China has the biggest and most sophisticated online monitoring and censorship system in the world. Authorities ban websites, monitor chat applications, and actively block VPN connections that might otherwise circumvent these restrictions through the nation’s telecommunications and technology firms. On a more tangible level, the nation uses CCTV and facial recognition to keep an eye on everyone. Internet users are compelled to create accounts using their actual names and phone numbers, and their online and offline conduct may impact their credit score.
In this post, I’ll examine the different components and regulations that comprise China’s extensive monitoring and censorship.
China is probably best known for its internet restrictions. Authorities restrict access to a variety of applications, websites, and online services through government-owned internet service providers, including:
- Western-style social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter
- Netflix, Hulu, and Youtube are all streaming services
- Google’s entire suite of services, including Translate and Maps
- Western news organizations
- Websites offering VPN and proxy services
- Email, messaging, and VoIP applications in languages other than Chinese
- Search engines that are not Chinese
- Platforms for blogging, such as Medium
- Online gambling establishments
- Sites dedicated to pornography
- Websites that include supernatural, profane, or violent content
Attempting to access any of these websites or applications will result in a connection failure unless you are using a VPN.
These websites and applications are banned through the Golden Shield Project, dubbed the Great Firewall. It enables state-owned internet service providers to limit internet connections to a small number of access points, allowing for the monitoring of all traffic entering and exiting the nation.
Websites and applications are banned in several ways, including the following:
- IP blocking is a technique that prevents customers from connecting to the IP address of a server hosting a website.
- DNS tampering is the act of altering a DNS cache entry in such a way that a URL — such as “www.cnn.com” — is resolved to the incorrect IP address.
- Keyword filtering methods look for sensitive terms and phrases in search queries, communications, and web page requests. ISPs may block unauthorized communication by intercepting DNS queries containing sensitive keywords and inserting changed DNS responses.
- Deep packet inspection, or packet filtering, may search for critical keywords in internet traffic or detect whether a packet has been encrypted using a VPN protocol. This will be discussed in more detail later.
- Manual enforcement entails locating and blocking legitimate IP addresses and URLs utilizing China’s 50,000-strong internet police squad.
While websites and applications are often banned indefinitely, temporary bans are possible. Enter the URL of a website to see whether it is banned in China.
Observe or depart: western technology firms censor on behalf of China
In many high-profile instances, China will first require a foreign technology firm to comply with its monitoring and censorship requirements to continue functioning in the country. Since China is the world’s biggest consumer market, many businesses choose to comply.
Following Google’s expulsion from China for refusing to filter its search results, Microsoft Bing moved in to fill the void by deleting search results in accordance with China’s demands.
Apple removes many applications from the App Store at the Chinese government’s request. This also applies to VPN applications.
Deep packet inspection and blocking of VPNs
Many individuals in China use VPNs to circumvent online restrictions. A VPN, an abbreviation for Virtual Private Network, is an encrypted proxy that routes users’ connections via an intermediate server in a location of their choice. This conceals both the content of the user’s connection and the website they’re viewing, enabling access to banned websites and applications.
China has taken a proactive stance in blocking VPN websites and VPN connections. Only a few VPN companies continue to operate in China, and they are constantly battling to get their servers off Great Firewall blacklists.
If you’re heading to China and want to use a VPN to access restricted content, be sure to sign up for and download the VPN software, as well as any required paperwork, before your trip.
Apart from blacklisting well-known VPN servers, China also employs a technique known as “deep packet inspection” to detect VPN-encrypted data. This method enables the identification and blocking of VPN connections based on their encryption patterns. VPNs operating in China often use traffic obfuscation to disguise encrypted data as unencrypted data, thus avoiding the Great Firewall.
Monitoring social media platforms, messaging applications, and financial transactions
China has its ecosystem of applications, websites, and online services, most of which are country-specific. The most famous example is WeChat, a messaging software that also doubles as a social network, an e-wallet, and a VoIP service.
Tencent, the company that created the app, is one of the biggest technology firms in the nation, if not the globe. Chinese authorities can monitor WeChat chats and activities, including scanning for sensitive keywords sent between users. This covers communications exchanged between Chinese and foreign users.
The software may also be used to monitor financial activities, phone conversations, and whereabouts.
CCTV surveillance and facial recognition
China, according to our study, has the most CCTV cameras per capita and is a passionate proponent of face recognition technology.
CCTV and facial recognition are used in conjunction to monitor and limit movement and assembly. Authorities may do background checks on anybody who passes a CCTV camera.
These capabilities enable authorities to exclude individuals of interest from traveling by rail or aircraft, as well as publicly humiliate traffic violators. For example, in China’s Xinjiang region, face recognition cameras have been deployed to monitor and persecute Uighur Muslims.
Apart from facial recognition, China maintains other biometric information on its citizens.
China has a national biometric database, which contains people’s DNA samples, fingerprints, iris scans, and blood types.
Anyone entering China is fingerprinted.
During the COVID-19 lockdown, drones equipped with face recognition were deployed to monitor individuals outside their houses. At the front of buses, tablets were placed to capture mugshots and temperature readings of passengers.
Registration of real names
When customers register for an account, internet service providers, internet businesses, and phone carriers are obliged to request and verify their actual identities.
No fictitious identities or parody accounts are permitted. Among the limitations on real names are the following:
- All bloggers and journalists must publish using their real names.
- On marketplace websites, merchants must use their actual names.
- Social networking sites demand that new accounts be created using a genuine identity and a valid national identification number.
- Users of dating applications must register using their actual names and national identification numbers.
- Online purchasers of railway and bus tickets must provide their actual names.
- Online payment systems require users to provide their national identification numbers.
- To sign up for phone or internet service, you must use your actual name.
- When developers publish applications, they must register using their actual identities.
- Anyone who uploads a video to the internet must create an account with the video service using their actual identity.
- Accounts on messaging apps must be created using genuine identities.
- Internet comments on forums and social media platforms require a real-name account.
Due to these limitations, online anonymity and privacy are effectively impossible in China.
Systems of social credit
China has been developing a social credit system for years. The concept is that public and private organizations will gather and exchange data about Chinese people, companies, and government institutions. This aggregate data is used to generate a credit score, which may be used to get access to a variety of programs and services. Additionally, the system may be used to punish individuals and companies that act badly, such as those that commit fraud.
According to critics, the social credit system will be utilized to exert total control over the Chinese people’s lives. Certain cities penalize residents for excessively loud music, jaywalking, or eating on public transportation. Those who use social media to criticize or undermine the government risk having their scores reduced.
A person’s credit rating may improve if they make a charitable donation, get a COVID-19 vaccine, pay taxes, volunteer for community service, or publicly laud the government.
Individuals with poor social credit ratings may be denied access to public services and credit. According to a 2019 study, 27 million airline tickets and 6 million high-speed train tickets were refused by those with an insufficient credit rating. They may be unable to enroll their children in a private school, work for a certain company, or attend a movie theater.
A distrustful atmosphere
All of these methods, taken together, enable China to monitor individuals both online and offline, eradicating privacy and any possibility of anonymity. Online personas have become inextricably linked to real-world identities. These methods are employed across the country but are particularly stringent and widespread in areas of instability and stress, such as the Xinjiang region, which is home to the country’s Muslim Uighur minority.
Apart from the obvious abuses that may and do occur, intrusive, continuous monitoring fosters mistrust and restricts the freedoms of expression, movement, and assembly.