The Great Wall stands as a monolith of Chinese history. Spanning thousands of miles, it is a monument to the unrelenting tenacity of China’s ancestors, their ability to bend nature to their defensive needs.

Today, the Great Wall is a relic for tourists. China isn’t so much at war at its physical borders (though it is still party to territory disputes), so it has instead constructed an elaborate censorship system, dubbed the Great Firewall (or GFW), to defend itself and its people from the dangers of modern cyberspace. Interestingly, even China’s latest disagreement with Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands has been partly played out online via hacking and virtual flags.

Though it’s hardly a simple matter, Fang Binxing has often been labeled the “father” of this digital wall. Earlier this year, Fang acknowledged that he has become somewhat of a scapegoat, suggesting that he has offered his reputation up for the good of the Communist Party, and, by extension, the people. Just months later, an angry student took him at his word by pelting him with eggs and a shoe.

Great Walls of Fire

As far as metaphors go, a wall probably isn’t the best one, even if it does match up with Chinese history. The Chinese Internet is more like a semi-permeable membrane. To learn more about the system, I spoke with Martin Johnson from GreatFire.org, one of the few services that actually checks the boundaries of China’s censorship.

In early 2011, I really felt that this had to be done,” Johnson said of the genesis of the site. “There was no tool for checking if something was blocked. People just used to do anecdotal evidence, nothing fact based. You couldn’t check if something had been blocked today or for a long time.”

The project aims to hold China accountable for its decisions to block content. “If [the Chinese government] can give the image of not censoring anything … that’s close to what they want to do. I want to help in showing that they’re censoring a lot of stuff,” said Johnson.

GreatFire continually tests over 50,000 URLs and takes requests to custom check other sites. It also checks for content and keywords that have been censored on domestic websites and social media. In August, GreatFire kicked off a project to aid companies in unblocking websites that have ended up as collateral damage from China’s defenses. For instance, some websites get blocked simply because of a shared IP address, rather than because of any actual controversial or offensive content.

As you’d expect, GreatFire itself has been blocked from within China. Johnson said it didn’t take long for that to happen, though he did note that at times the English version of his site has been allowed through while the Chinese version hasn’t.

Sadly, GreatFire’s tools for getting around the wall don’t work on its own site because China has used a technique called “DNS poisoning” to prevent access. Johnson claims only a minority of websites that are blocked get this kind of treatment.

As for what kind of sites and content get banned, Johnson says officials, for the most part, don’t seem to be afraid of information, so much as they are that the people will actually use it. “They don’t need to have people actually believing the information, they care more about stopping people from taking any kind of action,” he speculated, adding that China appears to be most nervous about people organizing themselves.

For its part, China sometimes maintains the official line that its censorship is meant to protect its citizens from the dangers of pornography. While any number of foreign pornographic sites are blocked in China, Johnson believes that it’s largely symbolic. For instance, while maintaining a list of the fastest-loading foreign websites in China, he once noticed that the top one was a porn site.

Dodgewall

Some people ‘jump the wall’ from within China to gain access to blocked sites, but it’s hard to tell exactly how many, since, after all, the purpose of the circumvention tools is to cover those tracks. The website VPNcoupons.com does say that China is its second biggest source of traffic, after the US, so there’s definitely interest in that kind of service.

One recent study from a market research group conducted surveys of Chinese netizens and estimated that the number of people regularly dodging the firewall is in the tens of millions. Those figures, however, have been highly controversial and are widely believed to be inaccurate. Journalist Michael Anti told The Next Web that he believes that the number of Twitter users in China is more like 300,000. As for active users, he says 100,000 Chinese users would make him “very happy.”

Even among the VPN services, things might not be what they seem. From his work with GreatFire, Johnson has noticed that, while the vast majority of circumvention services are blocked, a handful of VPN providers remain unscathed. There’s no evidence of foul play, but it does raise suspicions. Ultimately, however, cost is going to be a limiting factor for the majority of Chinese citizens. Witopia, the service that I use, costs about $70 a year. That may not seem like much, but it’s more than most citizens here are either willing or able to pay.

Also, many VPN providers require a credit card for payment. Credit cards are rare items in the country, which has for years operated mostly on cash, though adoption does seem to be picking up among its growing middle class. Johnson has noticed that free circumvention tools, on the other hand, quickly draw the attention of the government because they pose the biggest threat.

One world, two Internets

Michael Anti has a right to some authority when it comes to speaking about the Great Firewall and censorship in China. That’s not just because he’s a respected journalist and researcher. He’s also had plenty of first-hand experience bumping up against it. Over the years, he’s had multiple blogs and profiles deleted across several services, including his Sina Weibo microblog and Renren account. He’s even had trouble with his Facebook account. These days, his platform of choice is Twitter.

