Once little more than a glorified porn filter, China’s ‘Great Firewall’ has evolved into the most sophisticated system of online censorship in the world. Even as the Chinese internet grows and online businesses thrive, speech is controlled, dissent quashed, and any attempts to organize outside the official Communist Party are quickly stamped out. Some are able to bypass the wall using VPNs, but this creates further a further divide between an intellectual class and the population at large, as those without the resources or digital knowhow are left in the dark. And there are hints that President Xi Jinping will soon fill in these leaks in the wall. As censorship, distortion, and fake news gain traction around the world, James Griffiths takes a look inside the Great Firewall and explores just how far it has spread. He looks at how internet giants like Google and Facebook are bowing to pressure and agreeing to compromise internet freedoms in pursuit of the burgeoning Chinese market. Griffiths also shows how the spread of Chinese influence around the globe is tied to an increasing worldwide crackdown in online freedom. One of China’s most insidious exports are its censorship techniques, and its Firewall is an inspiration for aspiring autocrats the world over. Griffiths pushes back on the longstanding excuse that the internet is too big to be contained and makes the case that censorship tools are becoming more sophisticated at the very same time that users are becoming more complacent. His book is a caution to anyone who believes in a free and open internet and call to action for a radical new vision of online liberty.
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About the Author
James Griffiths is a reporter and producer for CNN International, currently based in Hong Kong. He has reported from Hong Kong, China, South Korea, and Australia for outlets including the Atlantic, Vice, and the Daily Beast. He was previously a reporter and assistant editor at the South China Morning Post, where he played a key role in the paper’s award winning coverage of the 2014 Umbrella Movement protests in Hong Kong.
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Solidarity from Hong Kong to Tiananmen
Bereft of people, Hong Kong's Civic Square is an ugly sight. Three concentric rings of concrete expand outward from a circular pedestal, on top of which sit two flagpoles with their banners hanging limply, the buildings looming on all sides preventing them receiving anything like a breeze. The entrance to the square is uglier still: a tall metal fence, sharp-tipped poles clustered close together, bookended by two squat, rectangular buildings with frosted glass windows inside which security guards take note of visitors.
The square, which sits in front of the central government offices in the busy business district of Admiralty, was intended as a way to bring the city's officials and people closer together. As a spot for protests and rallies, former Hong Kong chief executive Donald Tsang promised it would act as a reminder for future governments to "be liberal, open minded and proactively solicit public opinion at all times". But when public opinion proved more often than not to be critical of government policies, and people used their proximity to power to complain about the numerous ways in which it was exercised poorly in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory, those in charge of Civic Square had a change of heart. And so Hong Kong's administrators, following a tried and tested pattern, looked at the hornets' nest sitting outside their windows – annoying and potentially dangerous, but contained and predictable – and decided to kick it. By locking the square off from the public, they turned an ugly, boring stretch of concrete into a symbol of democracy and political participation, and created a magnet for future protests.
It was inevitable, then, that in September 2014, as the city was gripped by an upsurge of anti-government anger and desire for political reform, the square would be targeted. Despite this, and despite frequent calls in the preceding weeks for the square to be reopened, authorities were apparently taken by surprise when – on the night of 26 September – several hundred university and high-school students broke off from a larger pro-democracy rally and stormed Civic Square. The police responded with anger and violence, hitting protesters with batons and shields, and dousing their faces in pepper spray. Here, again, authoritarian overreach inadvertently created an icon that would be used against it. Many of the protesters were carrying umbrellas to protect themselves from the torrential rain that is an inevitable part of Hong Kong summers, and they unfurled them now to shield against the pepper spray. The protest had its symbol, and a name: the Umbrella Movement.
