China’s ‘Great Firewall’ Now Deletes Messages in Real Time

There is more than irony in the fact that Nobel Laureate Liu Xiobao’s death coincided with Beijing’s massive effort to clamp down on internet communication. It’s the end of an era.

Cancan Chu/Getty

HONG KONG—A close friend in Hangzhou tried to send a photo to me via WhatsApp. All pure-text messages came through, but the image was intercepted, blocked—and erased.

My mother did the same in Guangdong province in southeast China, just across the border from Hong Kong, and the same thing happened. The Chinese authorities have figured out how to obstruct the electronic transmission of images, videos, and voice messages, marking a milestone in the plan to bolster control via the Great Firewall and safeguard their nation’s “cyber sovereignty”—a term that was first used by Chinese president Xi Jinping in December 2015 to suggest that all nations should “curb the abuse of information technology, oppose network surveillance and hacking, and fight against a cyberspace arms race.”

The irony of those words was likely lost on Xi, and, looking back, the pattern of the Great Firewall’s development is extremely disturbing.

In late 2014, it was still possible for Chinese internet users to find footage of public demonstrations where protesters spoke out against unscrupulous employers and some public officials.

About a year later, the protests persisted, but their digital footprint had been paved over; those in Chongqing never heard of wronged public school teachers speaking out in Nanjing, and factory workers in Shenzhen who have organized and banded together to recover unpaid wages would not be able to share their work publicly with labor activists in northeastern coal-mining towns. And yet one thing was always let through the cracks—aside from individuals singled out by China’s cyber cops for surveillance, most private citizens could use messaging apps to share textual information, images, videos, and audio.

No longer. What were once considered to be outrageous notions—blocking Chinese web traffic to all overseas websites, killing livestreaming, or forcing all businesses operating in China, including foreign companies, to store their data within the borders of the People’s Republic—are now slowly coming true.

Beijing’s latest moves have not only crippled personal communication, but also hurt the country’s economy. As tech innovators are constantly pushing for change in how we connect with each other, and quietly lobby for laxer digital controls as enforced by some 2 million people who monitor the PRC’s web traffic, Chinese regulators still hold the keys to the floodgates of free information.

Though the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology has denied that it plans to ban usage of virtual private networks, which create encrypted connections that allow Chinese web users to do anything from watch episodes of Friends on YouTube to read banned news outlets, the latest move to hinder previously private communication is much more nefarious.

Since becoming the Chinese Communist Party’s leader five years ago, Xi Jinping has consistently expressed his desire for tighter government controls. Human rights lawyers once used the messaging app Telegram, but it was eventually blocked by Beijing. Now other methods of communication are under attack.

The outcome is obvious to anyone viewing the absurd situation from the outside. Chinese students who make it abroad are ill-prepared. Researchers are fleeing their homeland for Western institutions, where constraints on accessing publicly available information are absent. Foreign businesses must undergo excruciating soul-searching when mulling the decision to enter China.

Such stringent restriction could be meant to protect China’s own internet and tech companies, which have often been described as knockoffs of Google, Facebook, and other American enterprises.

On the ground, however, one fact remains: For those who do not fall in line with Beijing’s idea of the pseudo-socialist wonderland, also known as the “Chinese Dream,” another mode of communication has been lost, and the trajectory of the Great Firewall’s expansion does not hold promise for outspoken dissidents.

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An example would be recently deceased pro-democracy intellectual Liu Xiaobo, who was the first Nobel Peace Prize laureate to be killed by his own government since 1938, when the pacifist Carl von Ossietzky died in Nazi Germany after being convicted of high treason. Liu’s death marked the end of an era of activism in China.

Nearly nine years ago, Liu petitioned for democracy in China and encouraged his fellow citizens to endorse the idea. He was one of the authors of Charter 08, a manifesto modeled after the anti-Soviet Charter 77 produced by Czechoslovakian dissidents. Among other demands, the charter’s Chinese authors called for an independent legal system, freedom of association and expression, and the abolition of one-party rule in their country.

The document was signed by some 350 Chinese intellectuals and activists, and was published on the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Within a year, over 10,000 people inside and outside China appended their names to the document, including former senior Chinese Communist Party officials.

Liu’s activities ruffled feathers in Beijing, and he was placed on trial for “subversion.” In 2009, he told a court in the Chinese capital that he “has no enemies and no hatred,” because it can “erode a person’s intelligence and conscience.” A year later, he won the Nobel Peace Prize, and the Nobel committee called him the “foremost symbol” of the struggle for human rights in China. At the award ceremony, his seat was left empty.

Few managed to keep up with Liu’s fervor, and he was at times abrasive toward other human rights activists if he thought they were not pushing hard enough to change the situation in China. That did not stop his peers from attempting to see him during his final days, as word spread that Liu might be facing his end. Chinese security officials prevented them from traveling, keeping them at home so that their only sources of information were the occasional blurbs on social media or online messaging services.

Liu’s treatment by the Chinese authorities during his incarceration was a matter of international, although lukewarm, concern. As Liu’s end neared, Germany tried to extend help by sending one of its doctors to examine the dissident. The visit was recorded against the wishes of the German embassy in Beijing, which rebuked Chinese authorities for the way they handled the matter. In a statement posted online, the embassy pointed out that footage of the visit was “leaked selectively to certain Chinese state media outlets,” and “it seems that security organs are steering the process, not medical experts.”

When Liu was incarcerated in Jinzhou Prison in China’s northeastern corner, not too far from the border with North Korea, fellow dissident and superstar contemporary artist Ai Weiwei had post-ready postcards at his exhibitions for attendees’ use. They had Liu Xiaobo’s name and the address of his prison facility printed on one side already, with space for anyone to write in messages of goodwill. Thousands upon thousands of these postcards were mailed to China, though Liu never received a single one.

Liu dreamed of a China that evolved from a single-party system to a multi-party democracy, one where personal freedoms mattered just as much as social harmony and the people too had a say in defining their nation’s future.

His spouse, Liu Xia, remains under house arrest. Even Beijing admits that she has committed no crime, yet she has been living with guards watching her every move since her husband was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in absentia. Many have urged China to release Liu Xia, including U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

She was allowed to attend the scattering of her husband’s ashes in the sea—an event apparently meant to prevent people from gathering at any sort of memorial to the martyr.

But all these events, widely reported around the world, were controlled, censored, or obscured in China.

The ruling party, under President Xi Jinping’s command, has been surgical in stifling voices of dissent. Human rights activists in China know that they are on their own—despite sympathies that pour in from abroad, or the Nobel Committee’s endorsement of steadfast heroes from afar, or even some of the world’s most influential men and women’s calls for the CCP to loosen its grip, no moves are ever made to back up those words. Chinese dissidents have been left behind to fend for themselves, with a scant few hoisted up abroad as icons in the pursuit of justice and accountability.

Now, their means of communication have been severed, their messages literally plucked from thin air and made to disappear. China’s censors have managed to produce a technological marvel, one that is horrifying in its implications. Some may choose to continue to speak up. But with Liu Xiaobo as a reference, in the People’s Republic, the price of sharing righteous words could be one’s own life.