Skip to content Skip to navigation

China’s Internet Censorship and Controls: The Context of Google’s Approach in China

July 16, 2010

On January 12, 2010, Google stunned the world with its dramatic announcement that it was reconsidering its business in China in the wake of debilitating cyber-attacks, and furthermore that the company was no longer willing to continue operating a censored search engine in China,, launched in January 200 . On March 22, Google redirected to the Hong Kong-based search engine, where it now provides uncensored search results in the simplified character set used by people in mainland China. This piece first describes the context of Google’s decision, outlines some of the different tactics used by the Chinese government to control online speech, and then describes what some Chinese citizens are doing to evade and oppose these tactics.

The context of Google’s China announcement

American Internet company executives have long argued that more connectivity will bring more freedom—even in repressive regimes where the Internet is under heavy censorship and surveillance. Statements to that effect were a common theme in Congressional testimony given by Google and Yahoo executives at the February 200 hearing convened by the late Rep. Tom Lantos. Since then, Chinese Internet usage has nearly quadrupled. Stories abound of how Internet users in China have helped expose corruption, bring justice to innocent victims of official malfeasance, and even change some laws and regulations. But this has not changed the regime’s repressive attitude toward dissent. According to a recent report by the Dui Hua Foundation, in 2008 arrests and indictments on charges of “endangering state security”—the most common charge used in cases of political, religious, or ethnic dissent—more than doubled for the second time in three years.1

China is pioneering a new kind of Internet-age authoritarianism. It is demonstrating how a non-democratic government can stay in power while simultaneously expanding domestic Internet and mobile phone use. In China today there is a lot more give-and-take between government and citizens than in the pre-Internet age, and this helps bolster the regime’s legitimacy with many Chinese Internet users who feel that they have a new channel for public discourse. Yet on the other hand, as the Congressional- Executive Commission on China’s 2009 Annual Report clearly outlined, Communist Party control over the bureaucracy and courts has strengthened over the past decade, while the regime’s institutional commitments to protect the universal rights and freedoms of all its citizens have weakened.

Google’s public complaint about Chinese cyber-attacks and censorship occurred against this backdrop. It reflects a recognition that China’s status quo—at least when it comes to censorship, regulation, and manipulation of the Internet—is unlikely to improve any time soon, and may in fact continue to get worse.

Overview of Chinese Internet controls

Chinese government attempts to control online speech began in the late 1990s with a focus on the filtering or “blocking” of Internet content. Today, the government deploys an expanding repertoire of tactics. They include: deletion or removal of content at the source, device and local-level controls, domain name controls, localized disconnection or restriction, self-censorship due to surveillance, cyber-attacks, government “astroturfing,” local government “outreach,” and targeted police intimidation.

