China's Censors: Filtering Keywords, Blocking Business

Life is getting tougher for firms behind the Great Firewall of China...

You don’t have to be a fan of the Chinese Communist Party to admire, from a purely technological and organisational perspective, the world’s most advanced internet censorship regime – the Great Firewall of China. Built over almost a decade and allegedly manned by tens of thousands of government employees, it’s the most successful attempt by any nation to block IP addresses and monitor and filter online content on a massive scale.

Yet for multi-national businesses operating within China, it has become an increasingly onerous task of late to stay one step ahead of the censors and use the internet in the manner for which it was originally intended. Despite the once-in-a-decade handover of power to a fresh political elite headed by new president Xi Jinping, the authorities have, if anything, stepped up their censorship regime. One of the main ways they control the vast ‘Chinternet’ is by pressuring social media sites to self-censor. It’s cheaper this way, as the cost of extra manpower and web monitoring technology must be borne by the private companies in question, and failure to comply could mean they are shut down.

Last month, not-for-profit body noticed that one of the biggest social media platforms – microblogging firm Sina – had been tinkering with results to provide a much more subtle, insidious method of censoring content. Previously, if users searched for blocked keywords such as “Tiananmen Square incident” they would be greeted with a standard message, roughly translated as: “According to relevant laws, regulations and policies, search results for [the blocked keyword] cannot be displayed.” However, according to, Sina had been experimenting with an alternative approach where instead of an outright block, some carefully selected results are allowed through.

“This is an example of censorship at its worst - users suspect their search term might get blocked before they search but instead of a censorship notice they are led to believe that what they are searching for is not sensitive, plus not many people are saying anything interesting about the keyword anyway,” Greatfire argued in a blog post.

Although the tinkering has stopped for now, it could be switched on again at a moment’s notice and is symptomatic of the way things are heading behind the Great Firewall. More concerning still for foreign companies in China is that their main method of bypassing the country’s repressive censorship regime – the Virtual Private Network (VPN) – has also come under threat. Foreign VPN providers like Astrill and Privax found a few months back that the Great Firewall had begun closing ports used by these services. In particular, the OpenVPN protocol is said to be blocked completely now, although providers have sidestepped to use PPTP and L2TP. These alternative VPN protocols apparently use the same ports used by traditional eCommerce sites, and so can’t really be touched by the authorities without them shutting down a large part of the Chinternet.

Back to dial-up

It’s not just the hassle of having to connect to a VPN which is affecting the productivity of MNC workers in China, however. The Great Firewall can also slow internet traffic down to cripplingly low speeds – sometimes deliberately in an attempt to dissuade web surfers from visiting certain sites like Google search and Gmail. It’s no coincidence that content delivery firm Akamai ranked China 91st in its most recent State of the Internet report for Q4 2012, with an average connection speed of just 1.8Mbps. When you consider how much of our working lives revolve around accessing web-based applications and services, the performance hit is clear.

In its Business Climate Survey 2013, the American Chamber of Commerce in China revealed that over half of its members believe internet censorship impacts their company’s ability to “conduct business normally in China”. Two-thirds said the same of the blocking of some internet search engines, while 72% said “slow or unstable” internet also impedes their ability to do business efficiently. Contacts I’ve spoken to over on the mainland have said similar things and, tellingly, that it’s getting worse, not better.

So what happens next? It’s unthinkable that the Communist Party will ever tear down the Great Firewall, for that would certainly spell the end of its 64-year stretch in power. But are we reaching a tipping point where censorship and all its knock-on effects become so severe that it’s impossible for many firms to continue doing business in the Middle Kingdom?

Well, that’s obviously for the individual companies to decide, and the huge financial rewards up for grabs there will probably delay that decision for some time to come. But if the censors continue to turn the screws as they have been doing recently, then things are going to get pretty uncomfortable for MNCs in China.


John Anderson has been writing about technology and all things Asia for over a decade. From his perch in the Far East he keeps a keen eye on the global significance of emerging trends in the region.