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‘Escaping the Great Firewall’; Chinese Youth and VPN usage

Known as the ‘Great Firewall’, China’s censorship engine has led the country to be declared the worst for internet freedom, according to the Freedom House Index. For Xi-Jinping, leader of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), monopolistic control over mass-media is pivotal for authoritarian resilience. As Chomsky famously argued, “mass media serve as a system for communicating messages and symbols to the general populace”. China’s Great Firewall can therefore be understood as an effort to direct what is actually read, heard, and even thought by the public.


This digital boundary consists of three primary censorship methods:  


  1. First, IP blocking strategies use control over internet service providers to blacklist certain IP addresses, barring any access.
  2. DNS tampering, or ‘spoofing’, is employed to block websites from public view by altering Domain Name Systems.
  3. Finally, data being sent over to a computer network is processed and analyzed by government agencies to then take programmed action such as re-routing or blocking the connection. This is known as Deep Packet Inspection or DPI.

Admittedly, increasingly sophisticated techniques appear to emulate an Orwellian regime, only China’s nationwide censorship has moved far beyond manual methods of enforcement.

A key aspect of China’s political regime has been the suppression of social media usage, particularly amongst the youth. As ingeniously stated by Michael Anti, “Chinese national Internet policy is very simple; block and clone”. In short, a number of ‘copycats’, as they are widely known, have been designed as a substitute for Western social media sites. Weibo plays Twitter’s role, Renren - Facebook, and Baidu - Google. This internet parallel made of homegrown competitors has effectively molded Western social media dynamics into the country’s unique social and political demands.

Interestingly, this digital landscape is very different from what you might expect in authoritarian systems. For instance, North Korean websites barely take any effort “to mimic the slick appearance of international news sites”, says Chad O'Carroll from NK News, a website that monitors North Korean media. By contrast, internet censorship is blatant and much less sophisticated.


Rather than dismissing access to the internet as a whole, like Iran or aforementioned North Korea, China’s strategy simultaneously satisfies citizens’ desire for social connection whilst granting party leaders’ the ability to control what is actually seen and discussed on these sites. This might be referred to as ‘smart censorship’, as coined by Yujia Li.  

Climbing the great firewall

The Chinese internet ecosystem is not without its flaws, at least when talking from the party’s perspective. Chinese citizens, particularly young and educated people, are very aware of how data is managed in these platforms and remain quite sceptic of their actual value.

By virtue of necessity, circumvention technology has gained special prominence amongst China’s youth. Specifically, the rise of Virtual Private Networks, or VPNs, are widely intended to bypass government-imposed restrictions regarding social media usage. VPN software routes your internet connection to a private server so you can access any site from anywhere. As such, these servers are quite useful for anyone trying to duck the attention of government agents.

There is no ambiguity regarding the existence of young, freedom-thirsty society among Chinese ‘netizens’. Besides the most obvious user community in China, foreigners and expats, there’s a wider client portfolio for VPN companies. From IT specialists eager for more elaborate search engines to information-seekers searching non-filtered content, the reasons to adopt VPNs or other circumvention tools are multiplex. It is therefore not surprising that usage of Western social media is expected to rise in the coming years. In fact, data estimates suggest a 10% increase, between 2020 and 2023, in Facebook users from China. Chinese youngsters are expected to keep climbing the great firewall.

Nevertheless, there are some concerns regarding the effectiveness of VPNs against party-led censorship. Of greatest concern for users is the fact that the Chinese government is well aware of VPN usage amongst its netizens. Accordingly, the party has been able to develop very sophisticated tracking techniques. Their technology goes as far as being able to crack down on the encryption of VPN software.

On the bright side, the vast majority of VPN blocks are fairly easy to overcome using some lateral thinking. Even where sophisticated and highly sensitive deep packet inspections techniques are employed, technologies such as stunnel and obfsproxy are highly effective.

Overall, it is clear that the technological race between China’s surveillance regime and circumvention techniques is scaling up notoriously. Given the tremendous figures, estimated at $378 billion in 2020, that the Communist Party is pouring into research and development, China’s youth are increasingly worried about their future ability to bypass internet censorship. VPN companies might not be able to climb the Great Firewall in the near future.


The Charms of the Chinese internet model

Simultaneously, an arguably unexpected tendency is reframing existing moral dictums on authoritarian digital censorship. In short, Western social media giants are turning to China’s tremendously lucrative and dynamic market, despite massive uproar from political authorities and human rights activists. It is not difficult to understand CEOs rationale from a financial perspective. In 2017, a report by Boston Consulting Group labelled China as the largest internet market, with more than 700 million users and $100 billion in revenue. It is more so of a challenge to justify these company’s decision to ignore the crude realities of content moderation and freedom suppression.

The oscillations of these new phenomenon have drifted between legal challenges by Western institutional authorities, namely the Senate Judiciary hearing in July 2019 following the announcement of Google’s controversial Dragonfly project, and the gradual segregation of online activities worldwide.

This last axis serves as a token of China’s flowering digital influence. The fact that the world’s largest and most powerful internet company acquiesced to Beijing’s demands is proof that content moderation and digital surveillance, or ‘cybersovereignty’, as the CCP frames it, is claiming legitimacy as an acceptable and reputable governance framework in the global order. Some might even speculate that other countries could build their own ‘Great Firewall’ in the near future.

Nicolás Martínez

A Politics and Social Policy final year student. Demonstrable passion for current international affairs and a special interest in the nexus between media and domestic politics.

‘Escaping the Great Firewall’; Chinese Youth and VPN usage Reviewed by Nicolas Martinez on Tuesday, September 14, 2021 Rating: 5

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