The digital architect of China’s ‘great firewall’ was publicly embarrassed this week after he was forced to use a forbidden tool to access a website during a public lecture.
Earlier this week, Hong Kong media reported that Fang Binxing, who is credited with helping institute the filters that prevent Chinese internet users from visiting many international websites, had run into some trouble trying to access a South Korean site during a public discussion of internet security at the Harbin Institute of Technology.
Finding his path to the site blocked, Fang turned on a Virtual Private Network (VPN), the digital workaround employed by countless Chinese – 29% of the country’s internet users in Q4 2015, according to Statista – to access forbidden URLs (including online gambling sites). A self-conscious Fang reportedly urged his audience not to emulate his example.
After deploying the VPN, Fang struggled with the inconsistent connection, another familiar sight to many in the bemused audience. Fang eventually gave up trying to reach the forbidden site and a Q&A scheduled for after his presentation was cancelled.
Hong Kong media reported last month that China had upgraded its anti-VPN technology, a move timed to coincide with the National People’s Congress political gathering in Beijing. Local activists and other international site visitors claimed their VPNs either worked poorly or not at all.
China is also pushing new draft internet regulations that are ostensibly aimed at Chinese domain registration services and China-hosted sites but critics claim the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology’s new regulations are so broadly written that they could be used to block any website registered outside of China.
On Thursday, US government trade officials formally added China’s internet censorship to their list of trade impediments, saying the limits “posed a significant burden to foreign suppliers.” And the US would know, having blocked Antigua-licensed online gambling operators for over a decade, despite the World Trade Organization ruling (repeatedly) that such actions are illegal under global trade laws.
In other words, just like poor Fang, America would prefer you do as they say, not as they do.