Poking Holes In China's Great Firewall

What is the Big Idea?

It’s late May and the year is 1989. Among the chaos in Tiananmen Square is 20-year-old David Tian, who is one of millions bravely chanting for political and economic reform from a corrupt and oppressive government.

Tian narrowly escapes the worst of this event by hopping on a crowded train a week before June 4, 1989, the day the People’s Liberation Army was to roll into Tiananmen Square with tanks and guns to rid the area of protestors. The train takes him and five of his classmates back to Hefei, which is 1,100 km from Beijing. It was what he describes as the “worst 10 hour train ride of my life.” He continues to stage protests from his home in this eastern part of China, where he is a student at the University of Science and Technology majoring in atmospheric physics.

In the years following 1989, the government used propaganda campaigns to help people forget about what is now known as the “June 4th incident.” News reports indicate that the Chinese search engine Baidu blocks about 19 deviations of the date June 4 including “six four,” homophones and abbreviations like “sf.”

Tian was sad and furious at the lengths the Chinese government went to cover up what happened in Tiananmen Square.

“That part of history is totally wiped out.” said Tian. “There is a generation of students who have no idea what happened.”

What is the Significance?

For Tian, the events of Tiananmen Square served as an impetus for change, although he did not know it yet. Tian graduated from college in 1991, and in 1993 he moved to Los Angeles to pursue his PhD in atmospheric science at UCLA. In 1999, he started practicing Falun Gong, a religious movement that started in China that combines exercise, meditation and moral teachings to improve the health of its practitioners. By then, there was an estimated 70 million followers, according to Chinese government reports. Threatened by its sheer size and Buddhist teachings, the Chinese government banned the group, dismissed it as a cult and started persecuting practitioners in July of that year. Practitioners were arrested, jailed, tortured and sometimes killed according to reports by the Falun Dafa Information Center based in New York City.

“It was like Tienanmen Square all over again,” said Tian who read about the persecution from Los Angeles. “It reminded me of the same nightmare.”

Tian’s breaking point came when the government launched a propaganda campaign in July 1999 to slander Falun Gong by spreading what he calls “lies to defame the movement” on China’s nascent world wide web. At the same time, they blocked Falun Gong Websites that were hosted inside and outside of China. Tian felt they were wrongfully accused when the government called them a “heretical organization” on state owned news reports. Tian decided it was time to do something. In 2001, he exchanged emails with other tech savvy Falun Gong practitioners he’d met in Falun Gong chat rooms on the Internet to create what is now one of the most popular censorship circumvention tools for Chinese Internet users. He called it Freegate. Tian joined forces with the creators of Ultrasurf, another circumvention software launched by Falun Gong practitioners around the same in the U.S., and they called themselves the Global Internet Freedom Consortium.

Freegate and Ultrasurf are applications that allow Internet users to gain access to blocked websites in countries with strict censorship rules. This is useful for those who live in closed societies like China, where the government now has what experts say is one of the most sophisticated and robust censorship technology in the world. The Chinese government shows no signs of loosening their grip on censorship as they employ increasingly more people and money to target user generated content like blogs, microblogs and social networking sites. In October the government proposed to further regulate state owned social networking sites, microblogs and instant messaging systems by punishing those who spread information that threatens the Chinese Communist Party’s stronghold. This month was the deadline for microbloggers to register their real names and identification numbers.

Meanwhile, applications like Freegate and Ultrasurf are gaining popularity. Tian and his developers continue to find ways to outmaneuver the Chinese government’s efforts to hack their codes. But not only are they fighting with the Chinese Communist Party, they now have to fight for funding from the Department of State which currently has $30 million dollars appropriated for Internet freedom and circumvention tools and has yet to allocate a dime to GIFC. And experts say China’s appetite for news and information free from filters, censors and manipulation is more voracious than ever, making for a new kind of underground war.

Tian is 43-years-old now and has a full head of black hair and thin metal frame glasses. He is swallowed up in his large royal blue button down shirt. For the last ten years, Tian worked as a research scientist at the University of Maryland and NASA.

He politely declined to be interviewed at his office. Safety is a priority for him so he doesn’t want people to know where he lives. In fact, it took six weeks to secure a Skype conversation where he provided an hour’s worth of time to tell his story. He sat at his computer and behind him is a white wall. It’s hard to tell where he is. His accent is thick, but he speaks eloquently and passionately about his cause.

“We are trying very hard to accommodate an increasing user base and it’s been very hard,” said Tian.

As for those Internet users in other closed regimes, they too are looking to poke holes in their leaders’ firewalls. Days before the government shut down the Internet in Egypt on January 27, 2011 there were over 7.8 million page views by Egyptians using Ultrasurf, according to news reports. This was an increase from only 76,000 just a week before. During the military crackdowns in Burma in September 2009, Freegate and Ultrasurf received over 120,000 daily hits, up from 40,000 in the previous month. Since then, they have been receiving an average of 300,000 daily hits from IP addresses coming from Burma, according to GIFC reports.

Hacking Freegate or Ultrasurf is not impossible, but it's also no easy feat because neither are open source, which means the blueprint behind the software is not made public like other circumvention tools.

“The other side has been trying everything to crack our code and this battle has been going on for a long time,” said Tian. “We just don’t want to make their job easier.”

The software gets hacked several times a month and is especially prevalent around national holidays and momentous events like the Beijing Olympics and the Shanghai Expo. This was the case in late September of last year, days before China’s National Day on October 1. Freegate’s traffic dropped 50 percent and it took a small team of workers putting in 18-hour days before they figured out how the Internet police reverse engineered their software. Eventually, after a week of troubleshooting, a new version was launched and users were back online.

“It’s a typical a cat and mouse game,” said Tian.

Read "The Long Arm Of China's Internet Police"

Politics & Current Affairs

Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?

Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence
to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like
violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students
do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones,
speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment
to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on
controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.

Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.

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