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China now has the ability to track internet users who ‘scale the wall’

Chinese internet café in Lijiang, Yunnan, PR China from the inside. (chrislb/WikiCommons)
November 01, 2020

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

Authorities in the eastern Chinese province of Zhejiang recently detained and warned an internet user after they were detected using a circumvention tool to read information on Wikipedia, which lies outside China’s complex network of blocks, filters, and human censorship known as the Great Firewall.

According to social media reports, internet user Zhang Tao received a visit from police soon after after using the open-source online encyclopedia, suggesting that the authorities’ ability to monitor people’s internet activity in real time has been stepped up recently.

In a now-deleted online announcement from the Zhejiang police, screenshots of which were still available on social media this week, Zhang was accused of using the circumvention tool Lantern, downloaded following a Baidu search, to “make repeated, illegal queries on the Wikipedia website.”

Zhang was detained by police on Oct. 24 at a building in the Mingzhuyuan residential complex on Huannan Street in the Dinghai district of Zhoushan city, it said.

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He was taken to the police station and accused of using mobile phone circumvention software to access international sites in order to get information.

His behavior met the criteria for “setting up and using illegal channels for international internet access without authorization,” the notice said.

Zhang received an administrative penalty, a warning, and an order to cease and desist from connecting to websites outside China, it said.

Repeated attempts to contact the Zhoushan police department public relations department met with no response.

However, an online article on the official website of the Zhejiang provincial Cyberspace Administration said it is “illegal to scale the Great Firewall to browse anti-CCP and anti-social content.”

An officer who answered the phone at a police station on Jiefang Road in Dinghai district referred inquiries to the Zhoushan municipal police department.

“We have reported this to our superiors,” the officer said. “If you want to know more details about the case, you will need to inquire at a higher level.”

However, repeated calls to the Zhoushan municipal police department rang unanswered during office hours on Thursday.

High-tech surveillance

France-based commentator Wang Longmeng said the development showed that police can now locate anyone in mainland China using circumvention software to “scale the Great Firewall.”

“The most noteworthy point in this case is that the police are able to track down those who scale the wall with great accuracy,” Wang told RFA. “The Chinese Communist Party’s high-tech surveillance of its citizens is like an advanced version of that used in Orwell’s 1984.”

He said it shows that China’s internet police are keeping tabs on Chinese users even when their activity is located outside the Great Firewall.

“We have seen an increasing number of Twitter users ‘disappear,’ believed silenced, or punished by the authorities,” Wang said.

Wang said the powerful Central Internet Security and Informatization Leading Group, which overseas China’s internet police, reports directly to CCP general secretary Xi Jinping.

“Once you criminalize scaling the Great Firewall, then China is once more an isolated country,” Wang said. “The CCP leadership want to use high walls to block the free flow of information, so they can brainwash their own citizens, and turn all 1.4 billion of them into subjects devoid of independent thought and judgement.”

“That way, their grip on power is much stronger,” he said.

Controls unevenly applied

Beijing-based rights lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan said the controls are unevenly applied, however, with employees of Chinese state media organizations like Xinhua, the Global Times, and foreign ministry spokespersons, all running accounts on overseas social media platforms that are blocked inside China.

“Look at Xinhua news agency, Hu Xijin of the Global Times, and the spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs… they all have Twitter accounts, and a lot of pro-CCP accounts are able to scale the wall too,” he said. “If they’re allowed to do it, why isn’t everybody else?”

“There shouldn’t be one rule for them and another for ordinary citizens.”

The multilingual version of Wikipedia was blocked in China in April 2019.

China ranked bottom of a list of 65 countries in the world assessed by the U.S.-based non-profit Freedom House in its Freedom on the Net 2020 report published earlier this month.

“The application of national sovereignty to cyberspace has given authorities free rein to crack down on human rights while ignoring objections from local civil society and the international community,” the report said.

“China’s regime, a pioneer in this field and the world’s worst abuser of internet freedom for the sixth year in a row, has long blocked popular foreign services and centralized technical infrastructure to allow for the pervasive monitoring and filtering of all traffic coming into the country,” it said, adding that Russia and Iran appeared to be taking leaves from Beijing’s playbook.