If you haven’t already, I highly recommend that you watch Anti’s recent TED talk about what’s really going on on the other side of the Wall, or you can read the summary below.

[If you’re already familiar with his talk, you can skip to the next section. -Ed.]

In his talk, Anti argues that China, by creating the “biggest digital boundary in the whole world”, has managed to splinter the Internet into two sections. One is the Internet as non-Chinese know it, while the other is what he calls the “Chinanet”, that is, from within the GFW.

Services that we take for granted outside of China, such as search, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube have all been replaced by Chinese equivalents (namely, Baidu, Sina Weibo, Renren and Youku Tudou).

“The Chinese government blocked every single international Web 2.0 Internet service, and we Chinese copycat every one,” he said, describing the country’s strategy as a simple “block and clone” tactic.

By allowing homegrown social networks to flourish under its careful watch, China has satisfied users’ needs to communicate while retaining control of the servers and the data in a complex cat-and-mouse game, Anti said.

A common narrative in western coverage of China right now is the role that the Sina Weibo microblogging service, which now boasts over 360 million users, is playing in bringing about reform in China, but Anti is skeptical of that story. He does acknowledge, though, that it has had an impact, such as when the speed of Weibo posts prevented officials from covering up the Wenzhou high-speed rail crash last year or by providing an outlet for common citizens to make petitions outside of the judicial system.

Anti also said that Chinese-language social media actually has a leg up on the west because the language can say more in fewer characters. During his talk, he showed that 3.5 times as much of a Chinese translation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet can fit it one tweet as compared to the same passage in English.

“You can almost have all the journalistic elements there [in one microblog post],” he said.

Anti believes that Weibo’s impact on society remains limited because, from the start, its existence was predicated upon concessions to the government.

For example, anything you want to post, like get together, meet up, walk, it is automatically recorded and data mined and reported to a poll for further political analyzing. If you want to have some gathering, before you go there, the police are already waiting for you. Why? Because they have the data. They have everything in their hands.

According to Anti, one benefit to the authorities in Beijing having ultimate control over Weibo’s data and censorship is that users can use the service to call to account local government officials.

“This kind of freedom is a targeted and precise window,” he says, adding that now the lack of censorship on a service like Weibo has itself become a political tool.

Anti ended his talk with a plea to English speakers to watch out for censorship in their own countries.

“We Chinese fight for our freedom, you just watch your bad cats. Don’t let them hook up with the Chinese cats.”

After TED

michaelanti 220x187 The great firewall: China’s digital marginsIn a recent interview with Anti, I asked him what he set out to accomplish through the TED talk. He said:

“For me it is a way to tell the whole world what the complicity of Chinese Weibo is, to tell them in a way that they can easily understand because they have no basic knowledge about censorship itself, about the Great Firewall. You need to tell them the basic story, but you don’t want to tell them the cliches, that social media can change China. [I wanted] to say that it can be used by the Chinese government; it has pros and cons for Chinese society.”

Anti said he had been nervous ahead of the talk. He said he had rehearsed numerous times up until the day of and many of them had been failures. The effort was worth it, though, as Anti felt it was supremely important to tell the English-speaking world that Weibo is “unique and special.”

Has there been much response to the talk? Anti says yes. He’s gotten several invitations to other speaking engagements, conferences, discussions and interviews.

“Maybe I will write a thesis based on the TED talk in some journals, together with some friends because, I was almost the first guy to remind people that Weibo has a central versus local structure, which you can’t see outside of China.

Outside of China, social media is a decentralized communication tool, but in China it is centralized (the server, the management and information control). The centralized server, how it changed the way the internet influenced politics, and what direction it will lead Chinese society and politics – those are the things I want to find.”

Weibo’s benefit?

When I asked Anti about the pros and cons of Weibo, which recently celebrated its three-year birthday by coming out of beta, he said the service will likely be “good training for citizenship” in the long term, but he sees the central government winning out right now.

“The only definite loser is the local government,” he said, noting that many local officials have stopped wearing expensive watches for fear of losing their jobs if they are called out on Weibo.

“When we mention social media in the west, it’s about decentralized information,” he continued. “When Weibo came to China, it was decentralized content but centralized server and control, so Weibo is not the same social media as we see in the west.”

When I asked Johnson a similar question, he conceded that Weibo has been a “huge change” in China, but he added that he’s not convinced that it’s “necessarily a good thing for freedom of speech or bringing about the transparency of the system.”

“Weibo exists because [the government] decided to allow it to exist. and they believe that they can use it to their advantage and control it where it needs to be controlled. It definitely helps them by giving them an image of openness, but whenever anyone tries to organize something through those tools, it gets shut down or they get arrested,” Johnson said.

