China takes Internet censorship to dazzling new levels

Off to the hospital right NOW, but wanted to ge this last post up. It’s fascinating to see just how determined the CCP is to control the Internet, and how the popular notion that they can’t actually do it may just be a notion.

The Chinese government has become increasingly sophisticated at controlling the Internet, taking a multilayered approach that contributes to precision in blocking political dissent, a report released Thursday finds.

The precision means that China’s filters can block just specific references to Tibetan independence without blocking all references to Tibet. Likewise, the government is effective at limiting discussions about Falun Gong, the Dalai Lama, Tiananmen Square and other topics deemed sensitive, the study from the OpenNet Initiative finds.

Numerous government agencies and thousands of public and private employees are involved at all levels, from the main pipelines, or backbones, hauling data over long distances to the cybercafes where many citizens access the Internet.

That breadth, the study finds, allows the filtering tools to adapt to emerging forms of communications, such as Web journals, or blogs.

“China has been more successful than any other country in the world to manage to filter the Internet despite the fast changes in technology,” said John Palfrey, one of the study’s principal investigators and executive director of Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

Can they actually tame the world’s most rowdy, individualistic and sprawling medium? I always thought the ultimate answer had to be no. But so far, they are doing a wonderful job.

The Discussion: 34 Comments

I wonder if there has been any technical studies of all the methods that’s being used for internet censorship. I’ve been told by several people that in China when you try to read emails that contain offending content on web mail services like hotmail, the page would stop loading half-way while other emails will load just normally, which indicates there is actually some pretty sophisticated dynamic blocking going on, not just simple blocking of ip addresses. I know of several occurrences of this problem when emailing articles from the overseas Chinese press to people in China.

It’d be great if someone has some technical details about how these things are done, like whether there is some low-level dynamic filtering done at the router level that just cut off anything that contains offending content (which I think would be very hard to do given the amount of work the routers would have to perform) or if it’s the web email service providers like hotmail and yahoo that’s performing the censoring on behave of the Chinese government whenever someone connects to their service from an ip in China.

April 14, 2005 @ 12:01 pm | Comment

I wouldn’t know about the technical details, but I already got that “page half loading” stuff – sometimes on the PekingDuck. And always when there a re a lot of sensible words.

April 14, 2005 @ 1:22 pm | Comment

No, to all of those out there who thought that I was paranoid ……

This is all part of China’s policy to kill disent by promoting the idea that there is no disent. If you can moprvide an apparently clean sheet where all arguments agree with the state, then people will naturally think that the state is right.

This technology is not actualy all that advanced, it requires a lot of computing poower but the software is actually not that different from an ordinary net nanny. It filters out combinations of key words and uses known blacklists etc.

If all roads lead to rome, then rome must be the center of the universe, right?

April 14, 2005 @ 8:13 pm | Comment

I’m no expert on technical issues, but my experience suggests that a fair amount of the filtering is done at the service provider level. A dial-up I used to use suddenly started blocking Live Journal. I’m told my school’s not so broadband does the same. But my current home broadband let’s me through to Live Journal. This is not the only time I’ve seen this kind of difference in the websites one is allowed to visit.

So although there certainly does seem to be an over-arching Nanny of all Cypernannies, local service providers, be they ISPs, cybercafes, schools, or whoever, seem to be responsible for a lot of the filtering, too. Maybe this ‘farming out’ of the work increases it’s efficiency?

April 14, 2005 @ 9:25 pm | Comment

The Vietnamese also do a very good job at controlling what will open up on the internet. If you have doubts, try running a search with the words “Hue” and “massacre” on any computer in the country. It is obvious that the “information age” will only truly arrive for those who have access to all the information needed to render an informed judgment. The internet not only does not mitigate against the rise of a net savvy Dr. Goebbels, but makes it more likely in countries which have placed the net under strict controls.

April 14, 2005 @ 10:44 pm | Comment

I can’t visit “” right now, I guess it’s being blocked, for now.

