Great Firewall

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The Great Firewall of China (abbreviated to GFW) is the combination of legislative actions and technologies enforced by the People's Republic of China to regulate the Internet domestically. Its role in the Internet censorship in China is to block access to selected foreign websites and to slow down cross-border internet traffic.[1] The effect includes: limiting access to foreign information sources, blocking foreign internet tools (e.g. Google search, Facebook) and mobile apps, and requiring foreign companies to adapt to domestic regulations.[2][3] Besides censorship, the GFW has also had an impact on the development of China's internal internet economy by nurturing domestic companies [4] and reducing the effectiveness of products from foreign internet companies.[5]

The term Great Firewall of China is a portmanteau of firewall and the Great Wall of China, and is thought to have been coined by Geremie Barmé in 1997.[6][7]


The political and ideological background of the GFW Project is considered to be one of Deng Xiaoping’s favorite sayings in the early 1980s: "If you open the window for fresh air, some flies will be blown in." (Chinese: 打开窗户,新鲜空气和苍蝇就会一起进来。; pinyin: Dǎkāi chuānghù, xīnxiān kōngqì hé cāngying jiù huì yìqǐ jìnlái.[nb 1]) The saying is related to a period of the economic reform of China that became known as the "socialist market economy". Superseding the political ideologies of the Cultural Revolution, the reform led China towards a market economy and opened up the market for foreign investors. Nonetheless, despite the economic freedom, values and political ideas of the Communist Party of China have had to be protected by "swatting flies" of other unwanted ideologies.[8]

The Internet in China arrived in 1994,[9] as the inevitable consequence of and supporting tool for the "socialist market economy". Gradually, while Internet availability has been increasing, the Internet has become a common communication platform and tool for trading information.

The Ministry of Public Security took initial steps to control Internet use in 1997, when it issued comprehensive regulations governing its use. The key sections, Articles 4–6, are:

Individuals are prohibited from using the Internet to: harm national security; disclose state secrets; or injure the interests of the state or society. Users are prohibited from using the Internet to create, replicate, retrieve, or transmit information that incites resistance to the PRC Constitution, laws, or administrative regulations; promoting the overthrow of the government or socialist system; undermining national unification; distorting the truth, spreading rumors, or destroying social order; or providing sexually suggestive material or encouraging gambling, violence, or murder. Users are prohibited from engaging in activities that harm the security of computer information networks and from using networks or changing network resources without prior approval.[10]

In 1998, the Communist Party of China feared that the China Democracy Party (CDP) would breed a powerful new network that the party elites might not be able to control.[11] The CDP was immediately banned, followed by arrests and imprisonment.[12] That same year, the GFW project was started. The first part of the project lasted eight years and was completed in 2006. The second part began in 2006 and ended in 2008. On 6 December 2002, 300 people in charge of the GFW project from 31 provinces and cities throughout China participated in a four-day inaugural "Comprehensive Exhibition on Chinese Information System".[13] At the exhibition, many western high-tech products, including Internet security, video monitoring and human face recognition were purchased. It is estimated that around 30,000–50,000 police were employed in this gigantic project.

Origins of Chinese Internet law[edit]

China's view of the internet is as "Internet sovereignty": the notion that the internet inside the country is part of the country's sovereignty and should be governed by the country.[5][14]

While the United States and several other western countries passed laws creating computer crimes beginning in the 1970s, China had no such legislation until 1997. That year, China's sole legislative body, the National People's Congress (NPC) passed CL97, a law that criminalizes "cyber crimes" , which it divided into two broad categories: crimes that target computer networks and crimes carried out over computer networks. Behavior illegal under the latter category includes among many things the dissemination of pornographic material and the usurping of "state secrets."

Some Chinese judges were critical of CL97, calling it ineffective and unenforceable. However, the NPC claimed it intentionally left the law "flexible" so that it could be open to future interpretation and development. Given the gaps in the law, the central government of China relies heavily on its administrative body, the State Council, to determine what falls under the definitions, and their determinations are not required to go through the NPC legislative process. As a result, the CPC has ended up relying heavily on state regulation to carry out CL97.[15]

The latter definition of online activities punishable under CL97, or "crimes carried out over computer networks" is used as justification for the Great Firewall and can be cited when the government blocks any ISP, gateway connections, or any access to anything on the internet. The definition also includes using the internet to distribute information considered "harmful to national security," and using the internet to distribute information considered "harmful to public order, social stability, and Chinese morality." The central government relies heavily on its State Council regulators to determine what specific online behavior and speech fall under these definitions.