Throughout the following day, police and demonstrators fought for the square, and many protest leaders were dragged off and bundled into police vans. Images of the protesters defying pepper spray with spindly, fold-up umbrellas spread online, particularly on Facebook and Instagram, which was swiftly blocked in China. On WhatsApp and online bulletin boards, calls for support went out, and thousands more protesters began converging on Admiralty. Soon, the police at Civic Square found that they were the ones surrounded and in need of reinforcements. As the number of protesters grew into the tens of thousands, they shut down roads around the square, leaving the six-lane Connaught Road highway empty of traffic and seething with people.
At 5.57pm on 28 September, the first tear gas canister was fired. More followed in quick succession. By the end of the night the police had fired eighty-seven canisters in total, but the tear gas had the opposite effect to that intended. Instead of dispersing the crowds, it bolstered and emboldened them. Those who were on the sidelines of the protest joined it in outrage at the use of the gas, including the parents of many students on the streets. The shock and fury over the police action was palpable. Many did not recognise the city they lived in. A middle-aged friend of mine, no bleeding heart liberal, wrote on Facebook that the gas was pointless as "we have no more tears left to cry", and others expressed similar feelings of dismay. Thousands of protesters flooded the streets and drove the police back.
When I arrived at the Connaught Road camp a couple hours after the first tear gas canister had been fired, the protesters were in full control. The street was an undulating mass of people, glistening with sweat and giddy with excitement. The occasional blast from a megaphone was the only thing to rise above the intense din of the crowd as people chattered excitedly in disbelief at what they had done, what they were doing. The summer heat in Hong Kong is oppressive and intense, sitting on top of your lungs and sucking sweat from every part of your body. As I passed through the crowd, I gratefully accepted a bottle of water from a man passing them out from a large plastic-wrapped pack. Others handed out goggles or scarves to protect from tear gas, and crates of umbrellas were scattered throughout the protest camp, like arrows for medieval archers.
I walked west towards Central district and the front line. On the way, I passed a double-decker bus that had been abandoned by its driver when he couldn't make it through the crush of people. Aside from its number, which had been changed into an insult against the city's leader, it was unmolested. A few tired protesters sat inside; several were asleep. Following the highway up onto an overpass, I reached the edge of the protest camp and saw riot police for the first time. A line of shields stood across the bottom of the road, where the highway merged into regular streets again. Behind them, in dark-green uniforms, black gas masks and helmets, stood a hundred or so police. They had parked their vans behind them. The message was clear: this was as far as the protesters would come. They were wrong.
As I stood between the protesters and police, a tear gas canister flew over my head and exploded near the front of the crowd. As they screamed and moved back, their hands raised in the air in a show of non-violence, two more canisters were fired. Thick white smoke billowed out and I felt it begin to clog up my throat and burn my sinuses, nose and eyes. Tear gas doesn't so much make you cry as make your entire face expel liquid. I coughed as mucus poured out of my nose and my eyes streamed. I retreated back up the slope, where a protester helped douse my face with water. By the time I was free of the worst effects of the gas, the protesters below me had already rallied. The police had barely advanced at all, and those in the crowd with the foresight to be wearing goggles and masks walked calmly towards them again, making up the ground that had been lost.
Several more times, the police fired tear gas and tried to clear the crowd. But, maybe because they realised that a couple of hundred riot police were never going to be able to arrest the 30,000 or so protesters in between them and Admiralty, they never advanced far. Eventually they gave up and retreated entirely, leaving the streets to the protesters.
Those protesters would hold parts of the city for seventy-nine days. On the ground, they set up camps, classrooms, internet cafes and refreshment stands, while online, via instant messaging, Facebook and popular bulletin boards such as HK Golden, they planned the next stage of the occupation and organised against police actions and attacks by pro-China groups. Amid fears that the authorities would cut off telephone services, protesters installed apps such as FireChat, which allowed them to communicate via Bluetooth. Expressions of support and solidarity poured in from around the world, with one projector beaming messages submitted online onto a large wall near the main protest camp.