  • Filtering or “blocking”: This is the original and best understood form of Internet censorship. Internet users on a particular network are blocked from accessing specific websites. The technical term for this kind of censorship is “filtering.” Some congressional proceedings and legislation have also referred to this kind of censorship as “Internet jamming.” Filtering can range in scope from a home network, a school network, university network, corporate network, the entire service of a particular commercial Internet Service Provider (ISP), or all Internet connections within a specific country. It is called “filtering” because a network administrator uses special software or hardware to block access to specified web pages by banning access to certain designated domain names, Internet addresses, or any page containing specified keywords or phrases. A wide range of commercial filtering products are developed and marketed here in the United States by U.S. companies for filtering by parents, schools, government departments, businesses, and anybody else who wants to control how their networks are used. All Internet routers—including those manufactured by the U.S. company Cisco Systems—come with the ability to filter because it is necessary for basic cyber-security and blocking universally reviled content like child pornography. However, the same technology can just as easily be used to block political content. According to the Open Net Initiative (ONI), an academic consortium that has been following global Internet filtering since 2002, more than forty countries now practice Internet filtering to some extent at the national level. However China’s Internet filtering system—known to many as “the Great Firewall of China”—is the most sophisticated and extensive in the world. In its 2009 report on Chinese Internet censorship, the ONI described increasingly pervasive and sophisticated filtering tactics. “In fine-tuning this system,” the report concluded, “China is also adopting subtler and more fluid controls.”
  • Deletion and removal of content: Filtering is the primary means of censoring content over which the Chinese government has no jurisdiction. When it comes to websites and Internet services over which Chinese authorities do have legal jurisdiction—usually because at least some of the  company’s operations and computer servers are located in-country—why merely block or filter content when you can delete it from the Internet entirely? In Anglo-European legal parlance, the legal mechanism used to implement such a system is called “intermediary liability.” The Chinese government calls it “self-discipline,” but it amounts to the same thing, and it is precisely the legal mechanism through which Google’s Chinese search engine,, was required to censor its search results. All Internet companies operating within Chinese jurisdiction—domestic or foreign—are held liable for everything appearing on their search engines, blogging platforms, and social networking services. They are also legally responsible for everything their users discuss or organize through chat clients and messaging services. In this way, much of the censorship and surveillance work is delegated and outsourced by the government to the private sector—who, if they fail to censor and monitor their users to the government’s satisfaction, will lose their business license and be forced to shut down. It is also the mechanism through which China-based companies must monitor and censor the conversations of more than fifty million Chinese bloggers. Politically sensitive postings are deleted or blocked from ever being published. Bloggers who get too influential in the wrong ways can have their accounts shut down and their entire blogs erased. That work is done primarily not by “Internet police” but by employees of Internet companies.2
  • Cyber-attacks: The sophisticated, military-grade cyber-attacks launched against Google were targeted specifically at GMail accounts of human rights activists who are either from China or work on China-related issues. This serves as an important reminder that governments and corporations are not the only victims of cyber-warfare and cyber-espionage. Human rights activists, whistleblowers, and dissidents around the world, most of whom lack training or resources to protect themselves, have over the past few years been victim of increasingly aggressive cyber attacks. The effect in some cases is either to bring down overseas dissident websites at critical political moments, or causing frequent outages, putting great strain on the site’s operators just to keep it running. Websites run by Chinese exiles, dissidents, and human rights defenders have seen increasingly aggressive attacks over the past few years. In other cases the effect is to compromise activists’ internal computer networks and e-mail accounts to the point that it becomes too risky to use the Internet at all for certain kinds of organizing and communications because the dissidents don’t feel confident that any of their digital communications are secure. Journalists who report on human rights issues and academics whose research includes human rights problems have also found themselves under aggressive attack in places like China, exposing their sources and making it much more risky to work on politically sensitive topics. Like the activists, these groups are unprepared and ill-equipped to deal with cyber-attacks.
  • Device-level and local controls: In late spring of 2009 the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) mandated that by July 1st of that year all computers sold in China must be preinstalled with a specific software product called “Green Dam—Youth Escort.” While the purpose of “Green Dam” was ostensibly for child protection, researchers inside and outside of China quickly uncovered the fact that it not only censored additional political and religious content, it also logged user activity and sent this information back to a central computer server belonging to the software developer’s company. The software had other problems which made it easy for U.S. industry to oppose: it contained serious programming flaws which increased the user’s vulnerability to cyber-attack. It also violated the intellectual property rights of a U.S. company’s filtering product. Faced with uniform opposition from the U.S. computer industry and strong protests from the U.S. government, the MIIT backed down on the eve of its deadline, making the installation of Green Dam voluntary instead of mandatory.3 The defeat of Green Dam, however, did not diminish other efforts to control and track Internet user behavior at more localized levels within the national “Great Firewall” system—for instance at the level of a school, university, or apartment block as well as at the level of a city-wide Internet Service Provider (ISP). It was reported in September last year that local governments were mandating the use of censoring and surveillance products with names like “Blue Shield” and “Huadun.” The function and purpose of these products appeared similar to Green Dam, though they had the benefit of involving neither the end user nor foreign companies.4 The implementation of these systems has received little attention outside of China.