Campaigns and crackdowns[edit]

As part of the Great Firewall, beginning in 2003 China started the Golden Shield Project , a massive surveillance and censoring system, the hardware for which was provided by mostly U.S. companies, including Cisco Systems. The project was completed in 2006 and is now carried out in buildings with machines manned by civilians and supervised by China's national police force, the Public Security Bureau (PSB). The main operating activities of the gatekeepers at the Golden Shield Project include monitoring domestic websites and email and searching for politically sensitive language and calls to protest. When damaging content is found, local PSB officials can be dispatched to investigate or make arrests. However, by late 2007 the Golden Shield Project proved to operate sporadically at best, as users had long adapted to internet blocking by using proxy servers, among other strategies, to make communications and circumnavigate to blocked content.[16]

In February 2008, the Chinese government announced "Operation Tomorrow," an effort to crack down on youth usage of internet cafés to play online games and view content declared illegal.[17][not in citation given] Internet cafés, an extremely popular way of getting online in developing countries where fewer people can afford a personal computer, are regulated by the Chinese government and by local Chinese government officials. Minors (in China, those under the age of 18) are not allowed into Internet cafés, although this law is widely ignored and when enforced, has spurred the creation of underground "Black Web Bars" that will be visited by those underage. As of 2008 internet cafés were required to register every customer in a log when they used the internet there; these records may be confiscated by local government officials and the PSB. To illustrate local regulation of internet cafés, in one instance, a government official in the town of Gedong lawfully banned internet cafés from operating in the town because he believed them to be harmful to minors, who frequented them to play online games (including those considered violent) and surf the internet. However, internet cafés in this town simply went underground and most minors were not deterred from visiting them.[18]

China has blocked access to all of Wikipedia at times, and generally blocks access to politically sensitive Wikipedia articles, and in 2017 discussed plans for its own version of Wikipedia.[19][20]

Blocking methods[edit]

Some commonly used technical methods for censoring are:[21]

Method Description
IP blocking The access to a certain IP address is denied. If the target Web site is hosted in a shared hosting server, all Web sites on the same server will be blocked. This affects all IP protocols (mostly TCP) such as HTTP, FTP or POP. A typical circumvention method is to find proxies that have access to the target Web sites, but proxies may be jammed or blocked. Some large Web sites allocated additional IP addresses to circumvent the block, but later the block was extended to cover the new addresses.[22]
DNS filtering and redirection Doesn't resolve domain names, or returns incorrect IP addresses. This affects all IP protocols such as HTTP, FTP or POP. A typical circumvention method is to find a domain name server that resolves domain names correctly, but domain name servers are subject to blockage as well, especially IP blocking. Another workaround is to bypass DNS if the IP address is obtainable from other sources and is not blocked. Examples are modifying the Hosts file or typing the IP address instead of the domain name in a Web browser.
URL filtering Scan the requested Uniform Resource Locator (URL) string for target keywords regardless of the domain name specified in the URL. This affects the Hypertext Transfer Protocol. Typical circumvention methods are to use escaped characters in the URL, or to use encrypted protocols such as VPN and SSL.[nb 2]
Packet filtering Terminate TCP packet transmissions when a certain number of controversial keywords are detected. This affects all TCP protocols such as HTTP, FTP or POP, but Search engine pages are more likely to be censored. Typical circumvention methods are to use encrypted protocols such as VPN and SSL, to escape the HTML content, or reducing the TCP/IP stack's MTU, thus reducing the amount of text contained in a given packet.
Connection reset If a previous TCP connection is blocked by the filter, future connection attempts from both sides will also be blocked for up to 30 minutes. Depending on the location of the block, other users or Web sites may be also blocked if the communications are routed to the location of the block. A circumvention method is to ignore the reset packet sent by the firewall.[23]
SSL man-in-the-middle attack makes independent connections with the victims and relays messages between them, making them believe that they are talking directly to each other over a private connection, when in fact the entire conversation is controlled by the attacker.[24] Most browsers report these fake certificates.

