“Many thought the internet would bring democracy to China. Instead it has empowered government surveillance and control beyond Mao Zedong’s dreams. Now, the censors are turning their attention to the rest of the world,” James Griffiths writes in his upcoming book The Great Firewall of China: How to Build and Control an Alternate Version of the Internet.

The book, set to be released on Friday, is an exhaustive account of the development of the internet in China over recent decades, from its humble origins in a Beijing laboratory in 1987, to the colossal infrastructure it has become today. Griffiths, a journalist who has spent several years in China, carefully dissects the events that have led up to the current model of censorship in China: crude, fragile, and remarkably effective.

James Griffiths
James Griffiths. Photo: Michael Chung.

But while The Great Firewall provides an account of the past, it also serves as a stark warning for the future of internet control, one that extends beyond the firewall and across the world.

Controlled, not closed

Griffith notes that when foreigners first arrive in China, they are often surprised at how unrestrained the internet appears there. The Great Firewall, it seems, is much less of a wall than it is a chain-link fence, perforated by holes to peer through.

This view is substantiated by the widespread use of VPNs, or virtual private networks – a readily available tool that enables users to privately reroute their connection to bypass the firewall.

VPNs are essential to all foreign businesses in China, which explains why authorities have so far tolerated the loophole, bar the occasional “crackdown.” Under new licensing regulations unveiled in 2017, the government called on internet users to only use state-approved VPNs. And again, in the run-up to the annual National People’s Congress’s “two sessions” meeting in Beijing on Tuesday, VPN-users struggled to connect to the service as authorities tightened their control on surveillance.

“It’s more about keeping a level of fear about using VPNs and a chilling effect of trying to get around the firewall,” Griffiths says. “The goal is not a closed internet; I’d say the goal is a controlled internet.”

The Great Firewall of China
‘The Great Firewall of China: How to Build and Control an Alternate Version of the Internet’ by James Griffiths.

Griffiths points out our essential misunderstanding of the nature and purpose of the firewall up until now, that is, it is much less about creating a closed internet than it is about maintaining control. This is particularly relevant in terms of preventing collective organisation online.

“For all of its reformed economic policies and talk of being a successful capitalist country, China is run by a communist party [that] understands the importance of solidarity and organisation, especially among workers,” the author explains.

“The problem for the government comes when those people start to link up, and when they start to have a grander vision of the problems in society and organise to create an alternative,” he added. “And one of the most effective means I would say the Chinese Communist Party has in staying in control is the there is no viable alternative.”

It is this level of control that has kept Western companies from successfully entering the Chinese internet market so far, despite many attempts to do so. Users may remember Google’s short-lived Chinese search engine, which was shut down in 2010 amid a spate of cyber attacks coupled with the government’s harsh censorship policies.

YouTube video

So what has since become of Google China? Its latest effort to build a censored search engine under the secretive codename “Dragonfly” appeared for a time to be dead in the water. But on Tuesday the Intercept reported that Google employees had found ongoing work on a batch of code associated with the China search engine. 

Since its initial reporting, the controversial project has served as a clear warning to Silicon Valley tech companies of the concessions that they would have to make to break into China’s lucrative market.

“I think what freaked people out about Dragonfly was a very good example: these are the types of compromises that a company like Google would have to make to get into China. And I think they probably would’ve have been prepared to make more compromises,” Griffiths explained. “That’s why I push back against people when they talk about companies like Facebook and Google going into China.”

In spite of restrictions, large Western companies continue to make efforts to enter China – the New York Times reported last month that Facebook had partnered with a local Shenzhen-based company to build its local presence through advertising on its platform, despite having been blocked in 2009.

“There is no way Facebook as we currently recognise it would exist in China,” Griffiths warns.

A threat to global internet freedom

If one thing is clear from the book, it’s that the Great Firewall is as much about Chinese censorship as it is about global internet freedom. 

Internet shudowns
Photo: Access Now.

The past decade has seen the country’s model of government-controlled cyberspace exported to other regimes in an effort to rein in dissent.

“Beijing’s censorship tactics and internet shutdowns have spread well beyond the country’s borders, gleefully adopted by autocratic regimes the world over,” Griffiths writes, pointing to the prolific use of restrictive filters and mass internet blackouts in countries at times of social and political turbulence.

Just last month, no less than five African governments temporarily cut off internet access: Zimbabwe, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, and Gabon.

“It’s kind of a nuclear option and indicative that these countries don’t have as sophisticated an internet control system as China does. But at the same time, it shows that they have the desire to control the internet,” Griffiths said.

And for wannabe censors, the Great Firewall acts as a shining example of how to maintain a tight grip on the flow of information online. Take the sprawling surveillance state of Xinjiang, a northwestern province of China populated predominantly by Muslim Uighurs, who are subject to extreme security measures – the extent of which was revealed by a data leak last Wednesday of 2.6 million residents, whose information had been collected by a Chinese technology firm.

In 2009, after a series of violent riots in Urumqi, Chinese authorities cut off internet access in the region for ten months.

“If you cut off the entire internet, people can’t organise,” Griffiths explains. “They can’t message each other, they can’t call more people out to the streets.” 

The use of social media to spur people into action is precisely what took place during the 2014 pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong when shared images of tear-gassed students drew an estimated 100,000 people to the streets. But looking back on the protests, Griffiths questions whether the crowds would be as large if it happened today.

“There is a much higher potential cost of attending a protest today than there was even ten years ago, probably even five years ago,” he said. “Even in Hong Kong, where we have a relatively free society, there are police everywhere holding video cameras, filming the protesters.”

“That massively raises the stakes because you’re not an anonymous person any more. You’re there potentially committing a crime.”

Under Hong Kong’s controversial Public Order Ordinance, a law criticised for curbing freedom of assembly, protesters can face a maximum sentence of up to ten years’ imprisonment for the charge of “rioting,” as with the cases of 36 demonstrators involved in the 2016 Mong Kok unrest.

As global internet freedom faces an uncertain future, Griffiths ends on a vision of a democratic internet. He imagines an alternative version that is user-controlled, built on the principles of freedom and solidarity espoused by its early founders. The question remains, will it become a reality?

The Great Firewall of China: How to Build and Control an Alternative Version of the Internet, by James Griffiths, is available with free delivery to Hong Kong via Book Depository from March 15.

Jennifer Creery is a Hong Kong-born British journalist, interested in minority rights and urban planning. She holds a BA in English at King's College London and has studied Mandarin at National Taiwan University.