After their initial burst of violence backfired so spectacularly, the authorities switched to a gradual war of attrition, conducting sporadic clearance operations to chip away at the size of the camps that had sprung up in Admiralty, Causeway Bay and Mong Kok, and attacking the students in the media, casting them as enemies of normal Hong Kongers, disrupters of their lives. The last protesters were eventually cleared on 11 December, carried away singing pro-democracy songs, leaving behind a rough detritus of barricades, umbrellas and signs. A huge orange banner read: "It's just the beginning."
This was a common sentiment. And, indeed, despite the initial dejection over the sparse successes of the Umbrella Movement, it had a huge effect on Hong Kong politics, awakening a swath of young voters thought previously to be largely apathetic. Their influence was felt in parliamentary elections two years later, which saw a record turnout as more than 2 million voters in a city of just over 7 million returned a radically more pro-democracy and anti-Beijing legislature than ever before. Three months after the September vote, Leung Chun-ying, the much loathed chief executive who was the focus of much of the Umbrella protests, announced that he would not run for a second term, a move hailed as a victory by nearly all pro-democracy activists.
The protests had a profound effect on Hong Kong society and will be seen as a pivotal point in the city's history in decades to come. They were powerful not only because of the success of the organisers in getting hundreds of thousands to come out into the streets, but because the conversation around the protests and the expressions of solidarity with their demands were able to continue and evolve thanks to Hong Kong's relatively free media and, more importantly, the internet. Discussions of Hong Kong independence, which grew from a fringe idea before the Umbrella protests to a major influence on local politics, took place online, and a host of new publications catering to the 'Umbrella generation' were launched and thrived through social media. The new crop of young legislators, under near unceasing attack from the pro-Beijing establishment across a variety of fronts, was able to reach out directly to voters via Facebook and messaging apps, mobilising protests and shows of solidarity whenever needed.
Twenty-five years earlier, another group of students gathered on the streets of a different Chinese city. The climate in Beijing in 1989 was similar to that in Hong Kong in the months before the Umbrella Movement, as young people gathered to debate political reform and plot the way forward. Just as the Hong Kong students were inspired by a freewheeling press and academic culture protected by the city's constitution and guaranteed by the 'one country, two systems' agreement that underpinned it, the Tiananmen movement sprang from a remarkable period of openness and reflection in China. Many students who gathered on the square were inspired by the 1988 television programme 'River Elegy', which argued that China had become backward and oppressive and called for Western-style reform and modernisation. "After the Cultural Revolution, liberal thought began to sprout," legendary Chinese journalist Yang Jisheng said decades later. "Liberalism was an attack on one-party rule – it was the wish for democracy, the wish for rule of law, the wish for respect for the constitution."
The Hong Kong protests began with the wildcat takeover of Civic Square and quickly spiralled into something far bigger. Tiananmen began in early 1989 as an expression of mourning, as thousands gathered in the square to mark the death of reformist Party leader Hu Yaobang and use it as an opportunity to voice dissatisfaction with the government and the progress of reform. Students also took to the streets in Nanjing and Shanghai, as the unrest began to spread and anger grew. The People's Daily, the official Party mouthpiece, threw fuel on the fire with an editorial in late April denouncing the student movement, and accusing it of creating "turmoil". Just as the tear gas in Hong Kong years later would have the opposite effect to that intended, the Party's dismissal of the students' demands brought tens of thousands more demonstrators to the street. Protests continued into May, and the students became a permanent feature in Tiananmen. Without the internet, news about the struggle in Beijing spread much slower to the rest of the country, but it was carried by word of mouth and delegations sent to major cities to help 'spread the fire'. State media also did not take a consistent line against the students, with some reformist newspapers breaking with The People's Daily and voicing support for the protests. As the end of May approached, the turmoil that had begun in the capital risked spreading to the entire country, and the central leadership took an increasingly harder line. On 19 May, Zhao Ziyang, the popular reformist general secretary of the Party who advocated dialogue with the students, visited the square and apologised for having "come too late". Zhao was soon sidelined by the hardliners and placed under house arrest. The next day, Premier Li Peng declared martial law in Beijing.