Effectiveness and Impact[edit]

Some research evidence has indicated that suspicion of the Great Firewall in China and the sense that one is being surveilled online leads to chilled speech and self-censorship, which has been more effective at blocking internet content than the Great Firewall has been.[25]

The Great Firewall is a form of trade protectionism that has allowed China to grow its own internet giants: Tencent, Alibaba, and Baidu.[26][27] China has its own version of many foreign web properties, for example: Youku Tudou (youtube), (Twitter), Renren and WeChat (Facebook), Ctrip (Orbitz and others), zhihu (Quora).[28] With nearly one quarter of the global internet population (700 million users), the internet behind the GFW can be considered a "parallel universe" to the Internet that exists outside.[5]

Censored content[edit]

Mainland Chinese Internet censorship programs have censored Web sites that include (among other things):

Blocked Web sites are indexed to a lesser degree, if at all, by some Chinese search engines. This sometimes has considerable impact on search results.[30]

According to The New York Times, Google has set up computer systems inside China that try to access Web sites outside the country. If a site is inaccessible, then it is added to Google China's blacklist.[31] However, once unblocked, the Web sites will be reindexed. Referring to Google's first-hand experience of the great firewall, there is some hope in the international community that it will reveal some of its secrets. Simon Davies, founder of London-based pressure group Privacy International, is now challenging Google to reveal the technology it once used at China's behest. "That way, we can understand the nature of the beast and, perhaps, develop circumvention measures so there can be an opening up of communications." "That would be a dossier of extraordinary importance to human rights," Davies says. Google has yet to respond to his call.[32]


Because the Great Firewall blocks destination IP addresses and domain names and inspects the data being sent or received, a basic censorship circumvention strategy is to use proxy nodes and encrypt the data. Most circumvention tools combine these two mechanisms.[33]

  • Proxy servers outside China can be used, although using just a simple open proxy (HTTP or SOCKS) without also using an encrypted tunnel (such as HTTPS) does little to circumvent the sophisticated censors.[33]
  • Companies can establish regional Web sites within China. This prevents their content from going through the Great Firewall of China; however, it requires companies to apply for local ICP licenses.
  • Onion routing and Garlic routing, such as I2P or Tor, can be used.[33]
  • Freegate, Ultrasurf, and Psiphon are free programs that circumvent the China firewall using multiple open proxies, but still behave as though the user is in China.[33]
  • VPNs (virtual private network) and SSH (secure shell) are the powerful and stable tools for bypassing surveillance technologies. They use the same basic approaches, proxies and encrypted channels, used by other circumvention tools, but depend on a private host, a virtual host, or an account outside of China, rather than open, free proxies.[33]
  • Open application programming interface (API) used by Twitter which enables to post and retrieve tweets on sites other than Twitter. "The idea is that coders elsewhere get to Twitter, and offer up feeds at their own URLs—which the government has to chase down one by one." says Jonathan Zittrain, co-director of Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society.[34]
  • Reconfiguration at the end points of communication, encryption, discarding reset packets according to the TTL value (time to live) by distinguishing those resets generated by the Firewall and those made by end user, not routing any further packets to sites that have triggered blocking behavior.[35]

Unblocked websites[edit]

In 2008 the English-language BBC website (but not the Chinese language website) was unblocked.[36]

In 2017 the Chinese version of Google Maps[37] replaced the original google maps.

Exporting technology[edit]

Reporters Without Borders suspects that countries such as Cuba, Vietnam, Zimbabwe and Belarus have obtained surveillance technology from China although the censorships in these countries are not much in comparing to China.[38]

Protest in China[edit]