  • Domain name controls: In December, the government-affiliated China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC) announced that it would no longer allow individuals to register  Internet domain names ending in .cn. Only companies or organizations would be able to use the .cn domain. While authorities explained that this measure was aimed at cleaning up pornography, fraud, and spam, a group of Chinese webmasters protested that it also violated individual rights. Authorities announced that more than 130,000 websites had shut down in the cleanup. In January a Chinese newspaper reported that self-employed individuals and freelancers conducting online business had been badly hurt by the measure. Later in February, CNNIC backtracked somewhat, announcing that individuals will once again be allowed to register .cn domains, but all applicants must appear in person to confirm their registration, show a government ID, and submit a photo of themselves with their application. This eliminates the possibility of anonymous domain name registration under .cn and makes it easier for authorities to warn or intimidate website operators when “objectionable” content appears.
  • Localized disconnection and restriction: In times of crisis when the government wants to ensure that people cannot use the Internet or mobile phones to organize protests, connections are shut down entirely or heavily restricted in specific locations. There have been anecdotal reports of Internet connections going down or text-messaging services suddenly not working in counties or towns immediately after local disturbances broke out. The most extreme case however is Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, a traditionally Muslim region bordering Pakistan, Kazakhstan, and Afghanistan in China’s far northwest. After ethnic riots took place in July of last year, the Internet was cut off in the entire region for six months, along with most mobile text messaging and international phone service. Nobody in Xinjiang could send e-mail or access any website—domestic or foreign. Businesspeople had to travel to the bordering province of Gansu just to communicate with customers. Internet access and phone service have now been restored, but with severe limitations on the number of text messages people can send on their mobile phones per day, no access to overseas websites, and even very limited access to domestic Chinese websites. Xinjiang-based Internet users can only access specially watered-down versions of official Chinese news and information sites, with many of the functions such as blogging or comments disabled.
  • Self-censorship due to surveillance: Surveillance of Internet and mobile users is conducted in a variety of ways, contributing to an atmosphere of self-censorship. Surveillance enables authorities to warn and harass Internet users either via electronic communications or in person when individuals are deemed to be taking their online activities too far. Occasional detention, arrest, or imprisonment of select individuals serves as an effective warning to others that they are being watched. Surveillance techniques include:
    • “Classic” monitoring: While Chinese surveillance measures are explained by the government to the public as anti-terrorism measures, they are also broadly used to identify, then harass or imprison peaceful critics of the regime. Cybercafes—the cheaper and more popular option for students and less affluent people—are required to monitor users in multiple ways including ID registration upon entry to the café or upon login, surveillance cameras, and monitoring software installed on computers. Surveillance in Chinese cybercafes is known to be so extensive that people who are likely to engage in political conversations online avoid doing so in such facilities.
    • “Law enforcement compliance:” In a country like China where “crime” is defined broadly to include political dissent, companies with in-country operations and user data stored locally can easily find themselves complicit in the surveillance and jailing of political dissidents. The most notorious example of law enforcement compliance gone badly wrong was when Yahoo!’s local Beijing staff gave Chinese police account information of journalist Shi Tao, activist Wang Xiaoning, and at least two others engaged in political dissent. There are other examples of how law enforcement compliance by foreign companies has compromised activists. In 200 , Skype partnered with a Chinese company to provide a localized version of its service, then found itself being used by Chinese authorities to track and log politically sensitive chat sessions by users inside China. This happened because Skype delegated law enforcement compliance to its local partner without sufficient attention to how the compliance was being carried out. China’s more sophisticated and politically aware Internet users have long assumed that Chinese-branded e-mail and chat services monitor their communications and share them readily with authorities. As news about these incidents involving foreign-branded products has spread among Chinese Internet users, however, many no longer feel that they can trust foreign brands either. They feel they have no choice but to minimize the extent to which they use any Internet or mobile service for politically sensitive conversations for fear that anything and everything might be compromised.
    • Pro-active measures: “Astro-turfing” and outreach: the government increasingly combines censorship and surveillance measures with proactive efforts to steer online conversations in the direction it prefers. In 2008 the Hong Kong-based researcher David Bandurski determined that at least 280,000 people had been hired at various levels of government to work as “online commentators.” Known derisively as the “fifty-cent party,” these people are paid to write postings that show their employers in a favorable light in online chat rooms, social networking services, blogs, and comments sections of news websites. Many more people do similar work as volunteers—recruited from among the ranks of retired officials as well as college students in the Communist Youth League who aspire to become Party members. This approach is similar to a tactic known as “astro-turfing” in American parlance, now commonly used by commercial advertising firms, public relations companies, and election campaigns around the world.5 In many provinces it is now also standard practice for government officials—particularly at the city and county level—to work to co-opt and influence independent online writers by throwing special conferences for local bloggers, or inviting them to special press events or news conferences about issues of local concern.

