Activists Are Finding New Ways Around China’s Great Firewall

From mirror sites to resetting messenger apps, fresh tools are emerging in the fight against Chinese censorship

  • Share
  • Read Later
STF / AFP / Getty Images)

When the censors push, people push back. That’s the message sent this week by activists and academics working to find new ways around China’s Great Firewall.

Last Friday, as part of an ongoing crackdown, China blocked the Chinese-language websites of Reuters and the Wall Street Journal. By Sunday,, an anti-censorship group, effectively “unblocked” the site by building a copy, called a mirror site, that is hosted by Amazon Web Services. To shut down mirror sites like this, GreatFire says, China would have to block their cloud storage — calling attention to censorship and potentially jeopardizing Chinese businesses with Amazon-hosted sites.

On Wednesday, they used the same technique to create a mirror for China Digital Times, a media organization that calls attention to Chinese state censorship and is blocked on the Chinese mainland. “This is a shot across the bow, directed very much in response to this latest censorship push,” says Jason Q. Ng, research fellow at the Citizen Lab, part of the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs. “It’s definitely a really clever way of breaking down the Great Firewall.”

Their work comes on the heels of two high-profile cases that have raised questions about the future of foreign reporting on China. Last week, unnamed Bloomberg News reporters went public with charges that the company spiked politically sensitive investigative reporting on China. (An award-winning Bloomberg reporter later left the company.)

Earlier this month, the Chinese government rejected the visa application of Paul Mooney, a veteran China reporter known for documenting human-rights abuses, who was set to work for Reuters in Beijing. “When Reuters Chinese was blocked, we just thought, ‘that’s it,’” says one of’s co-founders, who uses the pseudonym Charlie Smith. “It was the straw that broke our back.”

The mirror sites are part of a broader push by activists and academics working to document state censorship and, as much as possible, make blocked content available to Chinese netizens. GreatFire, the not-for-profit that Smith co-founded in early 2011, started with the aim of tracking what was blocked in China. They maintain a list of search terms blocked on Sina Weibo, a microblog, as well as stats on blocked sites. “We did that, that was fine,” he said, in a recent interview conducted over Google Talk. “But we realized very quickly that it helped journalists, but it wasn’t helping the average Chinese.”

The Reuters mirror site, which was built without the company’s knowledge or approval, aims to enable people in mainland China to read Reuters Chinese without the use of a virtual private network, or VPN. To access the site, users just need the alternate link. Since the GreatFire site is itself blocked, the number of ordinary Chinese stopping by may be modest, for now. But people are visiting and, Smith hopes, will continue to do so. The plan is to use the tactic to unblock more and more content.

What’s so interesting about GreatFire’s strategy is that it highlights China’s connections to, not its isolation from, the rest of the Web. This type of mirror site could have been built years ago, Smith said, but it would not have had the same effect. The strategy rests on the fact that such a large number of Chinese sites, including businesses, use cloud storage services owned by Amazon and Google. “We think if the Chinese authorities were able to block the mirror sites, they would have,” he said. “We have put them in the position where they have to make some difficult choices.”

Other researchers, meanwhile, are investigating ways to detect and derail surveillance of popular chat services. Building on a previous collaboration with researchers at the University of New Mexico, a team affiliated with Munk School’s Citizen Lab is currently studying three of Asia’s most popular messenger services: Japan’s Line, China’s WeChat and South Korea’s Kaokao. By reverse engineering the Line application, they found that if a user’s country is set to China, censorship functions will kick in. In their first research report, published last week, they provide information on how to disable censorship by changing the encrypted region. They also monitor banned words.

Upcoming reports will focus on WeChat and Kaokao, said the Citizen Lab’s Seth Hardy and Masashi Crete-Nishihata. They emphasized that the purpose of their work is academic, but they will share findings that could benefit netizens. If China’s censors keep at it, the number of netizens needing help will only grow.