Despite strict government regulations, the Chinese people are continuing to protest against their government’s attempt to censor the Internet. The more covert protesters will set up secure SSH and VPN connections using tools such as UltraSurf. They can also utilize the widely available proxies and virtual private networks to fanqiang (翻墙, "climb over the wall"), or bypass the GFW. Active protest is not absent. Chinese people will post their grievances online, and on some occasions, have been successful. In 2003, the death of Sun Zhigang, a young migrant worker, sparked an intense, widespread online response from the Chinese public, despite the risk of the government’s punishment. A few months later, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao abolished the Chinese law that led to the death of Sun. Ever since, dissent has regularly created turmoil on the Internet in China.[39] Also in January 2010, when Google announced that it will no longer censor its Web search results in China, even if this means it might have to shut down its Chinese operations altogether, many Chinese people went to the company’s Chinese offices to display their grievances and offer gifts, such as flowers, fruits and cigarettes.[40]


Chinese corporate statutes mandate that domestic and foreign internet companies doing business in Mainland China cooperate with its Great Firewall efforts. The Chinese subsidiaries of American companies Yahoo!, Google, (Google services are blocked but Google still has a presence in China[41]) and Microsoft comply with this condition of operating there.[42] While the leadership of these companies regularly express their distaste for China's Great Firewall policies, in the same vein they consider it a necessary part of doing business in China and better than the alternative, which would be to not have any China business at all. Jerry Yang, a founder of Yahoo!, additionally has implied that the presence of foreign internet companies in China will eventually help bring about less internet restriction in China.[43]

Reaction of United States[edit]

United States Trade Representative's (USTR's) “ National Trade Estimate Report ” in 2016 referred the China’s digital Great Firewall: "China's filtering of cross-border Internet traffic has posed a significant burden to foreign suppliers."[44] Claude Barfield, the American Enterprise Institute's expert of International trade, suggested that American government should bring a case against the Firewall, a huge trade barrier, in the World Trade Organization in January 2017.[45]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ There are several variants of this saying in Chinese, including "如果你打开窗户换新鲜空气,就得想到苍蝇也会飞进来。" and "打开窗户,新鲜空气进来了,苍蝇也飞进来了。". Their meanings are the same.
  2. ^ For an example, see Wikipedia:Advice to users using Tor to bypass the Great Firewall


