December 13, 2022:
The recent widespread protests and demonstrations in China against strict covid19 controls were widely reported outside China because they involved an unprecedented breakdown of China's enormous Internet censorship operation often called the Great Firewall of China. For over a decade China has had the largest population of Internet users in the world. Between September and November 2022 China experienced a major breakdown of its Internet censorship operation as an unprecedented number of Chinese protested the censorship online employing numerous techniques that had emerged over the last decade to evade the censorship. These methods were never used on a massive scale before and, when that finally happened, the Great Firewall was unable to cope. As more Chinese users realized that the internet controls were overwhelmed and breaking down, more people joined in. All this was mainly in support of public demonstrations against the months of increasingly restrictive covid19 lockdowns. These cracks in internet censorship meant more Chinese became aware of how damaging the lockdowns were. The Great Firewall was supposed to prevent that from happening. The government and the Chinese people both discovered how much bad news the Great Firewall had been hiding. This did permanent damage to Chinese censorship efforts and now a much larger number of Chinese know about ways to successfully and consistently evade the Great Firewall.
China eventually backed down on the covid19 lockups as this was the only way to regain some control over Chinese Internet users. Substantial damage had been done to the Great Firewall organization and that will take longer to resolve. For decades Chinese Internet users have learned how to use puns, code words and such to maintain limited ability to discuss items the censors blocked. After the recent massive Chinese Internet- based protests, many more Chinese users discovered still more effective ways to evade censorship. This includes the effective use of VPNs and encrypted apps like Telegram that are widely used in the rest of the world, including Russia. With these encrypted apps, Chinese can access and share information found on Western Internet sources like Instagram and Twitter. Thus equipped, even Chinese Islamic terrorist users can work more effectively with each other to stay ahead of upgraded government censorship efforts. The government is eager to cripple these new user capabilities if only to prevent embarrassing videos and pictures from quickly reaching the outside world.
The rapid growth of Internet use in China is something the Communist government did not expect. By 2008 China had the largest Internet population in the world, with 253 million users. The U.S. was second with 223 million users. While 70 percent of Americans were online in 2008, only about 20 percent of Chinese were. Growth trends indicated that, in the next few years after 2009, China would have over half a billion users. A decade ago, a greater proportion (than in the West) of Chinese users get online via Internet cafes or from work. China's Internet environment was much different than the American one. The Chinese Internet was heavily policed early on. A decade ago, over 50,000 cyber cops were blocking content that was considered hostile to the communist dictatorship that had run the country for the previous 60 years. Chinese who say the wrong thing on message boards, chat rooms or email, are subject to detection and punishment. Not so much for cyber criminals. Some 52 percent of the Internet-based criminality can be traced to China, versus 21 percent to the United States. The Chinese government tolerated cyber criminals, as long as these black hat geeks carried out espionage, and Cyber War tasks for the government.
Since 2000 use of the Internet has gone from 400 million users to over five billion now. That’s over 60 percent of the world population. Governments around the world have taken notice and, in the last decade, many have made vigorous efforts to control what they consider a “disruptive”, to their control over the population, technology. Some rulers, usually of dictatorships, have been surprisingly successful in censoring and controlling Internet use by their subjects. Despite that, the balance in central control of information has been fundamentally changed in favor of the ruled rather than the rulers. When it comes to the Internet you can delay or distort the signal but you can’t stop it and what it does.
There are a few nations that have been very successful at controlling the Internet and a growing number that are trying to copy that success. The two most successful Internet censors are North Korea and China. North Korea had an advantage in that it was such a poor communist dictatorship that few of its subjects had access to radio or TV that was not strictly controlled by the government. Most North Koreans were too poor to own a computer, something that did not change until cheap Chinese made smartphones became available over the last decade. From the beginning access to the global Internet was strictly controlled and monitored in North Korea. In place of the global Internet, North Korea built its own Internet which was only available in North Korea. Some North Koreans could access the global Internet but it was dangerous and expensive. First, you had to buy a Chinese cell phone and then use it near the border, or wi-fi “leaking” from embassies in the capital and connect to the global Internet. This was very illegal and those caught were severely punished. For the North Korean government, the damage was done as they no longer strictly controlled information as they had in pre-Internet days. Bad and outside news was slowed down inside North Korea but still got to most of the population eventually. Even with that, the North Korean rulers control Internet access more effectively than any other nation.
China is the second most successful Internet censor. This is largely because, unlike North Korea, China allowed a market economy to develop in the 1980s and over the next three decades became the second largest economy on the planet while still ruled by a communist dictatorship. This meant China always had a much larger percentage of its population using cell phones and the Internet, and they were unhappy if that access was disrupted.
This disruption came in many forms. For example, in 2021 China made it illegal to defame or insult military personnel. China never needed such a law before because it has been a communist police state since 1949. Back then it meant all media was controlled by the state and media criticism of the military was virtually impossible. The Internet changed all that and the widespread availability of smartphones over the last decade have meant most military personnel worldwide now have one because it has become the most common way to access the Internet and the multitude of entertainment and communications services found there. This was especially true of social media like Facebook, Twitter and dozens more. Even police states found Internet-based communications impossible to censor or restrict. The military also had legitimate concerns about troops revealing military technology, plans and operations to the world and those currently at war with you.
The new Chinese laws are there mainly for Internet-based discussion of what is going on in the Chinese military, especially anything the government does not want discussed. The specific bit of bad news that triggered the creation of the new law was a popular Chinese blogger discussing what was really going on with Chinese troops on the India border and the official reports of troops wounded or killed being much higher than reported. Troops know better than to discuss such matters openly on the Internet.
That was eventually followed by the even more massive and damaging Internet-based protests of 2022. The Chinese government has proven resourceful, and often successful, when confronted with problems like this. Something is going to happen and no one is quite sure what.