Talk about irony.
Fang Binxing, the controversial creator of China’s Great Firewall, the filtering mechanism by which the government dictates what Chinese can and can’t see online, was himself blocked from viewing a South Korean website during a recent talk at the Harbin Institute of Technology, according to a report in the Hong Kong–based daily Ming Pao. The gaffe meant that he had to employ a Virtual Private Network (VPN) — which many Chinese use to get around censorship — in full view of his audience to access the forbidden content.
Chinese social media almost melted in response. “Sooner or later this clown and his accessory will be nailed up on the column of history in disgrace,” posted one user named Li Wanjun on China’s Twitter-like microblogging site Weibo. “One may steal a horse, while another may not look over the hedge,” posted Popular Computer Week in reference to the incident, using a traditional Chinese maxim to bemoan the arbitrary application of rules.
Fang has become something of a hate figure in China: he was even pelted with eggs and a shoe by an irate blogger in 2011. After creating the Great Firewall — the world’s most sophisticated state-censorship apparatus, employing at least 2 million online censors — he resigned from his government post in 2013 citing health concerns. He remains a member of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) — for which Mao Zedong’s famous dictum "Seek truth from facts" would be impossible to fulfill under present censorship regulations.
The technology Fang pioneered is used to block popular websites such as Facebook, Twitter and Google, as well as content and search results for incidents deemed uncomfortable for the CCP — such as the massacre of students in the streets around Tiananmen Square in 1989, or the suggestions of malfeasance among top officials made in this week's massive Panama Papers data leak.
The technology Fang used to circumnavigate his own firewall operates in a legal grey area in China. VPNs are common for big multinationals to maintain secure connections, though these must all be registered with the Chinese government. More commonly, private users employ commercial (unregistered) VPNs on their phones and tablets simply to have unfettered (if slow) access to the social media and search engines commonplace in the West.
While these services are officially forbidden, it’s estimated that almost a third of the 650 million Chinese with Internet access used them during the last quarter of 2015. The Great Firewall is engaged in a constant game of cat and mouse trying to block them. At times of great sensitivity — such as last month’s "two sessions" legislative meetings in Beijing — VPNs generally grind to a halt.
Of course, that authorities can block VPN access during sensitive times begs the question why they’re not blocked all the time. According to Mark Natkin, founder of Beijing-based IT research firm Marbridge Consulting, “The government realizes there’s a need for businesses, universities and academics to access information beyond China’s boarders, and blocking them would only hinder progress and create resentment.”
It seems that impeding the more sophisticated Chinese, who have traveled abroad and are generally more cognizant of how China works relative to the outside world, would only spur discontent for little tangible benefit. After all, President Xi Jinping now has a Facebook page, and Chinese state media like CCTV boasts a social-media presence on banned Western platforms like Twitter.
And so, despite unregistered VPNs being essentially illegal, no one has been prosecuted for using one in China to date, and journalists typically have a few, to be cajoled, or screamed at, on a daily basis. While I may have implicated myself there, there seems little danger of this being read by the Chinese authorities — not unless they use a VPN themselves. TIME is currently blocked by the Great Firewall, following this week’s cover story on President Xi by East Asia bureau chief Hannah Beech.
— With reporting by Yang Siqi / Beijing