How (and why) the Great Firewall of China works

The Atlantic's James Fallows has turned in an excellent piece on China's Great Firewall, the censorship system that controls the flow of information into and within China. There's some meaty technical detail here, but the kicker is the social and political impact of the firewall: simply by making it inconvenient to read certain sites, the Chinese government can keep politically charged issues from surfacing in the national discourse:
Thus Chinese authorities can easily do something that would be harder in most developed countries: physically monitor all traffic into or out of the country. They do so by installing at each of these few “international gateways” a device called a “tapper” or “network sniffer,” which can mirror every packet of data going in or out. This involves mirroring in both a figurative and a literal sense. “Mirroring” is the term for normal copying or backup operations, and in this case real though extremely small mirrors are employed. Information travels along fiber-optic cables as little pulses of light, and as these travel through the Chinese gateway routers, numerous tiny mirrors bounce reflections of them to a separate set of “Golden Shield” computers.Here the term’s creepiness is appropriate. As the other routers and servers (short for file servers, which are essentially very large-capacity computers) that make up the Internet do their best to get the packet where it’s supposed to go, China’s own surveillance computers are looking over the same information to see whether it should be stopped...

[I]t would also be wrong to ignore the cumulative effect of topics people are not allowed to discuss. “Whether or not Americans supported George W. Bush, they could not avoid learning about Abu Ghraib,” Rebecca Mac­Kinnon says. In China, “the controls mean that whole topics inconvenient for the regime simply don’t exist in public discussion.” Most Chinese people remain wholly unaware of internationally noticed issues like, for instance, the controversy over the Three Gorges Dam.

Link (Thanks, Vern!)


  1. So do we stop supporting the Chinese government by not buying cheap Chinese goods? Or do we insist the Chinese government conform to our views on democracy and freedome of information? As has been pointed out a billion times: we don’t have the right to tell others how to live. Besides, they’ll eventually get access to all the crap the rest of us can.

  2. Fascinating article. The bits and pieces I picked up were:

    — Unpredictable filtering that looks like technical problems makes the Great Firewall even more effective.

    — You don’t have to filter every line of information, but merely make the effective lines slightly more expensive and annoying than the average person wants.

    — A sufficiently large specter of censorship leads to self censorship.

    Take note of these techniques. We’ll all be seeing something like them sooner or later.

    The Internet as we know it isn’t a permanent solution. As government/corporate interference grows, we’ll need to replace the Internet with something else.

  3. Nothing is a Permanent Solution. We would need the web to be a static thing, not dynamic, for any rules to be permanent in nature. And if we think the governments/corporate interference will grow, then the resistance to that interference can grow to meet it head on, or by covert means, which would be far more typical of web culuture.

  4. Jeff, we might not have the right to tell others how to live, but doesn’t mean we should look away when we see gross violations of human rights. And also, the whole point of the Atlantic article is that the Wired Magazine mentality that “they’ll eventually get access because the firewall is a futile effort against the democratizing power of teh internerd,” while appealing, is ultimately misguided because it fails to take into consideration the ways in which a modern Big Brother regime operates.

    Bshock, I agree with you wholeheartedly. We need to take note of these techniques, because most (though not all) of the measures in effect over there can easily be replicated elsewhere, including in our own backyards.

  5. I’ll have to read the whole article, but this excerpt doesn’t track to my experience being in China last year. There’s a numerically large, technically savvy class of Chinese that already know how to get around the Great Firewall through various means, and doing so is so laughably easy for them, it’s about as effective as a pop-up– i.e., a brief annoyance that you click past without giving it much thought. What’s more, a lot of them travel outside the country, where they get the full uncensored story.

  6. “As has been pointed out a billion times: we don’t have the right to tell others how to live.”

    I’m amazed that this argument was used -against- standing up to censorship. If you believe this statement, doesn’t it stand to reason that the Chinese government doesn’t have the right to tell Chinese citizens how to live and what is appropriate to read?

  7. If you believe this statement, doesn’t it stand to reason..

    Using logic and reason, eh? That’s a dirty trick.

  8. Ah, for once I found an article before BB did! I read all this last week, in fact bought the magazine for this article.

    One of the things I found most depressing was how the Chinese government is going to set up special, unfiltered connections to the outside specifically for hotels hosting foreign visitors for the upcoming Olympics, specifically to give that appearance of openness. Because what’s good for their own people isn’t quite good enough for their visitors.

Comments are closed.