To Jingxi native Lengyi Zhang, China’s strict censorship policies “block an entire generation out of different perspectives” and inhibit the development of critical thinking. While back in China, the Columbia undergraduate keeps her critical mind engaged by jumping the Great Firewall (GFW) with a virtual private network (VPN), a software that enables her to evade China’s online censorship and read news from outlets around the world. But, with rumors of government crackdowns chasing cheaper VPN providers out of business, Zhang’s exercise in critical thinking is becoming increasingly expensive.
While Zhang continues to fund her quest for the truth, now handing $14 per month to more expensive foreign VPN providers left in business, she recognizes this is a privilege. Back home, Zhang has “activist friends” who feel politically motivated to see beyond the GFW, but simply cannot afford VPNs. “You’ll have five people sharing one VPN account,” she says, “or, they’ll get their news from Weibo accounts that post screenshots of articles from blocked websites” – that is, until the government takes it down.
Persistent organizations like NGOCN continue to post images of banned news articles, even flipping the images upside down to slow down the censorship process, but improvements in technology are making this kind of resistance more difficult. “The government has been censoring quicker and quicker,” says Zhang. “It used to take a couple days, then a couple hours, now it might be 20 minutes.”
With the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) tightening its grip on the web, Chinese President Xi Jinping seems to be moving toward his vision of “internet sovereignty” and plugging the holes in what scholars have called the “inherently porous” GFW. In August of 2017, Apple complied with censorship policies in China and removed 674 apps from China’s app store, many of which were VPNs. Last December, a VPN provider was sentenced to five-and-a-half years in prison, scaring away many other inexpensive, domestic providers. One left her customers with a message: “I cannot stand living in fear any longer.”
Because rumors about a crackdown circulate every few months often without a confirmed final date, there’s much debate about the government’s ultimate goals. Some are replying with panic. Beijing-based producer Yvette Liu now keeps three VPN subscriptions going at a time – “just in case” – and Shanghai-based advertising employee Cindy Fan expresses anxiety that she “feel[s] the last door to [the] outside world is going to close.”
Some have called the internet crackdown a business ploy to bolster domestic internet companies like Alibaba and Baidu, but Charlie Smith, founder of Greatfire.org, believes “making money is just a bonus” to the CCP’s goal of maintaining control. However, David Bandurski, co-director of the China Media Project, does not believe total isolation is the end goal either. “China cannot entirely cut itself off,” he said in an email. “The internet is now central to the regime, it is a key sector of economic and social development.”
Even if full isolation is detrimental to China’s international business ventures and rise to global power, the government can still cut off certain groups. Molly Roberts, professor of political science at UC San Diego, says China’s internet is “all about taxes on information…how much money or time you have to give up to find information.” Through this “tax on information,” the Chinese government is exacerbating the digital divide between those upper class, educated people who can access information and the rest of the population. For those without the financial means or technological acumen to “pay the tax” on information, the door to the outside world is slamming shut.
According to Roberts, the data shows great divides in the kinds of individuals jumping the wall. Though it is difficult to parse out whether it’s lack of resources or lack of knowledge that keeps groups of lower socioeconomic status from going over the firewall, chief executive of VPN Provider Golden Frog, Sunday Yokubatis describes VPN customers that are “more sophisticated, more technical, and probably have more disposable income than an ordinary Chinese.”
While such evidence may suggest China’s netizens are split strictly between these wealthy, internationally-minded VPN users and the less economically privileged people behind the GFW, there is a crucial “in between” group that does not fit the economic/educational status of most VPN users but still tries to jump the GFW. “They are on the margin,” says Roberts. “They are the people who don’t necessarily need a VPN [for business, academia, etc.] and have fewer tools to figure out how to get one.”
They might be a small group, but the GFW-jumping netizens of the middle class pose a great danger to a government depending on its growing middle class remaining complacent. “[The Chinese government] knows that they can never fully control the elites, so [the government] keeps them on a longer leash,” says Nathan Freitas, founder of the Guardian Project. “They care about the other 99 percent of the population – the people who would actually organize – the blue collar workers, the youth… those people they want to keep control over.”
History has shown that when the middle class reaches a certain level of economic prosperity, demands for democracy soon follow. Should enough of the Chinese middle class cross the GFW, the global internet could create a space for the “rich associational life” that China’s middle class lacks, according to Andrew Nathan’s analysis. By keeping the middle class isolated behind the GFW, the government prevents what Bandurski calls “the contagion of destabilizing ideas” that could spark a revolution.
Guangzhou-based Ph.D. candidate Xu Hui says he turns on Gmail message forwarding to receive emails from other academics, and Yvette Liu mentions changing the region on her phone to download VPN apps, but even these clever, cost-free methods of “peeking” over the GFW may soon be eliminated under the crackdown. Middle class netizens who wanted to jump the GFW used to be able to pay for the “tax on information” with time, tolerating slow servers on cheaper VPNs. But soon, money may be the only accepted method of payment.
China’s GFW has long been credited for separating China from the rest of the world in the interest of “internet sovereignty”. But, perhaps, the most ingenious feature of the CCP’s GFW is the way it separates Chinese people from each other.
Kelsey Ables is a student at Columbia University who writes about technology and society. Follow her on Twitter @ables_kelsey.