Great Firewall

This article is part of a series on the
Politics of the
People's Republic of China

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, Twitter etc.) and mobile apps, and requiring foreign companies to adapt to domestic regulations.[2][3] Besides censorship, the GFW has also influenced 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 Great firewall is operated under the "Golden Shield Project" by the Bureau of Public Information and Network Security Supervision (公共信息网络安全监察局, or 网监局 for short).[6]

As mentioned in the "One country, two systems" principle, China's special administrative regions such as Hong Kong and Macau are not affected by the project, as SARs have their own governmental and legal systems and therefore enjoy a high degree of autonomy. Nevertheless, it was reported that the central government authorities have been closely monitoring the Internet use in these regions.[7]

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.[8][9]


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.[10]

The Internet in China arrived in 1994,[11] 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.[12]

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.[13] The CDP was immediately banned, followed by arrests and imprisonment.[14] 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".[15] 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

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][16]

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.[17]

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.

The reasons behind the Internet censorship in China include:

  • Social Control: The Internet is a means for freedom of speech, and dissemination of campaigns could lead to protests against the government.
  • Sensitive Content: To control information about the government in China as well as its dark history.
  • Economic Protectionism: China prefers the use of local companies that are regulated by Chinese regulations, since they have more power over them. E.g. Baidu over Google.

Campaigns and crackdowns

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.[18]

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.[19] 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.[20]

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.[21][22]

Blocking methods

Current methods

The system blocks content by preventing IP addresses from being routed through. It consists of standard firewalls and proxy servers at the Internet gateways. The system also selectively engages in DNS poisoning when particular sites are requested. The government does not appear to be systematically examining Internet content, as this seems to be technically impractical.[23] Researchers at the University of California, Davis, and at the University of New Mexico said that the censorship system is not a true firewall since banned material is sometimes able to pass through several routers or through the entire system without being blocked.[24] Details for some commonly used technical methods for censoring are:[25]

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 (for instance, an IPv6 address) to circumvent the block, but later the block may be extended to cover the new addresses.[26]
DNS spoofing, filtering and redirection The DNS doesn't resolve domain names or returns incorrect IP addresses.[27] 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.[28]
Packet filtering Terminate TCP packet transmissions when a certain number of controversial keywords are detected. This can be effective with many TCP protocols such as HTTP, FTP or POP, but web search engine pages are more likely to be censored. Typical circumvention methods are to use encryption means, such as VPN and SSL, to protect the HTML content, or reducing the TCP/IP stack's MTU, thus reducing the amount of text contained in a given packet.
Man-in-the-middle attack GFW can use a root certificate from CNNIC, which is found in most operating systems and browsers, to make a MITM attack. On 26 Jan 2013, the GitHub SSL certificate was replaced with a self-signed certificate in China by, generally believed, the GFW.[29] This type of attack can be circumvented by websites implementing HPKP.
TCP 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.[30]
VPN blocking Beginning in 2011, users reported disruptions of Virtual Private Network (VPN) services.[31] In late 2012, the Great Firewall was able to "learn, discover and block" the encrypted communications methods used by a number of different VPN systems. China Unicom, one of the biggest telecoms providers in the country was terminating connections where a VPN is detected, according to one company with a number of users in China.[32] In July 2017, The New York Times reported that the Chinese government ordered Apple to remove all VPN apps from the Chinese iOS App Store.[33] Recently, reports have stated that international hotels have found gaps in the firewall and as a result the regulators have tightened their rules and asked hotel lobbies to stop offering their clients VPN's to access block content.[34] This comes on top of reports that new regulations will come into force that will require all VPN services to be authorised and sanctioned by the government.[35]

Other reported methods have included:

Method Description
Network enumeration It has been reported that unknown entities within China, likely with deep packet inspection (DPI) capabilities, have initiated unsolicited TCP/IP connections to computers within the United States for the purported purpose of network enumeration of services, in particular TLS/SSL and Tor (anonymity network) services, with the aim of facilitating IP blocking.[36]

Effectiveness and Impact

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.[37]

The Great Firewall is a form of trade protectionism that has allowed China to grow its own internet giants: Tencent, Alibaba, and Baidu.[4][38] China has its own version of many foreign web properties, for example: Youku Tudou/Bilibili(YouTube), Sina Weibo (Twitter), Renren (Facebook), WeChat (WhatsApp), Ctrip (Orbitz and others), Zhihu (Quora).[39] 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

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.[41]

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.[42] 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.[43]


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.[44]

  • 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.[44]
  • 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.[44]
  • 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.[44]
  • 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.[44]
  • 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.[45]
  • 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.[46]

Unblocked websites

In 2008 the English-language BBC website (but not the Chinese language website) was unblocked.[47]

In 2017 China censored Google, including Google Maps. Alternate map applications are available.

Exporting technology

Reporters Without Borders suspects that countries such as Cuba, Vietnam, Zimbabwe and Belarus have obtained surveillance technology from China, although the censorship in these countries is less stringent than in China.[48]

Even so, we see how the booming sector as well as one of the most dynamic. China is the second largest information and communication technology market, according to the International Data Corporation this market should reach USD $844 billion by 2020. The market for bid data is expected to become part of the industrial world of china by 2025.Regardless of the strictness the industrial internet architecture is already in place.[49]

Protest in China

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.[50] 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.[51]


Chinese corporate statutes mandate that domestic and foreign internet companies doing business in Mainland China cooperate with its Great Firewall efforts. Companies are responsible for the content that they put on their websites as well as the content that users post on their website. This helps China promote self-censorship, making their censoring job less difficult, and allowing them to keep being a state that licenses all their media.[52]

The Chinese subsidiaries of American companies Yahoo!, Google, (Google services are blocked but Google still has a presence in China[53]) and Microsoft comply with this condition of operating there.[54] 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.[55]

Arguments against the GFW

Critics argue that the GFW is consequence of China’s paranoia of the potential that the Internet has of spreading opposition to their one-party rule. Other arguments given against China are that their method of having a limited Internet impedes freedom of speech and that it holds them down, economically speaking, by discouraging innovation, disapproving communication of important ideas and prohibiting firms the use of certain services that they use, such as Google Cloud. It is also thought to be a detrimental approach for students and professors since they do not have access to Google Scholar, for example, which promotes the sharing of work and ideas for a more comprehensive learning.

Another important argument against the GFW and fear that the critics have is that if other big countries begin following China's approach, the whole purpose of the creation of the Internet could be put in jeopardy. If like-minded countries are successful in imposing the same restrictions on their habitants and globalized online companies, then the free global exchange of information could cease to exist.[52]

Reaction of United States

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."[56] 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.[57] 8 of the 24 more trafficked websites in China have been blocked by The Great Firewall. This has created a burden to foreign suppliers who rely on this websites to sell their products or services.The lobby’s 2016 business climate survey showed 79 percent of its members reported a negative impact on business due to internet censorship.[58]

See also


  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.


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