Meet the activists fighting the Great Chinese Firewall
These are the people fighting online censorship in China.
The Wikipedia article about the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing cannot be read in China. Neither can the website for the Falun Gong spiritual movement, which is banned in the country. The page of Google search results for the Chinese word for democracy is also inaccessible.
News websites such as Reuters, the New York Times, Bloomberg and the South China Morning Post are blocked, according to ProPublica.
Facebook, Instagram, Dropbox and Twitter are also off limits.
Of the world’s 1,000 most popular websites, China has blocked at least 165 and shut off some 26,000 Google search terms and 880 Wikipedia pages.
If the Chinese government deems a web page dangerous to its rule or the safety of the country, it gets blocked without explanation.
This is known as the “Great Chinese Firewall”; rights groups deplore the crackdown as the leading communist party’s attempt to silence parts of the internet that could pose a risk to its rule.
FreedomHouse, a US-based NGO focused on promoting free speech and democracy, has called out China as “the worst abuser of internet freedom” for the third year in a row in its Net Freedom report.
According to Human Rights Watch, the Chinese government has, over the past decade, significantly increased its ideological control over education and mass media, and it “already oversees one of the strictest online censorship regimes in the world”.
But people are fighting back, seeking ways around the firewall and accessing the hidden corners of the internet.
“When I found out what the internet outside of China was, I was like, ‘Holy s***, this is totally different from I have been using’,” May, who grew up in China, told Al Jazeera via phone.
“Once I realised my internet was different from other people [outside of China], I realised I needed to use the real internet, so I started investigating.”
May, who requested anonymity, now lives in the United States and is finishing her master’s degree.
She first encountered the uncensored internet on a visit to Hong Kong, where she saw people using websites like Facebook and Twitter.
Most of my friends don't even know there is a Great Firewall between the Chinese internet and the rest of the world.
“In China, people use Baidu instead of Google, Weibo instead of Twitter and WeChat to chat and transfer money,” May said.
“Most of my friends don’t even know there is a Great Firewall between the Chinese internet and the rest of the world.”
Jamie, who requested complete anonymity, is an equal rights, free speech and civil rights advocate.
The activist sees a free internet as an essential human right and said people who are aware of the restrictions fail to recognise them as problematic.
This has led to self-censorship, Jamie continues, and people turning each other in to the authorities, scenes associated with East Germany or the Soviet Union.
“Most people believe the restriction on the internet is necessary for national security. They don’t see it as a big deal.
“As long as they are living comfortable, they don’t care about the politics, the injustice.”
According to Jamie, discussion of subjects such as free speech, feminism and politics has been made practically meaningless by government censorship of all pages and ideas that “do not accommodate China’s reality”.
“The silent majority, they have been taught and educated to think the way the government wants them to think,” Jamie said. “China’s education is such a failure, it’s basically the school of Communist Party of China.”
Increasingly, people are searching for ways to circumvent the all-encompassing firewall.
According to market research firm Global Web Index, the number of people in China who have used a Virtual Private Network (VPN), which allows users to conceal their internet browsing and access blocked content, has risen about 11 percentage points between 2014 and 2017.
But the Chinese government is increasingly cracking down on the usage of VPNs, according to rights groups.
In July 2017, Apple had to remove all VPN apps from the App Store, almost 700 in total.
Chinese online retailer Alibaba and several other vendors were subject to similar demands.
In March 2017, a man was sentenced to nine months in jail for selling VPNs and, several months later, another VPN vendor was sentenced to five years by Chinese courts.
May said a friend in China had used the technology in the classroom.
“One of his classmates told the principal, and the principal called the police, who came and took the laptop,” she told Al Jazeera.
Circumventing the firewall
People such as China-based Martin Johnson – not his real name – are willing to risk everything to open up the internet.
Working with a team of four in 2016, Johnson made FreeBrowser, an app for Android phones with built-in circumvention tools allowing users to access blocked content.
The project started in 2011 when the group, known collectively as GreatFire, launched Analyzer to see how much web content was blocked by the Chinese government.
“Since we started working on this, the internet has gotten a lot more controlled and constricted in China,” Johnson told Al Jazeera during an encrypted phone call.
“The Chinese communist party is really strong, it’s what sets them apart from everybody else,” Johnson said. “The US government might be more powerful in an absolute sense, but Donald Trump can’t say ‘I want a specific Twitter account shut down’. It just doesn’t work that way.”
However, on Weibo, the Chinese Twitter clone, accounts are regularly blocked at the whim of one or several government officials – which is why GreatFire built FreeWeibo in 2011, a version of the social media platform that circumvents censorship.
“Back then censorship wasn’t immediate, and Weibo even back then had hundreds of millions of users,” Johnson said.