April 15, 2005 @ 12:36 am | Comment

I can’t access any major online newspaper written in Chinese from Taiwan, here in mainland I mean.

April 15, 2005 @ 12:51 am | Comment

That’s weird if Sinosplice is being blocked – it’s a very non-political site – maybe a technical problem? Of course, Blogger is blocked too, which is completely arbitrary, so who knows?

As I weigh the plusses and minuses of moving to China, this kind of censorship is a big negative.

April 15, 2005 @ 12:52 am | Comment

I just tried accessing Sinosplice and I couldn’t get through – the error message was that the browser couldn’t find the server – I’m in Los Angeles, so I’d guess this is a technical problem rather than deliberate blocking.

April 15, 2005 @ 12:58 am | Comment

Yes, they can block all anti-govt websites and blogs in Chinese, but they can’t block all English websites and blogs that contain unfavorable contents. The reason is very simple, they don’t dare, because tens of thousands of foreigners living and travelling in China are visiting them daily and the govt. can’t afford all the protests that may be lodged if they block them all. So, for a Chinese who want to know what exactly is happening in his/her motherland, better don’t use his/her mother tongue!

April 15, 2005 @ 2:11 am | Comment

The flip side is, our govt. is unintentionally but effectively forcing our people to spend more time in learning English and other foreign languages, becuase we want to know the truth! When any language except Chinese and Arabia can tell and represent truth, what will happen to the two great civilization?

April 15, 2005 @ 2:16 am | Comment


I think another reason why less English language sites are blocked than Chinese language sites is that the number of people who read English is a pretty small portion of the population, and out of this small portion, I doubt many of them are surfing English language sites on a regular basis.

April 15, 2005 @ 2:18 am | Comment

Best site I can find in terms of research into China’s censorship is
Goes into methods, numbers, types, etc.

April 15, 2005 @ 2:34 am | Comment

Sinosplice had its domain registration expire on the 14th, so it’s down for everyone until that’s straightened out.
See here.

April 15, 2005 @ 7:24 am | Comment

They are controlling the Internet

[…]Once I signed up a blogger account and then I found I couldnt connect to the blog frontpage, which was redirected to “*”. And besides those subtle way of controlling , the government did more than that. […]…

April 15, 2005 @ 8:50 am | Comment

Haven’t there been articles in the American press about the disparity between American political rhetoric– which usually cites China’s human rights violations– and American business practices– in which certain US software companies sell China software to support the Great Firewall?

If true (and I wouldn’t be surprised if it were), it’s a good topic for discussion.


April 15, 2005 @ 9:28 am | Comment

Oh yeah. Yahoo is totally complicit, for example.

April 15, 2005 @ 11:06 am | Comment

Where does “blogspot” originate from? Blogs that use that server, if that is the right terminology, are consistently blocked here in China. Is there any known explanation?

April 15, 2005 @ 6:58 pm | Comment

I haven’t read the entire pdf report from Open Net Initiative, but the table of contents don’t seem to show any major updates from their last reports, which were featured in the debate over Google China and censorship.

There may have been some updates recently to the filtering system. Part 2 of my recent thoughts on this issue includes an updated version of isaac mao’s graphic interpretation of the filtering. This is based upon the previous work of the open net initiative and what I’ve read from Fons at ChinaHerald and others.

April 15, 2005 @ 7:12 pm | Comment

The Blogspot server comes out of the US, and almost 2 years ago was blocked here in the PRC. The explanation is not known, but rather conjectured. If I remember from that time, which is open to debate probably, the government was implementing a filtering system and Blogspot was a victim of that here in China.

April 15, 2005 @ 8:33 pm | Comment

Thanks. Imiss a lot of what appears good stuff because of the blocking. Their bad.

April 16, 2005 @ 2:05 am | Comment

Just to link the issue of censorship and textbooks, check out this link to what Chinese textbooks omit:

April 16, 2005 @ 6:32 am | Comment

Pete – you might be able to access blogspot sites through anonymouse – I know John P. at sinosplice is able to do so. Go here:

Then type in the URL of the place you’re trying to visit. Let me know if it works! I’m curious.

