Remko Tanis • 14 January 2019

The Chinese government’s system of internet censorship, The Great Firewall, has been around for ages. It blocks access to sites which the authorities deem harmful, like Twitter, Facebook, Google, YouTube, the New York Times… the list is long and mostly predictable.


For about as long as the Great Firewall has been around, it’s been fairly easy to jump over it from within China and surf around the unfiltered web. The most common way to do this is by using a VPN service.

Illegal? Yeah. But who’s paying attention?

Astrill VPN software running a server in China.

Astrill VPN software running a server in China.

For a long time, not the Cyberspace Administration of China - the branch of the government that regulates the internet. That is changing, though.

Oiwen Lam over at Global Voices writes about two Chinese citizens who are currently facing punishment for using VPNs to go online.

The New York Times reports on Twitter users in China now being detained and threatened. Going on Twitter has long been illegal, but here as well the authorities are starting to actually clamp down on citizens violating that ban.

To put things in perspective: a tiny, tiny minority of internet users in China feel the need to jump the Great Firewall. They have everything an average person anywhere wants from the internet right in the walled off Chinese cyberspace. Plenty of Chinese online services now even make apps by the usual suspects in Silicon Valley seem desperately outdated.

One of the first pieces I did from China, in 2008, was an interview with a young coder who had written a plugin for the Firefox browser. It was free to download and allowed people in China to scale the Great Firewall and visit the web uncensored.

Internet censorship in China: blocked websites return white screens. (C) Remko Tanis

Internet censorship in China: blocked websites return white screens. (C) Remko Tanis

That story is here. Back then the coder, Lee Xieheng, said he wasn’t worried about the government coming after him for writing the software, since only a very small fraction of internet users in China had downloaded it.

Not so sure he’d get away with it in 2019.