China and the Internet: A Complicated History

The first email from China was sent in 1987 a mere 16 years after the US.

At that time, the TCP/IP or what we call the internet had not come into being.

By the time the mid-90s rolled around the Chinese were connected to the World Wide Web. In 1996 there were 150,000 internet connections in china.

Of course, at that time, the cost of hardware was high, and the cost of bandwidth was even higher.

Even in the West the web (information exchange using a domain name and HTML based sites) was restricted to bulletin boards (a forerunner of what we know as forums) shared by research scientists across universities to exchange information.

As Pentium processors became available in 1998 bringing high performance at low cost to the desktop environment the familiar clicking of the dialup modem became as well known to the Chinese as their counterparts in Europe and USA.

The Chinese internet in numbers

  • As of 2015, China has 700 million netizens, the highest in the world.
  • More than half of its population has access to websites.
  • 90% of Chinese users access mobile internet.
  • Chinese servers host 4.23 million websites.

These are quite impressive figures by any standards perhaps rivaled only by India.

The only hitch is the below-par broadband speed. At 9.46 Mbps, it is a rather dismal 91st in the world.

China is the pioneer in 5G technology development. With the adoption of 5G, which promises to be 10X faster than 4G LTE, this bottleneck would disappear.

Why is China Different?

If you are from anywhere in the rest of the world, your experience of the internet is quite comparable. You fire up your laptop, and the familiar Google or Bing search engine opens in your browser. Your search for what you want, from pork dumplings to a prom dress, and read about it or buy it.

The browsing experience is very different in China. The only apt description would be to think of the Chinese internet as a parallel universe that only at some supervised points has a bridge to the rest of the world. The Chinese cyberspace is quite literally an island.

How does it work?

It is actually quite easy in principle. Type into your browser “what is my IP”. A Google tile will immediately tell you your IP address (such as and ISP. With a reasonable degree of accuracy, your IP address will show the city where you are located and with complete accuracy show the country.

There is no way to hide where traffic originates.

It is even harder for servers since they cannot use a dynamic IP address (a temporary address for your laptop connection granted by your ISP when you log in) but use static or fixed addresses.

To block information, all that one has to do is block web traffic from everywhere in the world! It is the same as preventing all aircraft from abroad from landing in China.

The Great Firewall of China

All nations have a national internet backbone. This backbone allows data to land on its shores from submarine cables. This is distributed across ISPs who further distribute it across users.

In China, this backbone is owned by the government. There are ten access points into China, all of which are owned by government sector companies such as ChinaNet, a subsidiary of China Telecom.

The Chinese government has over the past 40 years abandoned the Communist philosophy and accepted the market economy and allows private ownership of the property. But it has not relented on one party rule.

As early as 1997, the Chinese leadership under Xiang Zeminsaw the dangers posed by the internet. The information superhighway allows knowledge and ideas to flourish freely without any curbs. This was a clear and present danger to the current power structure.

It was in the same year that Beijing stepped up cyber regulation and enacted laws to prevent what it considered anti-national content.

Laws, however, are hardly enough to stop the floodgates. The Middle Kingdom embarked on an ambitious project of reshaping internet traffic under Fang Binxing, a computer scientist from Harbin University.

It has to be remembered that at this time the work on the Three Gorges Dam (so huge that NASA said it slowed down the rotation of the earth) also commenced.

After nearly a century of being at the receiving end of international ridicule, the Chinese administration was determined to prove through megaprojects that it was an emerging power.

The Great Firewall of China, (its moniker in the West), went online in 2003. It is a sophisticated monitoring system, designed by Feng, that blocks IP addresses of well known global websites and filters keywords in content and URL.

The exact nature of the technology is not yet understood (does it read all incoming bits and bytes – a near-impossible feat) but it continually evolves to keep up with changes such as the new HTTPS standard that prevents such snooping.

The ordinary Chinese citizen can’t access –

  • Facebook
  • Instagram
  • Twitter
  • TikTok
  • Google Hangouts
  • Gmail
  • Tumblr
  • Pinterest
  • YouTube
  • Netflix
  • Amazon
  • BBC
  • NBC
  • Reuters
  • HuffPo
  • Blomberg
  • Quora

This is just a brief list. It also includes entire platforms such as, Blogspot, and Google Maps.

To replace these, China has evolved its own internet ecosystem.

Google was replaced by search engines such as Baidu and Qihoo. The role of Instagram is performed by Douyin (the parent company of Tiktok) and that of Facebook by RenRen.

Since it is difficult to know the exact ownership of a Chinese company (look at Huawei – a giant telecom hardware maker with opaque ownership pattern) the Chinese dare not use these platforms for what may be remotely perceived as anti-national activities.

Social Engineering – The Latest Trend

The rise of Xi Jinping to power in 2012 saw a new wave of censorship.

The cyberworld is always under watch. No one knows whether to trust another with a meme making fun of the government. There are said to be 2 million watchers – euphemistically called public opinion analysts – who keep an eye on posts and comments.

Due to harsh punishments government censorship has moved to self-censorship. Once such a mindset takes hold, it is hard to make anyone believe that what they do online is safe and beyond reproach.

The use of a VPN to circumvent the Great Firewall was quite common till 2015. It has been outlawed, and there is no possible way to reach into the broader world of public discourse from China.

This is not without its price. The implementation of such censorship requires an enormous amount of technical expertise and supervisors. It is expensive both in terms of money and manpower.

In the end, it may be the rise of technology such as SpaceXStarlink beaming free internet from the stratosphere that ends censorship of the internet in China as suddenly as it began.

Sources –

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