5 min read

Greetings from behind the Great Firewall of China

Huangpu River, Shanghai.

Shanghai: From outside The Mercedes Arena you can watch heavy-laden barges roll down the Huangpu River. Look up and the sky is yellow with smog. While China can be ultramodern, the industrial era is ever-present.

Stepping into the arena is like fast-forwarding 100 years.

Some 15,000 technology professionals sit waiting in the packed air-conditioned arena.

Soft, anywhere-in-the-world music plays through a flawless sound system getting everyone in the mood.

The audience flew in from all over the globe to hear the latest on cloud computing. Later, sessions will run on creating state-of-the-art university networks and building smart cities.

Blue skies indoors

At the front of the hall, a giant video screen the size of a tennis court shows clouds in a blue, blue sky.

A second screen, or series of screens, extends the giant display across the ceiling. Further screens relay images to those sitting too far away or in awkward corners.

Next door an expo shows virtual reality tools, open source software and 3D printing. There is more, much more, about modern enterprise computing.

This is Shanghai, China in the year of our internet 2016. From the airport you get to the city on a maglev train tipping the speedometer at over 300 kph. Once there you may see workers pedalling ancient push bikes pulling huge trailers.

Contrasts, contradictions and anachronisms are everywhere.

At times even dull everyday technology impresses. Our conference hotel offers free, unlimited WiFi throughout the building. Speeds are not the fastest, it manages a symmetrical 10 Mbps all day long. That’s better than you get in many New Zealand hotels.

Mobile networks are everywhere and deliver decent speeds. New Zealand technology users may notice the public wi-fi network based on telephone kiosks. Just like home.

Shanghai Wi-Fi.

Broken internet

Despite the modernity, the urge to embrace technology, China’s internet feels broken.

You can get a fast net connection in seconds from almost everywhere. Google, Facebook and Twitter, to name three popular global services are off-limits.

Shanghai, like the rest of mainland China, sits behind a series of network controls. Some call these controls The Great Firewall of China.

There’s more to the Chinese cyber police than blocking popular international services. They watch Chinese internet users. That may include foreign journalists assigned to technology conferences. There is constant filtering and more direct censorship of material.

Internet companies in China censor material on their own networks before it gets out. That saves time and money. Once in the wild subversive traffic could become a problem for the service providers.

Net professionals are subject to regular government directives.

Snoops sniff data packets, including the ones bringing you these words. The idea is to look for harmful foreign influences — this post probably doesn’t qualify.

Crude start

At first the Great Firewall of China was crude.

On an earlier trip it blocked entire web domains if there was any suspicion of anything untoward. Today, the blocking is more subtle. The Great Firewall of China lets some sites through with only certain, troublesome pages censored.

One change in recent years is the way the firewall blocks sites of interest to foreign users. Last year, on a trip to Shenzhen in Southern China, it blocked Google’s search engine and the Gmail web page.

At the time it was still possible to reach the Gmail IMAP servers and load messages into a mail client.

This trip, the Gmail IMAP server is inaccessible. Or at least more inaccessible than before. Now you can’t connect to the server from a laptop or a device reaching the internet through hotel wi-fi.

It is still sometimes possible to reach Google’s IMAP server from an iPhone connected to the China Mobile network.


This lack of consistency is a feature of dealing with the Great Firewall of China.

Virtual private networks are a popular workaround for foreign journalists filing stories from China. Others use proxy servers.

If you were a local and used VPNs a lot, you might attract someone’s attention. Then again you might not. No-one seemed concerned about visiting journalists using VPNs and proxy servers.

China’s cyber-police have found ways to interfere with VPNs. This story was partly written on an iPad Pro with Norton WiFi Privacy – a VPN.

As the name suggests, Symantec sells the software as a tool for keeping WiFi traffic safe. It was never designed to beat China’s Great Firewall.

It works up to a point. Yet while VPN performance is fine in New Zealand, it’s erratic in Shanghai. Norton WiFi Privacy keeps disconnecting. At times it connects to a server in China, even though that’s not an official Norton option.

There are times when the VPN hums along. And times when it has to reconnect every few minutes, then it drops out again and again. It is as if something remote is resetting connections.

Shanghai at night.
Shanghai at night.

Bots guard Great Firewall of China

Reports elsewhere suggest the Chinese government uses machine learning to block VPNs. If so, then in effect, users are fighting artificial intelligence.

Either way, there’s a remarkable level of sophistication. You may be a security expert who can shed light on the techniques used. Feel free to comment below.

Working around the Great Firewall is frustrating. Want to check some facts? It’s hard when you can’t use Google and the Great Firewall blocks some newspapers.

You have to know exactly what site you are looking for. Typing words in the browser bar may not work as expected.

China allows Microsoft’s Bing search engine. It is a local, censored version. Often Bing answers appear in Mandarin. That’s helpful for Chinese users, not for most westerners.

Shanghai is a town where Google Maps could help you find your way around. If it was available. It’s possible to find local online maps and direction finding tools. They can be erratic and often text that was in western script a moment ago is, next minute, all in Mandarin.

There are also strange behaviours with innocuous things like Apple’s iCloud. Files sync between phone, tablet and computer, maybe not at the pace you might expect. A file stored to iCloud on a MacBook in the hotel room may, or may not, sync to your phone for editing elsewhere.

Likewise while Microsoft OneDrive works; it is not as smooth as it is at home. That’s another aspect of the Great Firewall — it often slows the internet.

Perhaps it should not be surprising to learn the Great Firewall blocks WordPress. The blogging site is, in a sense, the 21st-century printing press.

China doesn’t have a problem with the WordPress software as such. Many hosted sites there use WordPress. Yet it blocks WordPress.com. It wasn’t possible to post or edit this story in China without a VPN. Even then it was tricky with random disconnects.

Great Firewall of China is protectionist

Banning external sites acts as a form of trade protection. Local alternatives to Facebook, Twitter and Goole thrive without foreign competition.

That is only a by-product, China’s real purpose is political or ideological censorship. It stops foreign ideas about democracy and freedom from influencing Chinese citizens.

The Great Firewall helps squash internal dissent. It means Chinese users only get to see official, sanctioned news reports. Overseas news reports about, say, Chinese leaders’ questionable personal finances never get an airing.

In some ways it may be ineffective. Uncomfortable information and dissent can and do exist with or without an open internet. Yet the Great Firewall highlights the power, reach and sophistication of Chinese government control.