China’s ‘Great Firewall’ blocks its designer

More publications banned after Panama Papers link leadership to secret offshore firms

An internet cafe in Beijing. Data shows that nearly 29 per cent of China’s 650 million internet users used a Virtual Private Network to get online during the last three months of 2015. Photograph: Sim Chi Yin/The New York Times

He is the architect and perennial defender of the system of internet controls known as the Great Firewall of China, on which searches for controversial terms or forbidden web pages all founder.

However, Fang Binxing was the victim of his own genius this week when he was forced to use a virtual private network (VPN), an external server used by anyone in China seeking to access sites such as Google, Facebook or Twitter, in front of a live audience when trying to access a blocked web page, Hong Kong's Ming Pao newspaper reported.

The message “The connection was reset” is the bane of life of anyone in China trying to use the internet to access banned sites, as the two-million strong army of beady-eyed censors get to work.

Panama Papers

Coverage by foreign media of the Panama Papers, which show links between China’s leadership and secret offshore companies, have seen the Great Firewall raised higher than ever, with other publications such as the



barred for the first time.

This case of "Frankenstein's firewall" took place when Mr Fang was giving a speech on internet safety at his alma mater, the Harbin Institute of Technology, and presenting a defence for internet sovereignty using South Korea's own limited censorship system as a talking point. During his presentation, the VPN kept dropping out.

We have long known that Mr Fang uses VPNs – in an interview with the Global Times newspaper in 2011, he admitted to using six to get around his own creation.

Data shows that nearly 29 per cent of China's 650 million internet users used a VPN to get online during the last three months of 2015. Mr Fang developed the system when he was president of the Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications, a position from which he retired in 2013. The Great Firewall is so hated by students and freethinkers, as well as presumably fans of porn and online gambling, that someone threw a shoe at him during a lecture in Wuhan in 2011.

Keywords filtered

When he opened a Weibo microblog on


. com some years back, within three hours, he had received nearly 10,000 messages, most lambasting him for messing up web access.

The firewall blocks out keywords such as Tibet and the Dalai Lama, and means internet access in mainland China can often be painfully slow compared to neighbouring countries.

The Cyberspace Administration of China has backed continued exploration and improvements to the governance of cyberspace “with Chinese socialist characteristics” and regulators want “measures to ensure global cyberspace governance meshed with Chinese opinions and plans”.

After a conference last year, President Xi Jinping said “no country should pursue cyber hegemony” and defended China’s right to choose its own model of cyberspace governance.

Clifford Coonan

Clifford Coonan

Clifford Coonan, an Irish Times contributor, spent 15 years reporting from Beijing