Poking Holes In China's Great Firewall
An Phung is a multimedia journalist based in New York City. She has contributed to NYTimes.com, Patch.com and City Limits. She also spent time reporting in Indonesia where she covered stories about the country's growing illicit drug trade. An graduated from CUNY Graduate School of Journalism with a concentration in international reporting.
Follow me on Twitter @anhaiphung
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.
It's just the current cycle that involves opiates, but methamphetamine, cocaine, and others have caused the trajectory of overdoses to head the same direction
- It appears that overdoses are increasing exponentially, no matter the drug itself
- If the study bears out, it means that even reducing opiates will not slow the trajectory.
- The causes of these trends remain obscure, but near the end of the write-up about the study, a hint might be apparent
Scientists think constructing a miles-long wall along an ice shelf in Antarctica could help protect the world's largest glacier from melting.
- Rising ocean levels are a serious threat to coastal regions around the globe.
- Scientists have proposed large-scale geoengineering projects that would prevent ice shelves from melting.
- The most successful solution proposed would be a miles-long, incredibly tall underwater wall at the edge of the ice shelves.
The world's oceans will rise significantly over the next century if the massive ice shelves connected to Antarctica begin to fail as a result of global warming.
To prevent or hold off such a catastrophe, a team of scientists recently proposed a radical plan: build underwater walls that would either support the ice or protect it from warm waters.
In a paper published in The Cryosphere, Michael Wolovick and John Moore from Princeton and the Beijing Normal University, respectively, outlined several "targeted geoengineering" solutions that could help prevent the melting of western Antarctica's Florida-sized Thwaites Glacier, whose melting waters are projected to be the largest source of sea-level rise in the foreseeable future.
An "unthinkable" engineering project
"If [glacial geoengineering] works there then we would expect it to work on less challenging glaciers as well," the authors wrote in the study.
One approach involves using sand or gravel to build artificial mounds on the seafloor that would help support the glacier and hopefully allow it to regrow. In another strategy, an underwater wall would be built to prevent warm waters from eating away at the glacier's base.
The most effective design, according to the team's computer simulations, would be a miles-long and very tall wall, or "artificial sill," that serves as a "continuous barrier" across the length of the glacier, providing it both physical support and protection from warm waters. Although the study authors suggested this option is currently beyond any engineering feat humans have attempted, it was shown to be the most effective solution in preventing the glacier from collapsing.
Source: Wolovick et al.
An example of the proposed geoengineering project. By blocking off the warm water that would otherwise eat away at the glacier's base, further sea level rise might be preventable.
But other, more feasible options could also be effective. For example, building a smaller wall that blocks about 50% of warm water from reaching the glacier would have about a 70% chance of preventing a runaway collapse, while constructing a series of isolated, 1,000-foot-tall columns on the seafloor as supports had about a 30% chance of success.
Still, the authors note that the frigid waters of the Antarctica present unprecedently challenging conditions for such an ambitious geoengineering project. They were also sure to caution that their encouraging results shouldn't be seen as reasons to neglect other measures that would cut global emissions or otherwise combat climate change.
"There are dishonest elements of society that will try to use our research to argue against the necessity of emissions' reductions. Our research does not in any way support that interpretation," they wrote.
"The more carbon we emit, the less likely it becomes that the ice sheets will survive in the long term at anything close to their present volume."
A 2015 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine illustrates the potentially devastating effects of ice-shelf melting in western Antarctica.
"As the oceans and atmosphere warm, melting of ice shelves in key areas around the edges of the Antarctic ice sheet could trigger a runaway collapse process known as Marine Ice Sheet Instability. If this were to occur, the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) could potentially contribute 2 to 4 meters (6.5 to 13 feet) of global sea level rise within just a few centuries."
The world's getting hotter, and it's getting more volatile. We need to start thinking about how climate change encourages conflict.
- Climate change is usually discussed in terms of how it impacts the weather, but this fails to emphasize how climate change is a "threat multiplier."
- As a threat multiplier, climate change makes already dangerous social and political situations even worse.
- Not only do we have to work to minimize the impact of climate change on our environment, but we also have to deal with how it affects human issues today.
Human beings are great at responding to imminent and visible threats. Climate change, while dire, is almost entirely the opposite: it's slow, it's pervasive, it's vague, and it's invisible. Researchers and policymakers have been trying to package climate change in a way that conveys its severity. Usually, they do so by talking about its immediate effects: rising temperature, rising sea levels, and increasingly dangerous weather.
