China is famous for two great walls: the historic brick wall that protected Beijing from invasion, and the modern digital wall that now separates China from the rest of the world. That digital wall, also known as the Great Firewall, is growing stronger as the Chinese government has become increasingly anxious to silence dissident voices.
Given that Ethereumis an open-source, censorship-free protocol, one would expect that the technology would not have flourished in China. However, the opposite happened: The country's Ethereum community is the largest and most active among the layer one blockchain protocols. In this week’s Da Bing, we explore how developers get around the Great Firewall, and how they contribute to the growth of a global, borderless ecosystem.
A quick overview of censorship in China
Censorship is omnipresent in China. The Great Firewall established a boundary that blocks foreign sites from being accessed in country, unless people use VPN, which is extremely common. But even within the Great Firewall, there are constant fire fights against sensitive content.
The government monitors all social media sites and conducts 24/7 searches on keywords (using AI). Historically, politically sensitive content related to freedom of speech and democracy were immediately censored; that’s expanded more recently to encompass sexuality and religion.
It’s a cat and mouse game. The public has responded by using metaphors and synonyms to convey sensitive information. For instance, during the Chinese MeToo movement, rather than spelling out the word “MeToo,” netizens called the movement “MiTu (米兔),” which sounds the same but means “rice bunny.”
Not all censorship relies on keyword search. A common preventative strategy is 备案, which means “registry.” It requires opinionated social media influencers to register with the government. The government frequently meets with the influencers to make sure they have not turned rogue.
Censors chastise some for their outspokenness. For example, the government punished Dr. Li Wenliang, the whistleblower who published on WeChat his suspicion that Wuhan was being attacked by the deadly coronavirus. Rather than responding quickly to the disease, Wuhan’s local authorities arrested Dr. Li and forced him to sign an agreement that he was “spreading rumors.” That was disheartening to many Chinese.
Why Ethereum is allowed behind the Great Firewall
Yet, with all the censorship going on, Ethereum, the free, open-sourced, and tamper-proof protocol that exemplifies freedom of speech, is doing just fine in China. Most developers access Ethereum the way those outside the wall would, with the occasional use of VPN.
“Ethereum has the most robust infrastructure,” a developer from Imtoken, a home-grown crypto wallet application, told me. (For obvious reasons, I’m not going to name some of the people I interviewed for this column.)
“Robust infrastructure” in this case means the tools that devs use to access the blockchain. Most use Infura, a dev suite that provides API access to Ethereum, and Truffle, a one-stop solution to build dapps. Both tools allow one to easily access the Ethereum blockchain directly, without VPN.
Infura and Truffle: onramps to the open Internet
So why hasn’t the government blocked these tools? There might be two explanations. First, the number of people using these tools is probably too small (by Chinese population standards) to attract the government's attention. Second, and more important, most Great Wall censorship targets foreign, consumer-facing, social media sites such Facebook, Twitter, Reddit and Telegram, rather than dev-facing platforms, such as Github. Overall, the Chinese government seems to have a strategy that’s relaxed on outgoing information, but ultra-tight on incoming information.
But even if the government did block those tools, Chinese developers could still access the open Internet through VPN and proxy servers. “Every developer climbs over the wall on a daily basis,” said Suji Yan, founder of Maskbook. (Maskbook is free software that allows people to encrypt their posts and chats on “you know where.”)
VPN use is so common that the Chinese government is always busy cracking down on it.
Yet the VPN crackdown isn’t the ultimate goal—the goal is to censor the spread of “sensitive news.” The government has no interest in targeting developers who aren’t politically active.
Instead, the government identifies its targets through a massive keyword search on sites such as Twitter, and then backtracks to the person who “spread the rumor.”
“The government has a blacklist of IP servers they are targeting,” one developer told me. As long as one stays off the blacklist, surfing the open Internet is typically not an issue.
The Great Firewall's block of Etherscan
Following the same logic that the government bans information but not the tools, the most notorious censorship of Ethereum blockchain might be the ban of etherscan.io. Many people have been using etherscan, a blockchain explorer, to upload censored-information. The most prominent one was the open letter from the #MeToo movement. A more recent example is a memorial for Dr.Li Wenliang, mentioned above.
But since October, the Great Firewall has totally blocked etherscan. That gave birth to a local sanitized version, Chinese etherscan. The Chinese blockchain explorer allows anyone in China to access and verify their transactions, but with some caveats. For example, one cannot access a smart contract’s source code, nor can they view inputs data in the format of UTF-8, meaning that one cannot read the censored messages on the explorer in any human language.
The ban on crypto trading
Another area that touches the government’s nerve is crypto trading. “Crypto censorship falls into the sanitization category because it is speculative,” one developer explained to me. For example, most trading sites, such as Binance, are banned. The one big exception is Huobi, a close ally of the government.
Suji Yan told me that “Blockchain censorship is dynamic,” meaning that it comes and goes depending on whether something has piqued the government’s attention.”If the government decides to launch a crypto censorship campaign, it will go through WeChat, Weibo and other social media to find accounts that are spreading crypto information.” Once the person or organization behind these accounts is identified, the local police will be dispatched to visit and investigate.
So far, since developers aren’t crossing any political lines, the government seems unlikely to impede access to Ethereum. Will that change? It’s very possible. In the early days of Google and Facebook, the government would occasionally block the sites. At last it realized that only a complete blockade would prevent people from being “polluted” by these sites. Ethereum could travel down that same path, if the protocol gets more popular among the politically charged outspoken crowds.
Do you know?
Some new slang for you. These days when people want to talk about getting around the Great Firewall they describe it as “a scientific way to surf the Internet.” I guess the government would never censor the word “scientific.”
[ Da Bing is a weekly round-up of the most important crypto-related news that happened in China last week.]