  1. ^ Mozur, Paul (13 September 2015). "Baidu and CloudFlare Boost Users Over China's Great Firewall". The New York Times. 
  2. ^ Mozur, Paul; Goel, Vindu (5 October 2014). "To Reach China, LinkedIn Plays by Local Rules". The New York Times. 
  3. ^ Branigan, Tania (28 June 2012). "New York Times launches website in Chinese language". The Guardian. 
  4. ^ Denyer, Simon (23 May 2016). "China's scary lesson to the world: Censoring the Internet works". The Washington Post. Retrieved 5 September 2017. 
  5. ^ a b c Rauhala, Emily (19 July 2016). "America wants to believe China can't innovate. Tech tells a different story". The Washington Post. Retrieved 5 September 2017. 
  6. ^ Lanfranco, Edward (September 9, 2005). "The China Yahoo! welcome: You've got Jail!". UPI. 
  7. ^ Barme, Geremie R.; Ye, Sang (6 January 1997). "The Great Firewall of China". Wired. Retrieved 29 December 2015. 
  8. ^ R. MacKinnon "Flatter world and thicker walls? Blogs, censorship and civic discourse in China" Public Choice (2008) 134: p. 31–46, Springer
  9. ^ "中国接入互联网". Retrieved 28 August 2013. 
  10. ^ "China and the Internet.", International Debates, 15420345, Apr2010, Vol. 8, Issue 4
  11. ^ Goldman, Merle Goldman. Gu, Edward X. [2004] (2004). Chinese Intellectuals between State and Market. Routledge publishing. ISBN 0415325978
  12. ^ Goldsmith, Jack L.; Wu, Tim (2006). Who Controls the Internet?: Illusions of a Borderless World. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 91. ISBN 0-19-515266-2. 
  13. ^ 首屆「2002年中國大型機構信息化展覽會」全國31省市金盾工程領導雲集 (in Chinese)
  14. ^ Denyer, Simon (May 23, 2016). "China's scary lesson to the world: Censoring the Internet works". Washington Post. 
  15. ^ Keith, Ronald; Lin, Zhiqiu (2006). New Crime in China. Routledge Taylor & Francis Group. pp. 217–225. ISBN 0415314828. 
  16. ^ August, Oliver (2007-10-23). "The Great Firewall: China's Misguided — and Futile — Attempt to Control What Happens Online". Wired Magazine. 
  17. ^ "Website Test behind the Great Firewall of China". 
  18. ^ Cody, Edward (2007-02-09). "Despite a Ban, Chinese Youth Navigate to Internet Cafés". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2015-04-01. 
  19. ^ Toor, Amar (May 4, 2017). "China is building its own version of Wikipedia". The Verge. 
  20. ^ Watt, Louise (4 May 2017). "China is launching its own Wikipedia – but only the government can contribute to it". The Independent. 
  21. ^ "Empirical Analysis of Internet Filtering in China". Retrieved 2011-06-13. 
  22. ^ "GFW (Great Firewall of China) FAQ". HikingGFW. See the section named 'IP blocking'. Retrieved 28 August 2013. 
  23. ^ "". Retrieved 2011-06-13. 
  24. ^ "China, GitHub and the man-in-the-middle". Retrieved 2014-10-13. 
  25. ^ Fell, Andy (September 11, 2007). "China's Eye on the Internet". UC Davis. 
  26. ^ Denyer, Simon (23 May 2016). "China's scary lesson to the world: Censoring the Internet works". The Washington Post. Retrieved 5 September 2017. 
  27. ^ Chen, Te-Ping (28 January 2015). "China Owns 'Great Firewall,' Credits Censorship With Tech Success". WSJ. 
  28. ^ Millward, Steven (January 12, 2017). "China's answer to Quora now worth a billion bucks". Tech in Asia. 
  29. ^ Marquand, Robert (24 February 2006). "China's media censorship rattling world image". The Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved 22 May 2011. 
  30. ^ "controlling information: you can't get there from here – filtering searches". The tank man. Frontline ( 
  31. ^ Thompson, Clive (23 April 2006). "Google's China Problem (and China's Google Problem)". The New York Times. p. 8. Retrieved 22 May 2011. 
  32. ^ Will Google's help breach the great firewall of China? By: Marks, Paul, New Scientist, 02624079, 4/3/2010, Vol. 205, Issue 2754
  33. ^ a b c d e "Splinternet Behind the Great Firewall of China: The Fight Against GFW", Daniel Anderson, Queue, Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), Vol. 10, No. 11 (29 November 2012), doi:10.1145/2390756.2405036. Retrieved 11 October 2013.
  34. ^ "Leaping the Great Firewall of China ", Emily Parker, Wall Street Journal, 24 March 2010. Retrieved 11 October 2013.
  35. ^ "Ignoring the Great Firewall of China", Richard Clayton, Steven J. Murdoch, and Robert N. M. Watson, PET'06: Proceedings of the 6th international conference on Privacy Enhancing Technologies, Springer-Verlag (2006), pages 20–35, ISBN 3-540-68790-4, doi:10.1007/11957454_2. Retrieved 11 October 2013.
  36. ^ "BBC website 'unblocked in China'". BBC News. 25 March 2008. Retrieved 22 May 2011. 
  37. ^
  38. ^ "Going online in Cuba: Internet under surveillance" (PDF). Reporters Without Borders. 2006. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2009-03-03. 
  39. ^ August, Oliver (23 October 2007). "The Great Firewall: China's Misguided — and Futile — Attempt to Control What Happens Online". Wired. Retrieved 4 February 2011. 
  40. ^ Ramzy, Austin (13 April 2010). "The Great Firewall: China's Web Users Battle Censorship". Time. Retrieved 4 February 2011. 
  41. ^ "Google Continues to Hire in China Even as Search Remains Blocked". Bloomberg News. 5 September 2017. 
  42. ^ Shemel, Sidney; Krasilovsky, M. William (2007). This Business of Music. Billboard Books. p. 441. ISBN 0823077233. 
  43. ^ Mills, Elinor (2006-03-08). "Yang speaks on Yahoo's China policy". CNET. Retrieved 2015-04-01. 
  44. ^ Barfield, Claude (April 29, 2016). "China's Internet censorship: A WTO challenge is long overdue". Retrieved 26 January 2017. 
  45. ^ Barfield, Claude (January 25, 2017). "China bans 8 of the world's top 25 websites? There's still more to the digital trade problem". American Enterprise Institute. Retrieved 26 January 2017.