After studying abroad in South Korea, Xi Yang wanted to stay in touch with the friends she'd made. Yang, who lives in China, knew that the Chinese government blocked access to outside social networking sites via what is officially known as the Golden Shield Project, and somewhat less officially known as the Great Firewall. But she was able to access them anyway. In fact, it wasn't even that difficult.
Yang would regularly log onto web sites supposedly off-limits to Chinese citizens by using a virtual private network (VPN), which routed, or "tunneled," her data through an encrypted channel to a service network outside of China, where she could access sites such as Facebook and YouTube. Personal VPNs are relatively inexpensive; the cheapest are free, the most expensive cost about $15 a month. It’s not uncommon for a personal VPN service to stop abruptly, but nor it is difficult to switch to another service. People generally pay for speed and reliability.
The Chinese government knows people use VPNs to sidestep censorship, and they work to shut down VPN services — but plenty still operate for two main reasons: One, VPNs are crucial for commerce. And two, China has successfully replicated social-media services such as Facebook (Ren Ren), Twitter (Weibo), and Google chat (QQ). Why does that matter?
“You can go on QQ or Weibo and get on right away — it’s convenient,” Yang, who no longer bothers to use a VPN, told VICE News. “But when you go on Facebook, you need to load VPN software. It’s inconvenient.”
VPNs aren't useful only for checking Facebook. They're also important tools for businesses that wish to operate in China, and so therefore they're tolerated by the government. It's one reason a 2013 report from the Open Internet Tools Project called the loopholes Chinese citizens are able to exploit to access the internet "collateral freedom." In addition to VPNs, people use GoAgent, a proxy that runs on Google’s cloud-hosting platform. It re-routes traffic to another computer and disguises internet activity by making it appear as though the user is using the remote computer. Chinese Internet users often utilize Google or Amazon services to bypass censorship because both companies host major consumer online services, and for the Chinese government, the economic importance of that commerce supersedes the need to censor the internet.
“The government recognizes economic interest at play and wants to foster innovation and creativity on the ground,” said Jason Ng, research fellow at the University of Toronto and author of the book Blocked on Weibo. “It’s one of the techniques used by businesses to persuade the government to open the internet.”
The government really does listen. In 2013, China blocked Github, a website on which developers from all over the world share code and ideas. China immediately felt the backlash from its tech community because people were unable to do their jobs without the resource. The site was promptly unblocked.
Last November, the government blocked Reuters for publishing a story about JPMorgan Chase's ties to a consulting firm run by Wen Jiabao's daughter. Great Fire, an organization that tracks China's censorship activity, created a mirror site for Reuters on an Amazon server. China couldn't block the mirror site without blocking other Amazon services. So they didn't bother.
“We haven’t invented the wheel,” said Great Fire founder Charlie Smith of his company's strategy to mirror on an e-commerce site. “But the idea has come of age. Five years ago, people in China were not using web services, so if we had done this five years ago, the government would have blocked those services.”
Since then, Great Fire has created mirror sites for Free Weibo — a replica of China’s microblogging site that includes posts removed by the government — and China Digital Times.
These may be victories for freedom, but China’s Great Firewall isn't meant to be airtight. Its goal is really to discourage, not completely prevent, the average Chinese citizen from discussing topics the government deems inflammatory and from accessing sensitive information. It does so by making the process costly and slow, and by making it appear impossible to the average person.
“The government wants to cause friction and add a cost to jumping [the firewall]," Ng explains. “If you use circumvention software, your internet connection becomes slower. The barriers add up. College-age people in China are aware of the software and have friends who tell them about services, but the majority of people in China don't know how to evade censorship.”
That said, the government is continually moving toward more technically sophisticated means of surgically blocking unwanted sites or posts without harming commerce. In late 2012, the government passed a policy called real-name registration, which requires “website access services” and “information publication services” to collect the full names of each user who posts or accesses information on their website or web service. It’s unclear how effective the registration policy has been, but Ng says China wants a stricter registration policy as a means to distinguish between internet use it wants — for instance, financial companies accessing Bloomberg terminals — and internet use it does not want, like college students reading the New York Times. The government is also working to distinguish between personal VPNs and business VPNs.
Ultimately, indifference may be the government's most effective weapon. Chinese citizens aren't all politically active dissidents hungry for international news and video. They're like anyone else — impatient people who want to connect with friends and colleagues. And according to Fei Wei, a Shanghai native and current Wharton business school student who used VPNs in China, the ability to do so is enough for most.
"Amongst those who have their social networks in China,” she says, "most people just don't care."