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Last week, discussions on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre flared up across social media. Most of these discussions, on banned sites like Twitter and Facebook, were censored by the Chinese government, which historically cracks down on Tiananmen mentions. But there was an exception—Reddit, despite hosting prominent critical discussions of Tiananmen, remains accessible to Chinese internet users. Outliers like Reddit raise questions about censorship decisions that are tough for even decades-long observers to answer: Why are certain sites blocked or unblocked? What are the guidelines to government censorship?

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“No Rhyme or Reason” to Censorship

By Karen Yuan

In March of 2010, a pseudonymous user appeared in a clandestine online forum where thousands of Chinese journalists and activists were discussing freedom of speech. The user claimed to have insider information on the workings of China’s Great Firewall, sharing details in a tell-all thread. Other users swarmed the thread with eager questions, and neglected users appealed to the forum moderator, “Water my post!” After a few days of responding to their inquiries, the alleged insider disappeared.

Entire organizations and sophisticated tools have been developed to help people navigate and understand the Great Firewall. And now, under President Xi Jinping, the Firewall seems to have evolved. Censorship in China has heightened, heavily targeting dissidents and criticism. "Before Xi Jinping, we feared only that they would delete our posts. In the worst situation, they would delete [your account]," the academic Qiao Mu told The Guardian in 2015. "But since Xi Jinping came to power, this changed. They began to arrest people." That forum was later shut down after its creator was arrested.

It’s difficult to figure out how Chinese censorship works in detail; there aren’t many loose-lipped censors with rogue streaks out there. The seeming randomness of censorship decisions can add to the confusion. Reddit, for example, a popular site rife with political content, remains accessible in China. Yet Medium and Pinterest are blocked. The site’s lack of popularity in China might be a factor, experts told me, yet Snapchat was blocked in 2014, when it was only just becoming popular even in the United States. But that variability, confusing as it may be, is also a clue to how the Firewall works behind the scenes.

How the Great Firewall works

The team behind the Great Firewall is a technical unit that doesn’t decide what gets censored on its own—orders come in from a variety of government agencies. That’s where it gets complicated, because it’s hard for outsiders to know which agency makes which requests. “Those different agencies all have different agendas,” Xiao Qiang, a professor at the School of Information at UC Berkeley, told me. “It’s nearly impossible to know what they are.”

“Charlie Smith,” the pseudonymous founder of GreatFire, a censorship watchdog organization, has noticed a few trends among the tens of thousands of blocked domains GreatFire monitors:

  • Once a site is blocked, it rarely becomes unblocked.

  • The usual targets are sites depicting pornography or violence, social sites like YouTube and Facebook, and news sites.

  • Sites featuring content related to new political events get banned pretty quickly.

Which brings me back to the Reddit question. How could a social news site that often features pornographic, violent, and political content skirt the Great Firewall? Perhaps it’s luck, surmised Anne Henochowicz, an editor at the Los Angeles Book Review’s China Channel. “If there hasn’t been something [on Reddit] to really catch anyone’s attention, that allows it to stay under the radar. Maybe it just slipped through the cracks,” she said.

“It’s not like the [censors] have a certain mercy,” said Xiao. He suspects it’s hard for the Great Firewall to ban websites in a regimented way, because the requests come from multiple agencies. These requests can conflict with one another, or suddenly change. Xiao, who maintains a list of banned websites in China, says his list needs to be updated every few months. In the end, “there is no rhyme nor reason behind what gets blocked and why,” added Smith.

Sometimes, though, one reason for a censorship decision does seem to emerge clearly: damage control. Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter were accessible in China until 2009, when information on riots in the Xinjiang autonomous region began to spread across social media. Instagram was accessible until 2014, when Umbrella Movement activists in Hong Kong started posting photos from protests. “I think it’s often very reactive,” Henochowicz said. “Something blows up on the internet, and they decide that too many people are talking about it.”

Beyond the Great Firewall

In Smith’s experience, the Chinese government has sharper tools than the blunt instrument of the Great Firewall to short-circuit the spread of information. “They likely have an unused arsenal waiting in the wings,“ Smith said. In 2015, servers that GreatFire had rented from Amazon Web Services came under a Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack. Technical researchers found that the Chinese government likely carried out the attack using a new offensive tool the researchers called the Great Cannon. “Amazon Web Services was too valuable to block, so they attacked it instead,” Smith surmised.

Companies can also adopt a few approaches to avoiding blocks, such as adapting to censorship requirements. Skype, for example, owned by Microsoft, partnered with a Chinese company that operates the service in a way that complies with the government’s regulations. A company can also provide a service necessary enough to Chinese users that it persists as it is: GitHub, a platform hosting uncensored, freely accessible code, is important to Chinese developers. But these approaches aren’t foolproof. The recent news that Microsoft has acquired GitHub has raised questions about potential government restrictions on the site. And lately, Skype was pulled from app stores in China.

The very ambiguity about what does and doesn’t get censored is part of what makes the censorship as effective as it is. “[The government] likes the unpredictability,” said Xiao. “That’s their way of control.”

How the Great Firewall Has Evolved

Atlantic national correspondent James Fallows has reported extensively from China on censorship. Two of his stories for The Atlantic, one from 2008, and one from nearly a decade later in 2016, together depict how the Great Firewall has changed over the years under Xi Jinping.

In 2008, in the spring before the Beijing Olympics, Jim observed some holes in the Firewall:

[Foreigners will] likely be surprised, then, to notice that China’s Internet seems surprisingly free and uncontrolled. Can they search for information about “Tibet independence” or “Tiananmen shooting” or other terms they have heard are taboo? Probably—and they’ll be able to click right through to the controversial sites. Even if they enter the Chinese-language term for “democracy in China,” they’ll probably get results. What about Wikipedia, famously off-limits to users in China? They will probably be able to reach it. Naturally the visitors will wonder: What’s all this I’ve heard about the “Great Firewall” and China’s tight limits on the Internet?

By winter of 2016, those holes had been sealed up:

China’s internet, always censored and firewalled, is now even more strictly separated from the rest of the world’s than ever before, and becoming more so. China’s own internet companies (Baidu as a search engine rather than Google, WeChat for Twitter) are more heavily censored. Virtual private networks and other work-arounds, tolerated a decade ago—the academic who invented China’s “Great Firewall” system of censorship even bragged about the six VPNs he used to keep up on foreign developments—are now under governmental assault. When you find a network that works, you dare not mention its name on social media or on a website that could alert the government to its existence. “It’s an endless cat-and-mouse,” the founder of a California-based VPN company, which I’m deliberately not identifying, recently told me. “We figure out a new route or patch, and then they notice that people are using us and they figure out how to block it. Eventually they wear most users down.”

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