All of these measures are implemented in the context of the Chinese government’s broader policies on information and news control. In December the Committee to Protect Journalists listed China as the world’s top jailer of journalists.6

Citizen pushback

Despite the government’s formidable array of control tactics, China’s determined, creative, and opinionated Internet users have managed to make the Chinese Internet a lively, fun, and often contentious place. Over the past six years I have been involved with a number of Chinese blogger groups, mailing lists, and social networks. Chinese “netizens”—as they call themselves—are doing a range of things to oppose Internet controls:

  • Informal anti-censorship support networks: I have attended gatherings of bloggers and journalists in China—with varying degrees of organization  or spontaneousness—where participants devoted significant amounts of time to teaching one another how to use circumvention tools to access blocked websites. Informal “teach-ins” on how to access Twitter are especially popular among people who want access to an uncensored, international community of conversation. Certain bloggers are known to post information about how to circumvent censorship and welcome their friends to copy and re-post their work as widely as possible. I have seen numerous Powerpoint presentations and PDF documents containing instruction manuals on how to use various tools, circulated by e-mail or through peer-to-peer instant messaging clients.
  • Distributed web-hosting assistance networks: I am aware of people who have strong English language and technical skills, as well as overseas credit cards, who are helping friends and acquaintances in China to purchase inexpensive space on overseas web hosting services, then set up independent blogs using free open-source software. The objective is to help people who don’t have the technical skills to run a website on their own to avoid a) being victim of content removal if they use domestic services, or b) being blocked if they use popular international blogging platforms like Blogspot, Typepad, Livejournal, or, all of which are blocked in China. Sometimes the people doing this largely volunteer work also help bloggers to switch domain names and IP addresses when the blog gains attention and gets blocked by the “Great Firewall.”
  • Crowdsourced “opposition research”:With the Chinese government’s Green Dam censorware edict last year, we have seen the emergence of loosely organized “opposition research” networks. Last June a group of Chinese computer programmers and bloggers collectively wrote a report exposing Green Dam’s political and religious censorship, along with many of its security flaws. They posted the document at Wikileaks.7 Another anonymous group of Chinese netizens have collected a list of companies and organizations—domestic and foreign—who have helped build China’s Internet censorship system.8
  • Preservation and relay of censored content: I have noticed a number of people around the Chinese blogosphere and in chatrooms who make a regular habit of immediately downloading interesting articles, pictures, and videos which they think have a chance of being blocked or removed. They then re-post these materials in a variety of places, and relay them to friends through social networks and e-mail lists.
  • Humorous “viral” protests: In 2009, Internet censorship tightened considerably. Many lively blogging platforms and social networks where heated political discussions were known to take place were shut down under the guise of an anti-porn crackdown. In response, an anonymous Shanghai-based jokester created an online music video called “Ode to the Grass Mud Horse”—whose technically innocent lyrics, sung by a children’s chorus over video of alpacas, contained a string of highly obscene homonyms. The video spawned an entire genre of anti-censorship jokes and videos involving mythical animals whose names sound similar to official slogans and obscenities of various kinds.9 This viral pranksterism created an outlet for people to vent about censorship, poke fun at the government, and raise awareness among many people who are not comfortable discussing such matters in a direct way.
  • Public persuasion efforts: A number of prominent liberal Chinese intellectuals and journalists occasionally write essays on personal blogs in which they criticize the government’s censorship and information control policies as counterproductive: censorship, they argue, stifles the Chinese people’s innovation and creativity, contributes to corruption and economic inefficiency, and generally prevents the nation from fulfilling its real potential. Such arguments have failed to influence government policies in any kind of meaningful way, although individual officials and business leaders sometimes do echo these sentiments in public fora.10 It remains unclear when or whether this line of argument will eventually convince China’s leadership to relax information controls. The good news, however, is that in China today it is at least possible to make this argument.


Many of China’s nearly 400 million Internet users are engaged in passionate debates about their communities’ problems, public policy concerns, and their nation’s future. Unfortunately these public discussions are skewed, blinkered, and manipulated—thanks to political censorship and surveillance. The Chinese people are proud of their nation’s achievements and generally reject critiques by outsiders even if they agree with some of them. While the broader international community can assist Chinese “netizens” in building the tools and platforms necessary to conduct an un-manipulated and un-censored discourse about their future, a democratic alternative to China’s Internet-age authoritarianism will only be viable if it is conceived and built by the Chinese people from within. 

[This article is primarily drawn from written testimony submitted for the record to the Congressional-Executive Commission on China hearing, “Google and Internet Control in China: A Nexus Between Human Rights and Trade?” March 24, 2010,]


1. “Chinese State Security Arrests, Indictments Doubled in 2008,” Dui Hua Human Rights Journal, March 25, 2009, ^

2. Rebecca MacKinnon, “China’s Censorship 2.0: How Companies Censor Bloggers,” First Monday, February 2006; Rebecca MacKinnon, “The Chinese Censorship Foreigners Don’t See,” The Wall Street Journal Asia, August 14, 2008, ^

3. Rebecca MacKinnon, “After the Green Dam Victory,” CSIS Freeman Report, June/July 2009, ^

4. Owen Fletcher, “China Clamps Down on Internet ahead of 60th Anniversary,” IDG News Service, September 25, 2009,; Oiwan Lam, “China: Blue Dam Activated,” Global Voices Advocacy, September 13, 2009, ^

5. “Astroturfing describes the posting of supposedly independent messages on Internet boards by interested companies and individuals. In American politics, the term is used to describe formal public relations projects which deliberately give the impression that they are spontaneous and populist reactions. The term comes from AstroTurf—the fake grass used in many indoor American football stadiums. The contrast between truly spontaneous or “grassroots” efforts and an orchestrated public relations campaign is much like the distinction between real grass and AstroTurf.” AnswerNotes, “astroturfing,”, ^

6. Committee to Protect Journalists, “2009 Prison Census,” December 1, 2009, ^

7. “A Technical Analysis of the Chinese ‘Green Dam Youth-Escort’ Censorship Software,” Wikileaks, June 2009, ^

8. “GFW Engineering Team Name List,” January 2010, ^

9. Michael Wines, “A Dirty Pun Tweaks China’s Online Censors,” The New York Times, March 11, 2009, ^

10. Xiao Qiang, “Charles Zhang: Without Reform There Is No Way Out,” China Digital Times, February 4, 2010, ^