Written by Séverine Arsène.

In a recent report on a China-related attack against Github and Greatfire, a group of researchers coined the term “Great Cannon” to describe a new outbound, aggressive turn in the Chinese Internet censorship strategy. That is in contrast with the previously prevalent metaphor of the “Great Firewall,” which sounded more static and defensive. But both expressions fail to reflect the global interconnexion of the Chinese Internet and the complex role of Internet censorship in the Chinese political balance.

The Great Firewall (GFW) describes a set of devices implemented at various levels of the Chinese Internet networks designed to block access to foreign websites or content, based on keyword and url filtering. Developed at a time when Internet enthusiasts were enthusiastic about its democratizing power, China’s capacity to block access to foreign websites was a spectacular reminder that the free circulation of information online is still conditional upon national governments’ will and technological choices.

However this metaphor infers a completely separated network, fenced at the borders of China by a “Golden shield” which, depending on one’s ideological perspective, could be conceived of as a protection from foreign influences or as a “Giant cage.” This is a misinterpretation in various ways.

First the Great Firewall is only one aspect of a much more complex censorship system, which is not only situated on the Chinese borders or primarily aimed at blocking overseas contents. Its goal is to control Internet users’ conversations, and to undermine any potential mobilization in China. It includes compulsory registration of websites, extensive content control by blog or microblog platforms, as well as police monitoring, and a great deal of overt and covert propaganda, or astroturfing.

In this perspective, the efficiency of the Great Firewall to stifle political dissent does not primarily lie in its detection or blocking capacity. Filtering tools require knowing in advance what topics, names, keywords or information sources to look for. But contention arises from unforeseeable events and scandals, with new protagonists every time, so the GFW is stuck in a never-ending cat-and-mouse game. It is also quite easy to get round, notably via virtual private networks.

Taken as part of the whole censorship system, the real power of the GFW is psychological. Knowing that their online behavior might be recorded and reported at any time, but with only a very blurry understanding of the arbitrary, opaque and constantly changing criteria, Internet users naturally tend to self-censor. In other words, filtering serves the interests of the Chinese leadership precisely because it does not work – instead it undermines the rule of law, social trust and civil liberties. At a time when other countries are tempted to implement filtering “black boxes” to prevent the rise of terrorism, it is a point worth noting.

Perhaps the term “panopticon,” which is also extensively used in the literature, is somewhat more accurate to describe the GFW, in that it expresses better this psychological, chilling effect of surveillance. But the gloomy panopticon comparison does not reflect the fact that the daily experience of an average Internet user is more about openness, diversity, and entertainment than it is about fear – as long as they don’t touch upon sensitive topics. Guaranteeing access to entertainment as well as economic opportunities is also essential in maintaining the CCP’s legitimacy in power, and Internet users have pushed back against old-style censorship in the past, when they felt that it took away too much of the fun.

Secondly the GFW metaphor largely understates the actual interconnectedness of the Chinese Internet with the rest of the world. I would argue that the whole point of the GFW at its creation was paradoxically not to fence off, but to connect China to the global web, though in a selective way. As information control has long been deeply embedded in the Chinese political status quo, the GFW may have played an important role in convincing the more conservative parts of the leadership that connecting China to the global Internet was a desirable, though risky, political goal. It thus allowed loads of foreign contents like TV series, music, games, and consumption goods, to flow into China. From servers spread over the world to foreign investment, to staff trained overseas and to open-source technology, the Chinese Internet is now fully participating in, and dependent upon, the global Internet.

Let’s not be mistaken, the CCP could cut off Internet connections entirely, like it did in Xinjiang province for several months in 2009, simply by ordering Internet service providers to stop service. But it is very unlikely politically, and it does not even require the use of the GFW. On the contrary, the GFW, presented as a “shield”, but enabling some degree of connectivity, has allowed for 15 years of a delicately balanced social contract in China.

In fact, the threat of url filtering, combined with the attraction of the ever-growing Chinese online market has served as a lever to encourage foreign companies to comply with Chinese rules to avoid being blocked. Quite unexpectedly, the GFW turns out to be an instrument of China’s soft power and reach beyond its borders, rather than a pure barrier to foreign contents.

Against this background, the recent attack on Github inspired the metaphor of a “Great Cannon,” highlighting the change of paradigm with the GFW. The attack consisted in diverting part of the traffic destined to an analytics tool provided by Baidu. Any computer browsing websites that used this Baidu script could be prompted to launch requests to the Github and Greatfire platforms, thus overloading them with too many requests.

The “weaponization” of ordinary Internet users is largely seen as an escalation in global cybersecurity issues, undermining the global trust in an open Internet. The use of filtering mechanisms similar to the GFW to launch the attack, thus identifying it as orchestrated by the Chinese government, is also a bold move to operate cyberattacks in the open, before the eyes of the international community. Hence the metaphor of a “Great Cannon,” as if this tool was only directed outwards.

But it also reflects a change from the political balance established by the GFW within China.While a previous block of Github, a repository of open-source software projects, had to be waived under pressure from Chinese web developers, this new, large-scale attack shows that this bargain no longer works and that the Chinese authorities are now ready to bear much higher political costs.

The Chinese authorities may have been provoked into this by the “collateral freedom” strategy launched by Greatfire. The organization explicitly presented its choice to host subversive data on encrypted data-sharing platforms like Github as a strategy to increase the cost of censorship for China. But it is also part of a generally tougher attitude of the Xi administration towards foreign tech companies, which includes severe antitrust enquiries, deletion of foreign companies from public procurement lists, intrusive requirements for banking-related computer equipment or the blocking of popular VPNs for example.

This is a huge gamble for the Xi administration. It is betting that companies like Baidu can recover from the loss of public trust generated by the operation, at the exact time when they communicate on their willingness to expand overseas and attract foreign talents. It bets on the resilience of Chinese Internet users, and particularly engineers and innovators, to adapt their practices as they lose access to foreign platforms. It counts on intellectuals and scholars to accept reduced access to such databases as Google scholar, and complicated contacts with their counterparts abroad.

This strategy is already reaching its limits. The regulation on banking technology was temporarily shelved last week, and even the CEO of Huawei warned of the risks of recent cybersecurity measures for Chinese innovation. Once again with the “Great Cannon,” the issue of global connectivity is part of a domestic power struggle, while the leadership is striving to define the terms of a new political balance.

Séverine Arsène is a Researcher at the French Centre for Research on Contemporary China (Hong Kong) and Chief editor of China PerspectivesImage Credit: CC by DragonWoman/Flickr