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The Great Firewall of China

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How does the Great Firewall of China work?

Anyone who has visited China knows that certain international websites, such as Google and YouTube, are either blocked or deliberately slowed down. Many international businesses attempting to establish a presence in China face significant challenges as a result of this. The Great Firewall of China is part of the People's Republic of China's Internet censorship regime, which is supposed to 'protect' its citizens.

Over the years, the Firewall has evolved into something far more intricate and sophisticated than anyone could have imagined. Nonetheless, China's Great Firewall appears to be getting stronger as it adds reinforcements like Artificial Intelligence (AI) to its existing security systems. The thought of being economically connected to the outside world while being locked off from Western values was previously unthinkable, but it is now a reality.

Many foreign cryptocurrency websites were blocked, and local crypto-exchanges were compelled to migrate overseas, as a result of the recent bitcoin explosion and subsequent restriction of cryptocurrency trading by Chinese authorities. The blocking of Winnie the Pooh in China after critics compared Xi Jinping, the current President of the People's Republic of China, to the fun and loving teddy bear is maybe the most newsworthy (and amusing) censorship. Because of the eerie likeness, Chinese authorities have taken down all Winnie the Pooh-related photographs from Chinese websites.

History of the Great Firewall of China

Back in the 1980s, Deng Xiaoping, the paramount leader who brought forth economic reforms through the creation of a market economy was famously noted for saying: "If you open the window for fresh air, some flies will be blown in". This means that while opening China to the rest of the world will bring economic development and progress, it will also invariably bring undesired Western views and philosophies that the Chinese leadership considers being 'corrupted'.

The Internet was first introduced to China in 1989 as a series of small-scale trial programs, and in 1994 it was made available to the entire country. China's total online population reached 772 million in January 2018. The Chinese authorities recognized that opening up the Internet was vital for China's economic growth, but they were concerned about the consequences of exposing the country to Western ideology.

The Golden Shield Project (also known as the National Public Security Work Informational Project) began in 1998. Under the Golden Shield, several initiatives were planned, including a security management information system, a criminal system, and China's all-powerful Great Firewall. The Golden Shield Project began as a way to improve network security, but it quickly grew to encompass censorship and surveillance. The project gave the Chinese Communist Party complete control over the Internet (CCP).

Foreign firms like Nortel Networks and Cisco Systems were contracted to manage the development of these initiatives, which is ironic. These firms contributed the required technology and software to construct the world's largest security network system, a move that sparked international outrage for its role in China's human rights crimes.

How does it work

The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology licenses and regulates all Internet service providers in China, which means that all content entering and leaving the country can be watched and manipulated by the Chinese government. Several strategies were used to provide a catch-all mechanism under the Great Firewall.

URL Filtering: Web traffic is filtered using a URL filtering database, which denies access to domains on the database's list. Websites with sensitive keywords, such as "Tiananmen Square," are restricted or screened selectively.

DNS Poisoning: When users access websites, their computers contact a DNS server and request an IP address. The Firewall 'poisons' DNS answers, returning erroneous addresses and rendering websites unreachable altogether.

Self-censorship: Chinese companies are legally liable for their content, and infractions will result in heavy punishments ranging from fines to shutdowns. As a result, several multinational corporations have established enforcement teams to oversee and guarantee that their platforms do not include unlawful content.

Manual enforcement: Hundreds of thousands of civilian personnel are hired all around China to implement censorship and filter out 'harmful' content that is considered destructive to China's progress. These government-hired censors keep an eye on online content, alerting authorities to any suspected infractions and allowing officials to conduct on-site investigations. Back-end access is available on some sites, allowing censors to change information directly. The monitoring routines, however, may now be automated thanks to recent advancements in AI technology.

Blocking VPNs: Using a virtual private network (VPN) to get around the Great Firewall is a prevalent practice. VPNs, often known as "Climbing Over the Wall" (Fan Qiang) in the Chinese community, are the cheapest and most effective way to circumvent the Great Firewall, albeit they are not fool-proof. VPNs were prohibited during sensitive events such as the death of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo in July 2017 and the Communist Party of China's 19th National Congress in October 2017, crippling numerous international businesses operating in China. During the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the Great Firewall was lifted, giving international media and players access to most of the restricted websites. The Firewall detects "VPN-like" activity and terminates the connection, preventing it from connecting to foreign servers. Reports that a broad ban on VPNs would be implemented in February 2018 turned out to be just that: rumors.

Foreign social networking sites such as YouTube and Twitter are restricted, forcing Chinese individuals to use Chinese-language alternatives such as Youku and Sina Weibo, where censorship and propaganda can be easily reinforced.

The Good and The Bad

The Firewall did a great job of stopping the spread of Western beliefs. In today's China, the communist and dictatorial ideologies are still very much alive, though not as deeply ingrained among millennials. To avoid potential unrest generated by the Internet, online media in rural and unstable regions such as Xinjiang are closely examined in comparison to established places such as Shanghai. In essence, the government dictates what users view, restricting freedom of expression and infringing on human rights in the name of Communism.

The Great Firewall of China serves an economic as well as a political goal. With the entire pie to itself, China was able to safeguard and foster home companies by discouraging international enterprises. One of the reasons for the emergence of Chinese behemoths like Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent, or BAT, was because of this. Foreign expansion into China would be subject to domestic laws, which would include what is allowed and what is not allowed.

China's Great Firewall did an excellent job of enclosing the country, to the point where its population was ignorant of the outside world. The Firewall is well-known in China, and many people have become accustomed to living within it. The multitude of Made-in-China social networking platforms and copy-cat apps meet many of their online activity needs. The majority of large-scale media companies are either government-owned or strictly regulated. International news is manipulated and filtered selectively to ensure that people only see what the authorities want them to see. According to Reporters Without Border's 2018 World Press Freedom Index, China was placed 176th out of 180 nations questioned.

In the realms of research and innovation, the Firewall has caused significant collateral damage. The inability to access scholarly literature from other countries has hampered Chinese researchers significantly. The Firewall has prevented local businesses and students around the country from engaging with the outside world for decades, impeding the exchange of ideas and knowledge. To combat this, the Chinese government provides large subsidies to foreign-expansion enterprises as well as scholarships to students studying abroad. It has long been viewed as an attempt to bring expertise back to China, a move that has been denounced by countries such as the United States and the European Union, who have barred Chinese corporations from setting up shop abroad and prohibited Chinese-led acquisitions.

The Great Firewall is unimportant to the average Chinese citizen. The Firewall is a great burden for intelligent Chinese. It's debatable if the Firewall brought more harm than good to China.

China isn't the only one

The Internet was once thought to be a revolutionary technology that might bring the entire world together. It provided amazing convenience and empowered everybody who had access to it. It has also allowed for freedom of expression by keeping it decentralized and online. For China, however, it was an instrument that promoted variety and democracy, which the Chinese authorities have worked to suppress. While there will be no move toward a Chinese intranet, we may expect a tightening of regulations as Xi Jinping's dictatorship strengthens.

Recent events have demonstrated that China is far from alone. Other countries are increasingly following China's lead in building their firewalls. Russia has asked China for assistance in improving its censorship capabilities. Countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom have created firewall capabilities and now block blacklisted websites. While these governments may have excellent intentions, we have no idea how these capabilities are used for other, less-publicized goals, such as silencing dissent or stopping undesirable propaganda.

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