Most internet users trying to get past China’s Great Firewall are looking for a cyber tunnel that will take them outside the censorship restrictions to the wider web. But Vincent Brussee is looking for a way in so he can get a better look at what life is like under the Communist Party.
Brussee is an analyst at the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Berlin and regularly scans the Chinese internet for data. His main focus is information that will help him understand China’s nascent social credit system. But in recent years he has noticed that his usual sources have become more unreliable and more difficult to access.
Some government websites fail to load and appear to block users from specific geographic locations. Other platforms require a Chinese phone number associated with an official identifier. Files that were available three years ago are starting to disappear as Brussee and many like him, including academics and journalists, find it increasingly frustrating to penetrate the Chinese cyber world from the outside.
“It makes it harder to simply understand where China is going,” Brussee said. “A lot of the work we do is digging for little bits of information.”
China is one of the most sweeping surveillance states in the world and has nearly closed its borders since the start of the pandemic, accelerating a political turn inward while increasing nationalism and treating foreign ties with suspicion. A strict zero-COVID policy has contributed to the attrition of foreign residents, especially after a long and bitter lockdown this spring in Shanghai, China’s largest and most international city.
At the same time, academics and researchers have complained that the digital window to China also appears to be narrowing. That adds to growing concern for Chinese experts who have been left out of the country amid deteriorating relations with the West. The tightening of internet access will leave observers struggling to decipher the internal pressures Chinese leader Xi Jinping may be facing and how to keep an eye on Beijing’s diplomatic, technological and military ambitions.
A comprehensive analysis of who keeps China’s Great Firewall out is scarce; much of the focus on the country’s internet freedom remains on domestic censorship. But many researchers who have experienced such challenges suspect that their restricted access is part of China’s effort to fend off what it sees as international interference, and present its own tightly controlled narrative to the outside world.
For example, several researchers noted difficulties in accessing Xinjiang government data from abroad, likely in response to international criticism over reports of forced labor and human rights violations against the Uyghur population in the western region. More puzzling to Brussee was when he encountered similar barriers on the government website of Anhui Province, a decidedly less controversial part of China.
Brussee said websites have also added guards against data scraping, limiting the amount of information he can retrieve through automation about public procurement of surveillance systems, policy documents and citizens or businesses affected by the social credit system. Some bot tests known as CAPTCHA require manual entry of Chinese characters or idioms, another barrier for those unfamiliar with the language.
China likes to propagate an image of power and superiority. But that has sometimes been undermined by embarrassing revelations, including recent videos of Shanghai residents protesting harsh lockdown restrictions. The messages were quickly wiped off the Chinese web but continued to circulate outside the Great Firewall, challenging Beijing’s claims that its zero-tolerance COVID policy was better at containing the pandemic than programs in the West.
Comments on the internet from China can also shed an unflattering light. Earlier this year, users of the Twitter-like Weibo platform were jailed for sexist comments that welcomed “beautiful” Ukrainian women as war refugees. An anonymous movement that translates extreme and nationalistic messages from Chinese netizens has outraged state commentators who call it an anti-China smear campaign.
To eliminate bottlenecks, Brussee uses a virtual private network, or VPN, which routes an internet user’s web traffic through servers in a different geographic location. While a common tool for Chinese internet users to get around the Great Firewall, Brussee’s goal is to access websites from within China’s borders.
But VPNs are not foolproof. The Chinese authorities have acted harshly, making connections in and out of China slow and erratic. Brussee said he was without a VPN for a month last fall when his main provider inexplicably stopped functioning. After five fruitless calls to the company, all he could do was wait for service to eventually resume. His last resort would be to use a Chinese company with more reliable servers in the country, but he said installing Chinese software comes with additional security risks.
“I think the VPN is often not enough anymore,” said Daria Impiombato, a researcher at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute who uses VPNs to bounce to different locations when trying to visit Chinese government websites. “You find solutions, but it takes much longer.”
An alternative source of information that Impiombato has relied on is WeChat, the ubiquitous social messaging app owned by Chinese gaming giant Tencent. Many party agencies have their own pages on WeChat where they post, but it takes a lot of mobile scrolling to find the relevant material, she said.
However, signing up for an account has become more challenging for foreigners in recent years as Chinese platforms such as WeChat, Weibo and others have implemented additional screening such as a Chinese phone number and official identification. In some cases, those registration requirements can be more prohibitive than geo-blocking, excluding sources from online discussions to official documents to industrial databases.
Graham Webster, editor-in-chief of the DigiChina Project at the Stanford University Cyber Policy Center, has been looking for a way to use Weibo ever since he lost his Chinese phone and then his account. The closest solution he could find was a service that provided temporary, and he suspected fraudulent, phone numbers.
“We’re talking about something that would be on the Internet for a fifth of the world’s population and not the other four-fifths,” Webster said. “This is another wedge in an increasingly steep curve of barriers between China and the outside world. It leaves much more ground for suspicion and uncertainty.”
Blocking foreign internet users, especially sensitive information, is not unique to China. According to a 2020 report by Censored Planet, which studies internet freedom and censorship, the US government had blocked about 50 websites from displaying from Hong Kong and mainland China, including official military homepages and shops selling economic data.
But China’s control over information seems more extensive. Over the past decade, the government had made files and data available online, according to researchers and academics. But in recent years — as China has become more sensitive to its global image and more critical of the West — that degree of openness has become a trend to deter outsiders from peeking in.
“It’s the effort of openness against the current push for closedness,” said Maya Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The result is a strange hybrid landscape, where you can access a lot of information as you go through all these hoops, especially since they weren’t designed to access it.”
Some who have developed ways to get around blockades have been reluctant to share details, other than generally trying to imitate a Chinese location, fearing those channels would be hooked up as well.
“By describing to a newspaper the workarounds to access blocked Chinese sites, the workarounds are also blocked,” a US academic researcher wrote via email. “The only thing I can add, without ending my own career, is another measure of common sense, which is to scrape and cache what you discover the first time.”
That has become standard practice for Impiombato, who has become paranoid about keeping her own copies of everything because government web pages, news stories and social media posts have unexpectedly disappeared during her investigation.
“Sometimes you see the perfect piece of information you need and then it’s suddenly gone,” she said. “You have to start over almost every time.”
Katherine Kaup, a professor at Furman University who studies China’s ethnic policy, said the changes in the country have forced her and others to consider completely new research topics and techniques. She has reservations about returning to China for fieldwork one day, and even virtual discussions with people in the country have been dampened by concerns about the consequences of speaking too candidly amid a growing crackdown on dissent.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m in a bad science fiction movie,” she said. “The kind of research we used to do won’t be possible for years to come.”