China: A Crack in the Great Firewall

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For China, online censorship is no longer just about cutting off a flood of information from international news outlets. Now, it’s about plugging a billion little leaks in the Great Firewall. And that’s proving an increasingly difficult task.

In managing the thousands of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong’s financial district, some of the censors’ tried and true tactics still work. Google Transparency data shows several sudden drops in mobile connectivity in Hong Kong over the past few days, suggesting a police shutdown of mobile networks.

But the growing popularity of VPNs, WeChat, and other workarounds has long put a strain on the Great Firewall. And now a massive effort to push information about what’s happening in Hong Kong onto China’s mainland is making that more apparent, and more relevant, than ever.

“Both sides have really upped their game – the censors and the people trying to get around the censors,” says Min Jiang, a former CCTV editor who’s now an associate professor of Communication at UNC-Charlotte.

“I’ve seen a lot of smart people get around censorship using VPNs. But I think the government has certainly increased its sophistication as well. They have a lot of tools at hand.”

And so do the protesters, who have fallen back on apps like FireChat, which allows chatting with others nearby even without an Internet connection – perfect for the densely packed HK protests.

Monday’s shuttering of Instagram resolved an especially touchy issue for the Communist Party: the sharing of mass protest photos that could very well remind mainlanders of 1989. But the decision to kill the app, which was very popular in China, also might have backfired on Beijing. Interest in VPNs, providing safe passage over the Great Firewall, has spiked in the last week.

Mobile app analytics tracker App Annie showed four of China’s 50 most popular free apps this week were VPNs. Increased use of the workaround has ensured that at least some information about what’s going on in Hong Kong is getting through to the mainland and to major cities, including Shanghai and Beijing.

Now the question is whether the rest of China cares.

“Honestly, some Chinese citizens do not care about ‘democracy,’” Jiang says. “And censorship does not have to be perfect, or waterproof, to be effective. There might be small leaks, but the government probably doesn’t care if one million, two million people know this information.”

Of course, those one or two million people who do know the story coming out of Hong Kong might not know the true story. While a total media blackout is a losing fight for Beijing in the smartphone age, the Communist Party has another tool at its disposal: spin.

Hong Kong and the mainland share little modern history. And loyal state-run outlets have tried especially hard this week to frame the protesting Hong Kongers as lacking patriotism as well. It’s a message that resonated with much of the mainland on the week of China’s National Day this past Wednesday.

And, in the eyes of state media like Xinhua and People’s Daily, if the protesters aren’t traitors, they’re at least a nuisance. Global Times chided demonstrators for disrupting not only the social order but also Hong Kong’s daily routine.

Hong Kong’s image on the mainland isn’t helped by its shrinking share of the economic pie in China. Vox pointed out the numbers earlier this week: When the United Kingdom handed Hong Kong over to China’s government in 1997, the special administrative region accounted for 18 percent of China’s GDP. Today, it makes up only 3 percent. The pledge is “one country, two systems,” but Hong Kong’s relative economic slump has made its system look less attractive to the mainland.

But the Umbrella Revolution’s cause is not about economics, at least not directly. It’s about democracy. And while images and information from the protesters carry loud and clear to the West, for now they’re just poking holes in the Great Firewall and hoping their message is heard, unfiltered, on the other side.

Zach Toombs writes for China and the Pacific for the U.K.’s Future Foreign Policy blog. He also overs China and East Asian affairs for Newsy.com, a Scripps broadcast company. 

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