These things are bad, make no mistake about it. But the thing that makes climate change truly dire isn't that Cape Cod will be underwater next century, that polar bears will go extinct, or that we'll have to invent new categories for future hurricanes. It's the thousands of ancillary effects — the indirect pressure that climate change puts on every person on the planet.
How a drought in the Middle East contributed to extremism in Europe
(DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images)
Nigel Farage in front of a billboard that leverages the immigration crisis to support Brexit.
Because climate change is too big for the mind to grasp, we'll have to use a case study to talk about this. The Syrian civil war is a horrific tangle of senseless violence, but there are some primary causes we can point to. There is the longstanding conflicts between different religious sects in that country. Additionally, the Arab Spring swept Syria up in a wave of resistance against authoritarian leaders in the Middle East — unfortunately, Syrian protests were brutally squashed by Bashar Al-Assad. These, and many other factors, contributed to the start of the Syrian civil war.
One of these other factors was drought. In fact, the drought in that region — it started in 2006 — has been described as the "worst long-term drought and most severe set of crop failures since agricultural civilization began in the Fertile Crescent many millennia ago." Because of this drought, many rural Syrians could no longer support themselves. Between 2006 and 2009, an estimated 1.5 million Syrians — many of them agricultural workers and farmers — moved into the country's major cities. With this sudden mixing of different social groups in a country where classes and religious sects were already at odds with one another, tensions rose, and the increased economic instability encouraged chaos. Again, the drought didn't cause the civil war — but it sure as hell helped it along.
The ensuing flood of refugees to Europe is already a well-known story. The immigration crisis was used as a talking point in the Brexit movement to encourage Britain to leave the EU. Authoritarian or extreme-right governments and political parties have sprung up in France, Italy, Greece, Hungary, Slovenia, and other European countries, all of which have capitalized on fears of the immigration crisis.
Why climate change is a "threat multiplier"
This is why both NATO and the Pentagon have labeled climate change as a "threat multiplier." On its own, climate change doesn't cause these issues — rather, it exacerbates underlying problems in societies around the world. Think of having a heated discussion inside a slowly heating-up car.
Climate change is often discussed in terms of its domino effect: for example, higher temperatures around the world melt the icecaps, releasing methane stored in the polar ice that contributes to the rise in temperature, which both reduces available land for agriculture due to drought and makes parts of the ocean uninhabitable for different animal species, wreaking havoc on the food chain, and ultimately making food more scarce.
Maybe we should start to consider climate change's domino effect in more human and political terms. That is, in terms of the dominoes of sociopolitical events spurred on by climate change and the missing resources it gobbles up.
What the future may hold
(NASA via Getty Images)
Increasingly severe weather events will make it more difficult for nations to avoid conflict.
Part of why this is difficult to see is because climate change does not affect all countries proportionally — at least, not in a direct sense. Germanwatch, a German NGO, releases a climate change index every year to analyze exactly how badly different countries have been affected by climate change. The top five most at-risk countries are Haiti, Zimbabwe, Fiji, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam. Notice that many of these places are islands, which are at the greatest risk for major storms and rising sea levels. Some island nations are even expected to literally disappear — the leaders of these nations are actively making plans to move their citizens to other countries.
But Germanwatch's climate change index is based on weather events. It does not account for the political and social instability that will likely result. The U.S. and many parts of Europe are relatively low on the index, but that is precisely why these countries will most likely need to deal with the human cost of climate change. Refugees won't go from the frying pan into the fire: they'll go to the closest, safest place available.
Many people's instinctive response to floods of immigrants is to simply make borders more restrictive. This makes sense — a nation's first duty is to its own citizens, after all. Unfortunately, people who support stronger immigration policies tend to have right-wing authoritarian tendencies. This isn't always the case, of course, but anecdotally, we can look at the governments in Europe that have stricter immigration policies. Hungary, for example, has extremely strict policies against Muslim immigrants. It's also rapidly turning into a dictatorship. The country has cracked down on media organizations and NGOs, eroded its judicial system's independence, illegalized homelessness, and banned gender studies courses.
Climate change and its sociopolitical effects, such as refugee migration, aren't some poorer country's problem. It's everyone's problem. Whether it's our food, our homes, or our rights, climate change will exact a toll on every nation on Earth. Stopping climate change, or at least reducing its impact, is vitally important. Equally important is contending with the multifaceted threats its going to throw our way.
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