists in conflict zones face serious risks to their safety and lack of support. The Quds Network, a Palestinian media outlet, has been targeted and censored, but they continue to report on the ground in Gaza. Recognition and support for independent journalists are crucial.

Yousef Abu Watfe يوسف أبو وطفة
Yousef Abu Watfeh Published on: 21 Feb, 2024
Artificial Intelligence's Potentials and Challenges in the African Media Landscape

How has the proliferation of Artificial Intelligence impacted newsroom operations, job security and regulation in the African media landscape? And how are journalists in Africa adapting to these changes?

Derick Matsengarwodzi
Derick Matsengarwodzi Published on: 18 Feb, 2024
Media Blackout on Imran Khan and PTI: Analysing Pakistan's Election Press Restrictions

Implications and response to media censorship and the deliberate absence of coverage for the popular former Prime Minister, Imran Khan, and his party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), in the media during the 2024 elections in Pakistan.

Anam Hussain
Anam Hussain Published on: 14 Feb, 2024
Digital Battlegrounds: The New Broadcasting Bill and Independent Journalism in India

New legislation in India threatens the freedom of independent journalism. The draft Broadcasting Services (Regulation) Bill, 2023 grants the government extensive power to regulate and censor content, potentially suppressing news critical of government policies.

Safina
Safina Nabi Published on: 11 Feb, 2024
Pegasus Spyware: A Grave Threat to Journalists in Southeast Asia

The widespread deployment of spyware such as Pegasus in Southeast Asia, used by governments to target opposition leaders, activists, and journalists, presents significant challenges in countering digital surveillance. This is due to its clandestine operations and the political intricacies involved. The situation underscores the urgent need for international cooperation and heightened public awareness to address these human rights infringements.

AJR Contributor Published on: 5 Feb, 2024
Media Monopoly in Brazil: How Dominant Media Houses Control the Narrative and Stifle Criticism of Israel

An in-depth analysis exploring the concentration of media ownership in Brazil by large companies, and how this shapes public and political narratives, particularly by suppressing criticism of Israel.

Al Jazeera Logo
Rita Freire & Ahmad Al Zobi Published on: 1 Feb, 2024