April 16, 2005 @ 2:11 pm | Comment

Lisa! Don’t publish everything!

There’s another easy way to read blogspot if the mouse doesn’t work. Email me.

Add another data point. “Multi layered filtering” extends pretty far….to the local servers. Our office technical guy was re-doing the network and apparently installed some mandated local filtering. I know because it only came unblocked after I pulled the red-faced angry offical act on him. “Goddamit, we do a million dollars of business on Yahoo mail, yahoo groups, and Hotmail. Fix it at once!” The block disappeared within the hour.

April 17, 2005 @ 8:20 am | Comment

sorry sam. figured that was okay since it’s up elsewhere. I’ll email Richard to edit.

April 17, 2005 @ 11:57 am | Comment

It should be fine Lisa, the name anonymouse is up all over the place.

April 17, 2005 @ 3:09 pm | Comment

thanks for the assurance, Richard. I feel like a real idiot. Usually if anything I am over paranoid!

April 17, 2005 @ 4:56 pm | Comment

O’Lisa, I was half-joshing you, but I personally don’t publish the services. I know they’re up everywhere, but I’m nervous that just that ONE right official might get offended. And I really don’t understand the layers of filtering. No matter which service I use to workaround, I still cant get B.B.C. news.

April 17, 2005 @ 9:12 pm | Comment

Hey Sam, you just played into my not so latent paranoia, but seriously, it was a good reminder from you.

Weird that of all things you can’t get the BBC…I could get the NYT on and off last time I was there…even CNN. Mostly I just went right to Salon, which has a good set of AP links.

April 18, 2005 @ 1:55 am | Comment

I admit that my experience is a bit out of date … but when I was in Beijing in 2000, I didn’t find it that hard to get around the blockages … there was alwaysl some website somewhere with the international news. I heard about the people who burned themselves in Tiananmen Square the day it happened, and I heard about the release of the book The Tiananmen Papers from a foreign website, which ironically said that the book was being published overseas in the hope that word of its contents would leak back into China … and there I was in a Beijing internet cafe reading this. Well, I guess they have probably gotten a lot more sophisticated in the last five years?

Anyway, I think the main problem is that people are generally apathetic … if you really want to search out information for yourself, you can always find it. But most people can’t be bothered, and will just listen to whatever is easily available, whether it be radio and TV or local newspapers. It wouldn’t be that hard, for example, to just go on one of the internet chat programmes, and ask someone overseas what is going on. You don’t even need to speak English to do it, since there are plenty of Chinese people overseas using these chat sites. Yet it seems to be that most Chinese people believe their own media, and I’ve even had several people ask me how overseas media could be more accurate about China than China’s own news … as if the answer wasn’t blindingly obvious … yet clearly, to a large proportion of the Chinese population, it isn’t.

April 19, 2005 @ 2:00 am | Comment

Other Lisa:
Thanks for the tip. It worked on blogspot today. Tonight I will try it on other sites.

Richard: I thank you for posting some good ideas and articles for lively discussions.

April 19, 2005 @ 11:44 pm | Comment

The Tiananmen Square Incident was a internal affair of China.

Nobody has the right to interfere.

How about the massacre of Native Americans when Europeans landed in the so call ‘New World’?

April 20, 2005 @ 10:52 pm | Comment

By denying her past aggression against China and South-East Asia and admitting that the 2 atomic bombs thrown on them in her textbooks, Japan is making herself as a victim.

The effect of the atomic bombs lead to dire consequences for the Japanese and her economy but how about the cause?

There must be a cause for that kind of effect.

The cause is being covered up but the effect is made known to all her people. What will the Japanese people think? Oh, we are the victims! Are they?

April 20, 2005 @ 10:57 pm | Comment

Nan, please don’t be a moron.

April 21, 2005 @ 8:27 am | Comment

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.