Complete Guide to Censorship in China

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Aug 25, 2007, 12:42:11 AM8/25/07
"Tell me more about censorship in China? How on earth does it work?"
Asked Louise, when we had dinner together during his first trip to

Louise is not alone to ask the question about censorship. It is almost
always the first question people outside China ask me, either when
they arrive in China, or we meet in U.S. Censorship seems to be on the
top of the concerns people have about China. I answered the question
hundreds of times, so let me write an article on censorship in China
to answer all (well, most) censorship questions in details. There are
all kinds of censorship, and I will devote this article mainly on
Internet censorship in China.

<b>So What is Censorship?</b>

In generally, I would say censorship is a way to control what people
read and say (write). Censorship in its original meaning, is not
always a bad term. In some cases, it is the right thing to do, like
preventing children to see porn content. However, in the China
censorship context, it is really a bad thing again free of speech.

<b>How Internet Censorship Work</b>

Let's simply divide all websites into two big camps: websites in
China, and websites outside China. For websites inside China, the
government controls the web servers (physically), and for websites
outside China, they control the connections between computers in China
and these websites. Let me explain both of them.

<b>Sites inside China</b>

There are many regulations and laws to censor the content of the
websites. If you write anything "bad" (I will talk about what bad
means later) online, the police can easily get the IP address of the
server, and then locate the server (this is 100% accurate because all
telecom facility is provided by state-owned few telecom companies).
The simple way is just to call to the data center and ask someone
unplug the server from network, so the server is not accessible.

Although to find the person posting the content is not as easy or
effective, they can always find the company or person responsible for
the server, and punish the owner of the servers. That is the reason
why Internet hosting company, blog hosting company, or BBS owners
spend huge effort to censor the content even before the policemen do.
If there is anything going wrong, it is the site owners, instead of
the posters who are first caught.

To move the censorship a step further, the recent regulation requires
all bloggers to register their real name and national ID, or even
location before they can post on the Internet. This way, everyone will
think twice if they want to post any "bad" content. "Will a policeman
knock my door?" The answer is not negative.

<b>Sites outside China</b>

For websites outside China, the Chinese government completely has no
control. Since they cannot censor what people say or media reports in
free speech countries as they do in China, they control what people
inside China can read. They place equipments between the computers in
China, and the "bad" websites.

Let me tell you a little bit about how Internet in China works. China
and the world are connected by the major Internet cables (under ocean
or on land). For example, the Shanghai - San Francisco ocean cables
are the major one. The number of these cables are small (around 10 in
total, I guess), but the bandwidth is huge. All Internet traffic
between China and the world goes via these cables. If these cables
were cut (just as the case of Taiwan earthquake), China would be
completely isolated from the outside the world. So whether a website
is "inside or outside China" depends on whether it is at the China end
of the cable or the other end. Anyway, Internet is not as robust or
hard to control as people think.

So China government installed many network equipments at the China end
of the Internet cable and monitor every single Internet package coming
into or going out of China. If they find anything wrong, they simply
cut the connection between the two computers. This huge, infamous, and
mysterious project is called "The Great Firewall", or the GFW.

Besides word by word checking, they have filter to ban certain
websites as a whole. Some major news sites, human-right sites, and
even educational sites were blocked completely in China. Google, the
major search engine, for example, was conditionally blocked. You can
use it normally in China until you search for a "bad word" (again, I
will explain what bad means later), you will see "DNS error", and you
cannot access the same site in the next 5 minutes. After the 5-minute
punishment, you are free again until you hit the other bad word.

How the GFW works is not publicly known. From its behavior, it can
block IP addresses, or domains, or URLs and keywords. If your site is
blocked, it may not because of your content. Maybe you share the same
IP address of another websites in a shared web hosting environment. In
this case, switch to another hosting company solve the problem.

<b>The Impact of the Internet Censorship</b>

For people inside China, the impact is, they are not exposed to what
the rest of the world say. For many "sensitive" news in China, anyone
in the world knows except people in China. For history, people don't
know what really happened in China in the last century. For thoughts,
people lose independent thinking ability because of the consistency of
media message (no so-called "noises").

For visitors in China, they will get confused when they cannot access
certain websites or send email containing certain words. If they
operate sites in U.S., they may not be accessible from China and there
is no way to complain.

<b>So, what is the Bad Content?</b>

We talked about how censorship works and knows it is triggered by "bad
content". What type of the content is bad content? The answer may be
wired: nobody really knows!

There is no list of bad topic, or keyword at all. There is also no
guideline. Actually, if there were such a list, it is also treated as
top secret and spreading any list like this is also treated as "bad
content". In the Yahoo! case, the journalist were put into jail
because of such a list.

The more interesting thing is, the existence of censorship itself is a
banned topic that you cannot discuss in China. Any such discussion
will be deleted, and poster will get trouble. So you see the strange
situation like that one in the Emperor's New Cloth - everyone knows it
but nobody talks about it.

Typical bad contents include content deemed subversive, news site
reporting news outside what the official media, speech related to
freedom or democracy, or to history events that the government don't
want people to know.

People can only guess what is safe or what is not. Just because there
is no clear line, people turn to be more and more conservative to
avoid any trouble. So does the blog hosting companies, or online
forums companies.


The Censorship is strengthen these years. Ironically, more investment
was made to enhance censorship using the money of tax payers to
control tax payers. There are some workaround for this, although not
everyone knows.

To find an open anonymous proxy is the typical way people do. There
are also some P2P based proxy engine like Tor that can break the
Internet filter, so people can access websites outside China. However,
any technology does not help at all for websites in China.

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