A LADDER OVER THE GREAT CYBER WALL

Image Wednesday 24 October 2018 at 14.35.jpg

China employs a sophisticated system of online censorship. Yet a young programmer was able to jump the Great Firewall with a simple plugin, which is now available to all.

Text: Remko Tanis

in Shanghai, China

He’s young - just turned 25. Goatee, scruffy hair, jeans. Nothing that makes him stand out in this Shanghai cafe. At least, if you don’t count the fact that he’s one of the first to have written free software which makes it extremely easy for anyone to circumvent the massive internet censorship in China.

Back when Lee Xieheng was still in university, he heard for the first time how the 1989 student protests on Tiananmen Square had made global headlines. And that many countries still judge China’s government for sending the army to quiet unarmed students.

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

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

“I had never read anything about that anywhere,” says Lee. “Not in books, not when searching online. But I felt I had to push on and find out what really happened. It took all night before I finally found a way to get around the Chinese web censorship. Once I did that, I spent hours reading about the 1989 protests and how they ended violently. I saw the photos. They brought me to tears. I was so disappointed in my country’s leaders.”

He’s one of a relative small group of Chinese who are aware of the tight controls Beijing has on media and the online world. With a sophisticated system nicknamed The Great Firewall, the government filters out any information deemed too sensitive. Topics like unease in Tibet and Xinjiang or pollution in Beijing are being washed out and hardly ever reach the average web user.

 VPN software like Astrill allows users to go around blocks on the web, by rerouting their surfing through servers in dozens of countries. (C) Remko Tanis

VPN software like Astrill allows users to go around blocks on the web, by rerouting their surfing through servers in dozens of countries. (C) Remko Tanis

Lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan was, in 2007, the first to take the government censors to court. He filed a case to undo the block authorities had put on the website of his law firm. The site got censored after Liu posted a piece against corruption.

Then Chen Yuhua took the government to court, protesting the censorship of his popular website on pets. Chen had written a post there, criticizing a new rule forbidding dogs taller than 35 centimeters, which the municipal government in Beijing had implemented.

Pan Liang, author of children’s books, also has no idea why his site got shut down. An engineer in Shanghai has sued China Telecom. He’s mad because the company forgot to tell him his new internet subscription would only give access to a websites green lit by the government.

The easy software Lee Xieheng wrote could be of help to all of them. It’s called Gladder: a ladder to scale the Great Firewall and surf the free web. It accesses servers abroad, so users can visit blocked websites.

 Download page for Gladder, the Firefox plugin Lee built. Last updated in 2009. (C) Remko Tanis

Download page for Gladder, the Firefox plugin Lee built. Last updated in 2009. (C) Remko Tanis

In the weeks since Gladder’s been up, it has been downloaded over 200 thousand times. That means only a very small fraction of online Chinese are looking to get around the government censorship. After all: there’s an abundance of content and services tailored to local users available within the Great Firewall.

Since Gladder only reaches a relative small number of users, Lee isn’t worried the government will come after him. “I don’t mean any harm,” he says. “All I want is to be able to read the truth. That’s not too much to ask, is it?”