On the square in late May, as numbers were dropping in the face of seemingly inevitable violence, student leaders discussed how to proceed even as the Party seemed to dither on taking action. Only years later did it emerge that paramount leader Deng Xiaoping and others who supported a crackdown faced defiance from within the Party leadership and the military, staying their hand for a time. Finally, on 3 June, more than 10,000 armed troops moved towards Beijing. "Their large numbers, the fact that they are helmeted, and the automatic weapons they are carrying suggest that the force option is real," a US State Department cable warned.
Hundreds were killed and thousands arrested as the People's Liberation Army (PLA) cleared protesters from the streets of the Chinese capital with tanks and sniper rifles. As the smoke cleared over Tiananmen Square, the Party machinery went into overdrive, ensuring that similar protests could never happen again. Hundreds of student leaders fled the country, either to Hong Kong, then still a British colony, or further afield; most would never be able to return. Many more were arrested or fired from their jobs – even people whose involvement in the protests was negligible. Zhao Ziyang stayed under house arrest in Beijing until his death in 2005.
In the years that followed, Tiananmen was stamped out of the historical record. Those who took part in it were obliged to forget, or face the consequences. They didn't talk about the protests with their children, who never learned anything of them in school. Even among those who lived through 1989, counterfactuals and half-truths were common, as propaganda spread false accounts to poison the historical record and introduce uncertainty. The students were denounced as violent anarchists who had attacked and murdered soldiers. The fact that no casualties occurred in the square itself, but in the surrounding streets as residents and protesters attempted to slow the PLA's advance, was given as supposed proof that the final death toll was exaggerated. Most of all, it was argued, even by those who recognised the horrors experienced in Beijing, that China's subsequent prosperity and modernity retroactively justified the crackdown; that without Deng's firm hand in 1989, he would not have been able to oversee subsequent reforms that led to an economic boom.
The Party's grip on history was near absolute. And then the internet came to China.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Great Firewall of China"
Copyright © 2019 James Griffiths.
Excerpted by permission of Zed Books Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Author's note ix
Acronyms and abbreviations xi
Introduction: Early warnings 1
Part 1 Wall
1 Protests: Solidarity from Hong Kong to Tiananmen 15
2 Over the wall: China's first email and the rise of the online censor 23
3 Nailing the jello: Chinese democracy and the Great Firewall 35
4 Enemy at the gates: How fear of Falun Gong boosted the Firewall 45
5 Searching for an opening: Google, Yahoo and Silicon Valley's moral failing in China 61
Part 2 Shield
6 Along came a spider: Lu Wei reins in the Chinese internet 71
7 Peak traffic: Getting the Dalai Lama online 83
8 Filtered: The Firewall catches up with Da Cankao 89
9 Jumping the wall: FreeGate, UltraSurf, and Falun Gong's fight against the censors 95
10 Called to account: Silicon Valley's reckoning on Capitol Hill 115
Part 3 Sword
11 Uyghurs online: Ilham Tohti and the birth of the Uyghur internet 131
12 Shutdown: How to take 20 million people offline 143
13 Ghosts in the machine: Chinese hackers expand the Firewall's reach 159
14 NoGuGe: The ignominious end of Google China 165
15 The social network: Weibo and the last free-speech platform 175
16 Gorillas in the mist: Exposing China's hackers to the world 185
Part 4 War
17 Caught: The death of the Uyghur internet 195
18 Key opinion leader: How Chinese trolls go after dissidents overseas 203
19 Root and stem: The internet is more vulnerable than you think 217
20 The censor at the UN: China's undermining of global internet freedoms 227
21 Sovereignty: When Xi Jinping came for the internet 239
22 Friends in Moscow: The Great Firewall goes west 247
23 Plane crash: China helps Russia bring Telegram to heel 259
24 One app to rule them all: How WeChat opened up new frontiers of surveillance and censorship 275
25 Buttocks: Uganda's internet blackouts follow Beijing's lead 285
Epilogue: Silicon Valley won't save you 307
Selected bibliography 369