“It was impossible to review everything because of the sheer amount of content. Content that was deemed ‘insensitive’ [against the party’s wishes] and reposted a lot, then it was taken down, but if it did not get too much traction it could possibly stay up.”
As the years passed, the government not only got better at restricting content on Weibo but also at blocking FreeWeibo.
Johnson and his team then started building FreeBrowser but China blocked the app and the GreatFire websites.
Most people believe the restriction on the internet is necessary for national security. They don't see it as a big deal.
Since the Google Play Store is not available in China either, it is hard for people in China to find software that helps them access a free internet.
But despite the government doing everything in its power, FreeBrowser and several of GreatFire’s other apps keep growing their user bases.
“We don’t fully know how. We do get more users all the time, but how they find us is hard to say,” Johnson said.
“In the end, it mostly comes down to word of mouth because right now we simply don’t have the resources to focus on growth.
“We’re just focusing on keeping the apps up and running right now.”
But creating these apps comes at a high cost.
“We do all the things that people are getting punished for in China. We distribute and test VPNs, we give people access and we have an app that distributes books that are banned,” Johnson said. “For security reasons, the five of us don’t know much about each other.”
“If someone gets picked up [by the government], I assume that person shares everything. And if that were to happen, and I sure hope it doesn’t, we’re trying to prevent the whole thing from coming crashing down by knowing as little as possible [about each other],” Johnson said, adding he could not go into detail about the way the team communicates.
“At this point, it’s very clear that our decision to do this anonymously is the right one and the only reason we are able to continue.”
Based on China’s record, this paranoia seems more than justified.
According to the US State Department’s annual human rights report, the Chinese government is “increasingly willing to prosecute individuals for using VPN software”, adding that “the government announced new regulations that place responsibility on the organisers of chat groups on messaging apps for ensuring that impermissible content is not shared on the group chat”.
Human rights organisation Amnesty International has repeatedly criticised China’s lack of internet freedom.
“The Chinese authorities are trying to rewrite the rules of the internet so censorship and surveillance become the norm everywhere. This is an all-out assault on internet freedoms,” Amnesty’s Roseann Rife said in 2015.
More recently, in its 2017 overview of the human rights situation in the country, Amnesty highlighted several cases of activists and journalists being imprisoned for their online activity.
Chinese social media apps such as WeChat are giving increasingly more information on their users to the authorities, allowing the government to increase its stranglehold on its citizens, the report claimed.
That grip also extends to other means of expression for the Chinese, including books.
For decades, the Chinese government has maintained a blacklist containing thousands of books not deemed fit to be published. But now, using modern technology, those books are becoming easier to acquire.
Little to no pushback
Apps such as GreatFire’s FreeBooks and the well-known independent tech blog ProgramThink have tried to circumvent these bans, publishing “illegal” books.
Doing so carries high risk.
If they get caught, the apps’ developers could face fines and imprisonment, as at least five Hong Kong booksellers have experienced after they were kidnapped by Chinese authorities for selling banned books.
Apps such as FreeBrowser and FreeBooks and the ProgramThink blog offer activists more anonymity, but Johnson told Al Jazeera the battle between those who want to fight for freedom of information and those who want suppress it will remain a game of cat and mouse.
The restricted internet is devastating the human right to free speech.
“However, if things continue as they are now, the censors will win,” he said.
“China is the leading country in the world developing these types of technologies,” he said. “They spend vast resources on control and the effort spent on it is ever-increasing.
“China is getting richer and richer … [but] when it comes to freedom of speech and government influence over the internet, it’s very worrying.
“There needs to be pushback.”
And with technologies such as machine learning and artificial intelligence advancing, the government’s advantage will only increase.
Small operations like GreatFire do not have the means to progress at the same speed.
Johnson hopes foreign governments and large tech companies such as Apple and Google, which are now willing to adhere to the government’s demands, will stand up to the Chinese government.
“It’s frustrating for us that China is not prioritised higher, it’s sort of approached as one country out of many,” Johnson said.
“But if you add up all the populations of countries that also impose restrictions on the internet, places like Azerbaijan and Vietnam, you don’t even come close to the number of people in China that are affected by this firewall.”
Johnson, May and Jamie fear that without intervention, internet censorship is set to increase.
“More and more things are restricted, there is less and less space for people to live freely. The restricted internet is devastating the human right to free speech,” Jamie said.
“I have worried about whether I will put my family in dangerous place [by promoting free speech and human rights] because Chinese authorities especially target family of the activists.
“But totalitarianism scares me even more.”
Follow Yarno Ritzen on Twitter: @YarnoRitzen
[Some quotes have been edited for clarity]
[The names used in this article are pseudonyms to protect the identities of those interviewed and their families]