Fissures in the Great Firewall caused by X

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Things are becoming dicey for the CCP/PRC regime:

"A cartoon cat has been vexing China’s censors – now he says they are on his tail"

By Tessa Wong, Asia Digital Reporter, BBC (6/10/24)

Here's the dilemma faced by the Chinese communist authorities.   It would be very easy for the censors to shut down all VPNs and invoke strictly draconian internet controls that would make it impossible for netizens to communicate with the outside internet.  But that would mean that China would no longer have access to external information and communication, which the government desperately needs if they are going to continue to acquire advanced technology and science from abroad, not to mention operate their economic initiatives such as BRI (Belt and Road Initiative).

Mixing my metaphors, VPNs are a two-edged sword by means of which China can have its cake (keep out non-communist ideology) and slice / eat it too (make money and acquire technology from the capitalist, democratic West).  Mixing the metaphorical melange still further, they want a Chinese internet that is both open and closed.  Sorry folks.  No go.  Can't have it both ways.

We've been through this all before (see the bibliography below), i.e., people have been using VPNs to jump over the Great Firewall for decades, but something is different now.  What has happened to make the situation truly perilous for the communist government at this critical point?

I believe a critical mass has been reached whereby Chinese citizens no longer deceive themselves into believing that Weibo and other heavily censored social media networks in the PRC can afford them access to the full riches of the www.  Furthermore, so long as they are allowed to purchase and use VPNs, they now have a reliable vehicle for obtaining and sharing data, knowledge, ideas, opinions, and views freely, namely X.  This is a truly perilous situation for the PRC/CCP.

What makes it all the more ironic is that the current tipping point has been reached in no small measure by an art school student in Italy named Li Ying.

Mr Li has since become a vital chronicler of information deemed politically sensitive by Beijing. His X account is a window into Xi Jinping’s China where authorities’ vice-like grip on information keeps tightening. From major protests to small acts of dissent, corruption to crime, it is zealously scrubbed off the Chinese internet, only to turn up on Mr Li’s account.

Li’s online existence began with writing and posting love stories on Weibo, the Chinese microblogging platform. “I was someone who had made love my main creative theme, I had nothing to do with politics,” the son of two art teachers explained. Even the 2019 pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, which Beijing stamped out, hardly made an impact on him: “I was just like many ordinary people, I didn’t think that the protests had anything to do with me.”

Then the pandemic struck. As China sealed itself off, Mr Li – by now studying at a prestigious art school in Italy – became desperate to find out what was going on back home. Scouring social media, he was shocked to read about the crushing lockdowns: “There were people starving, even jumping off buildings… the feeling at the time was of a lot of suffering and pressure.”

He started discussing these stories on Weibo. Some followers privately sent him their stories asking him to publish on their behalf, which he did. Censors took notice, and blocked his account.

Undeterred, he began a cat-and-mouse game, setting up a new Weibo account each time they shut one down. Fifty-three accounts later, he had enough: “I said okay, I’m going on Twitter.”

On X, unfettered by China’s censors, yet accessible through virtual private networks, Mr Li’s following grew. But it only really exploded, to more than a million, in late 2022 during the White Paper protests against China’s punishing zero-Covid measures.

His account became an important clearing house for protest information; at one point, he was deluged with messages every second. Mr Li hardly slept, fact-checking and posting submissions that racked up hundreds of millions of views.

Online death threats from anonymous accounts soon followed. He said the authorities arrived at his parents’ home in China to question them. Even then, he was sure life would return to normal once the protests died down.

“After I finished reporting on the White Paper movement, I thought that the most important thing I could ever do in this life was finished,” he said. “I didn’t think about continuing to operate this account. But just as I was thinking about what I should do next, suddenly all my bank accounts in China were frozen.

“That’s when I realised – I couldn’t go back anymore.”

The ball is in your court, Mr. Xi.  You want safety, security, and stability for your communist regime?  Shut down the VPNs.  Make it truly impossible to communicate on a large, global scale via X.

He won't do it.

Eventually, the Chinese people will also consult Google, Wikipedia, and many other worldwide sources of material that are currently closed to them.

And that is how a determined, energetic, creative art student in Italy is helping to shape the future of China


Selected readings


  1. ambisinistral said,

    June 10, 2024 @ 10:10 am

    My blog is low traffic. For a long time I would have only one or two Chinese visitors every couple of months. However, lately I've gotten a steady stream of Chinese visiting. Somethjing has changed.

  2. Victor Mair said,

    June 10, 2024 @ 10:20 am


    Thank you for this very important information.

  3. Mark Metcalf said,

    June 10, 2024 @ 11:43 am

    This Foreign Policy article by Tracy Wen Liu, "Generation Snitch: How censorship, nationalism, and wealth have shaped young Chinese.", from April 2022 argues that the

    "Today, young Chinese aren’t even interested in what they can’t see. In 2010, days before Google pulled out of China over government pressure, people mourned and piled up flowers in front of the company’s Beijing office. Fast forward to 2022, and it would be fair to say many members of China’s Gen Z haven’t even heard of Google, YouTube, or Facebook. More tellingly, they show no interest in learning about the platforms that have defined their peers in other countries.

    In 2018, the political scientists Yuyu Chen and David Y. Yang revealed the results of an 18-month field experiment on the media in China. As a part of their study, Chen and Yang gave nearly 1,800 college students free tools to bypass the Great Firewall and gain access to the open internet. Nearly half of the participants didn’t bother to use the tools. Of the ones who did, almost none attempted to browse politically sensitive information."

    Again, that was in 2022 – before the 'A4 Protests'. So, I have no idea about how things currently are.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    June 10, 2024 @ 3:23 pm

    Things are changing, Mark, despite what the apologists may say.

    The many graduate students who have been coming to America in 2023 and 2024 are different from the ones who came before. They are more savvy in practically all respects, including political.

    An index of the ardent desire of young Chinese to study abroad is that they have far greater access to primary and secondary materials of all sorts. They have told me that explicitly. These things are just not available to them in the PRC. The competition to study abroad is fierce.

  5. Peter Taylor said,

    June 11, 2024 @ 4:23 am

    There are two obvious problems with the Chen and Yang study. The first one is that the observed results could equally be evidence that Chinese students have a healthy level of paranoia and didn't trust them. The second is that, given that the researchers were able to identify whether or not the tools were used to attempt to browse politically sensitive information, the students were right not to trust them.

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