Johnson and his team recently took a step toward adjusting for some of the censorship that happens on Weibo by launching the FreeWeibo site that provides uncensored searches on the service that also scours deleted posts and caches.

Liberals to dissidents

Since Anti has been on the receiving end of so much censorship, I asked him what has kept him motivated to keep writing and speaking out even after his work has been deleted or blocked.

“Basically, I really like freedom. I don’t want someone to make me shut up. I want to speak. Now there are some things sensitive in Chinese, so I speak in English, but I need to find a way to speak out.”

His way isn’t the only way, though. We spoke of Han Han, a popular blogger, author and race car driver in China who has, as of late, toned down his satire and criticism of the government. The decision has drawn mixed receptions from his followers, western pundits and even government officials.

I think Hanhan won’t put his foot across the line of “dissident”. He wants to stand on this side to keep inside the system. I would call him a liberal, but not a democrat,” he said.

Anti then pointed to artist Ai Weiwei, who has repeatedly endured ill treatment at the hands of the authorities, as an example of someone who is operating on the other side of the spectrum.

“Ai Weiwei does things that confront the system to be the guy to really push the system. Because of that he will be in jail, even risk himself, his life. We call them brave. That’s really brave…[He] had to be a dissident because he thinks the system is the obstacle to freedom.”

Anti views technology as having brought, along with the arrival of free market principles, a semblance of social freedom for Chinese netizens, but he doesn’t think China’s political system has changed much as a result of new technology.

“We see nothing where the internet has influenced [Chinese] politics. Zero. The mindset has changed with this new generation really embracing freedom of speech, but that’s about personal [life] and society.”

When I asked Anti what his hope for China is, he offered a pragmatic response:

“No hope. Just, you know, to practice freedom of speech, pursue freedom. It’s just a living style, our living style. We’re tweeting every day, but it’s not because I have hope that someday something will change. I still need to tweet without censorship, that’s my living style.

“We find a way [to tweet] because I can’t imagine living without directly talking about politics…It’s not a life worthy of living.”

Like Anti, Ai has found solace on Twitter, as he noted in an interview with Foreign Policy back in August:

“Twitter is my city, my favorite city. I can talk to anybody I want to. And anybody who wants to talk to me will get my response.”

The Google option

In our chat, Johnson put forth Gmail as a safe choice for people communicating within China. “Gmail is secure enough. Compared to the alternatives, it’s great,” he said.

Still, it operates in a tenuous zone. “It only exists because the authorities didn’t dare to block it,” Johnson noted.

“About the time that we started this project, [the authorities] were making Gmail slow and occasionally blocked it, but they didn’t dare to go further. Email is special. Businesses use it, it has all your contacts.”

Google’s place in China is an anomaly because the company has been at odds with the government in the past. In 2010, it stopped censoring search results from its Chinese search engine and, after forcing the government’s hand, it redirected its domestic domain to Hong Kong, where the same censorship rules don’t apply.

“Google plays a special role because they’re the only major [non-Chinese] Internet service that exists in China, but not because they have a good relationship with companies, so they’re tolerated,” Johnson said.

While China allows Google’s Hong Kong searches and email, Johnson believes China has assigned a team of people to immediately block new Google services, such as Google+, when they are released. In June, Google outed the Chinese authorities by publishing a list of questionable terms that often cause disruption of service when queried from within China.

In the long run, Google may be fighting a losing war of attrition, though. The company recently closed one of its last local Chinese services – Google Yinyue (Music).

Economics

charleschao sina 220x220 The great firewall: China’s digital marginsEven among Chinese Internet companies, the degree of complicity with the government varies. Sina, which is helmed by Charles Chao, is believed to be one of the most proactive at filtering. Some reports have suggested that at least 1,000 people are tasked with keeping tabs on the service for objectionable content, whereas other companies reportedly rely on automatic filtering and mandated government censorship.

The division between the Chinese Internet and the rest of the world doesn’t look to be going anywhere soon, and foreign companies (and celebrities) are lining up outside the wall to court the country’s growing online population and its spending dollars. The addition of Weibo support to social media dashboard Hootsuite should allow brands to more easily reach potential Chinese customers.

Shooting content over the wall may seem like a crude way of going about things, but that’s how businesses roll. For a different take on the subject, Tech in Asia’s Charlie Custer has a thought-provoking on what the Chinese Internet would be like without censorship.

For now, we’re stuck with things the way they are. We can play inside this massive sandbox, and, for millions of Chinese, it’s not so bad. Until you look up and realize how big the walls are.

Related: The politics and power struggles of the Chinese Internet superpowers

Image credits: AFP / Getty Images (12, 3)