beyond the firewall: tales from the cybercrypt

In the two years I’ve been hiding out in living in China, it has been unsubtly pointed out to me that I’m not the best at keeping in touch. At this point, my family has stopped asking for *updates* and started issuing *proof of life* requests.

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On this front, China has been more than happy to enable my bad habits. Between the 12-hour time difference and the state-sponsored bans on Facebook, Gmail, Twitter, Instagram, Dropbox, and goddamn Tinder of all things, it’s easy for me to hide behind the excuse that my sending out anything more advanced than a smoke signal constitutes a major achievement.

“But wait,” you say: “If China is such a black hole of internet censorship, how are you even writing this? And for that matter, how do you keep self-indulgently posting links to your blog on Facebook?  Are you being dragged away to a black-site prison even as I read this?”

Short answer: a VPN, a VPN and my ego, and not just yet. A VPN – Virtual Private Network – is basically a program that allows you to get onto blocked sites by making it seem like you’re connecting from somewhere else. There are several affordable options – Express VPN, Astrill, TorGuard, etc. – and although the government manages to occasionally disrupt whichever one is the most popular, I’ve never personally seen or heard anything that makes me think they’ll ever finish the job. Honestly, I can’t imagine why the CPC would want VPNs gone – lots of important companies here depend on them, and China already has enough trouble retaining top foreign talent without taking away their Gmail. 

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The larger issue of internet censorship in China is mindbogglingly complicated. There are at least tens of thousands of people (and probably far more) working in one form or another as part of the infamous Great Firewall. It’s an ever-shifting mess, and what actually ends up getting the axe can seem downright random at times. Want to read about the Tiananmen Square Protests on Wikipedia? No problem! Feel like checking out some dessert pics on Instagram? Go f@#k yourself. 

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The actual methods of censoring can be just as varied and amusing. Sometimes a site will be blocked outright, sometimes a particular page will be altered, and sometimes – my personal favorite – the browser will keep pretending you mistyped the url and refuse to load anything.

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Of course, it’s easy to chuckle at the ridiculousness of it all; such as when the government bans references to rubber duckies, deletes their own hilarious censorship anthem, or tries to pretend their Let It Go ripoff Olympic song never existed. But internet censorship is a serious issue that has far broader implications than whether I’m going to be able to use Netflix again even though I’m a paying American customer and I’m not trying to cheat the region system by using a VPN it’s just that I moved to a country where Netflix is blocked and WHY CAN’T YOU JUST UNDERSTAND THAT AND LET ME WATCH STRANGER THINGS ALREADY.

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Seriously, guys. I’m begging you, just take my money.

…ahem, anyway. Broader implications.

To me, the genius of the CPC’s control isn’t about their big scary blanket ban on things like Facebook and Google – it’s the *relatively* subtle ways they’ve nudged things in the direction they want.

WeChat, for example, is a phenomenally well-designed Chinese app that functions as sort of a cross between Facebook and Twitter – absolutely everyone uses it. You can share stories and videos and stuff in a social media setting as well as create group chats with up to 500 people. At face value, it looks like exactly the kind of thing that could facilitate the viral spread of awareness and ideas, and yet it doesn’t seem to do so. Why? I think it’s because you can only see your friend’s postsmeaning that even if hundreds of friends all comment on a news story you posted, no one else can actually see all those comments or likes – more importantly, no one can stumble across a story because a friend of a friend commented on it. If a story or dangerous idea does start to gain some traction, never fear – there’s also a massive army of bizzaro-trolls helping to push the dialogue in the right direction.

After all, China isn’t North Korea. Their strategy isn’t to ban everything, kill or jail everyone who complains, and tell people to shut up and eat their porridge. As far as I can see, their strategy is to ban some things, create nonthreatening versions of those things that will satisfy most people, allow just enough disconnected protest and dissent to serve as a pressure release valve, and then quietly silence the remainder.

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As to the future, no one seems to agree about much of anything when it comes to the Great Firewall. Reading about this is kind of like diagnosing yourself on WebMD: if you want to believe that the censors are fighting a losing battle and that the VPN revolution can’t be stopped, then there’s plenty to comfort yourself with. If you’re more of the mindset that the Great Firewall is working terrifyingly wellexpanding the blacklist, and is by no means destined for any kind of meaningful reform, then you’ve got your pick of articles as well.

But rather than getting morally outraged at a situation over which I have no control, I feel it’s worth separating principles from practical reality. In my case, the reality is that using the internet here has been essentially a positive experience, Netflix rage-outs notwithstanding. I pay less than a hundred bucks a year for the kind of high-speed connection my college self would have killed for – even as I write this, I’m sitting outside a cafe with about a dozen tabs open (including Facebook, Gmail, and the episode of Archer where Krieger turns Ray into a cyborg streaming merrily away).

Connection speeds aren’t anywhere near Korea levels, of course, but there’s perfectly adequate video-streaming-capable wifi just about everywhere you go in the major cities. As someone who misses a lot of things about the United States, I gotta say – the internet ain’t one of them. 

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One Reply to “beyond the firewall: tales from the cybercrypt”

  1. China is even planning to ban vpn’s from operating in the country but if they do, I think Astrill can still do something about it and won’t let us down.

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