Anti-censorship tools are quietly disappearing in China

China – the the world’s largest internet market with over a billion users – is no stranger to online censorship. For years, the country’s authorities have implemented a series of technopolitical restrictions, commonly known as the Great Firewall, to restrict free access to the Internet. But these restrictions have also given rise to a creative industry: circumvention tools used by tens of millions of people to get around the wall and use the Internet as others do elsewhere.

Yet recently, some of these most popular tools have mysteriously started disappearing.

Earlier this month, Clash client software for Windows, a popular proxy tool that helps users bypass firewalls and circumvent China’s censorship system, suddenly stopped appearing on GitHub: the repository was the main way for users to download it and developer to update it.

After deleting the repository, the developer of Clash for Windows, who goes by the pseudonym @Fndroid, job on X that they would stop updating the tool, without further details. “I stopped updating, see you soon,” the developer wrote in Chinese.

“Technology is neither good nor bad, but people are,” the developer continued. “It’s time to face the light and move forward.”

Fndroid, contacted for comment, was equally evasive in a response to TechCrunch.

“Thank you for your email and for considering me for comment on recent developments regarding Project Clash for Windows,” the developer wrote in a message.

“I must inform you that I am unable to provide information or comment on this matter. My current commitments and policies prevent me from publicly discussing this topic. I appreciate your understanding and respect for my privacy in this regard. I wish you success in your reporting and hope you find the information you need from other sources.

Proxies are a notable weapon in the artillery of those in China who wish to use the Internet without state restrictions or oversight.

Acting as a gateway between a user’s device and the Internet and allowing private access to the web by hiding the user’s IP address, they have become a popular alternative to VPNs in China since the government’s crackdown on them in 2017. (Since VPNs are now only legal if they comply with certain Chinese data regulations, this has impacted adoption and usage, with big platforms like Apple among those which completely removed access to VPNs.)

Since then, there has been no mainstream distribution of anti-censorship tools in China, and so consumers generally access “unofficial” VPNs and proxy clients like Clash through word of mouth.

But setting up a proxy client requires technical know-how, which proves to be both a blessing and a curse.

This means that adoption has been more limited to technical experts. Yet it became an effective way to circumvent state controls because the technology was also less familiar to the Chinese government. This also boosted the credibility of the tool and other similar tools.

“I think there’s a sense that anything that’s easily accessible is somehow compromised,” Maya Wang, acting China director for Human Rights Watch, said in an interview with TechCrunch.

Overall, proxies are even less popular than VPNs, which have around 293 million users in China in 2021.

The use of the proxy server is also less well monitored. GlobalWebIndex, an analytics company, found that about half of all Facebook users in China access the platform through proxy servers, but that’s a statistic from a decade ago. in 2013.

Although proxy server usage is estimated in the millions, among that number are many “power users” of the Internet, likely making it an area that would be disproportionately scrutinized.

So it was no surprise that when Clash disappeared, the move seemed to trigger a domino effect.

Related tools in the Clash ecosystem maintained by other developers on GitHub – for example Clash Verge, Clash for Android, and ClashX, among other proxy tools – have all started to be removed or archived. Censorship monitoring platform GFW Report was the first to track this situation.

It is unclear why Fndroid and other proxy tool developers deleted their repositories.

A review of GitHub’s takedown request log appears to indicate that the government was not involved.

“GitHub generally does not comment on content removal decisions. However, in the interest of transparency, we share all government takedown requests for us to take action here,” a GitHub spokesperson told TechCrunch in a statement. Proxy server content developers were not on the list when TechCrunch rated it.

Yet the sudden disappearance triggered speculation online that the developer of Clash for Windows has been identified and thus faced pressure from Chinese authorities, citing the problem that proxy servers reveal too much personal information online.

There are other indications that state officials are tracking down and permanently terminating the activities of individual developers if they are seen as violating China’s policies regarding internet use.

Another proxy developer, which goes by the name EAimTY and has removed its TUIC proxy repository, published a blog post in which it suggested that state pressure was involved.

“Authorities will not hesitate to visit Chinese developers who openly create workarounds. Often these developers work on different projects, so they put their income at risk if they continue to work in the circumvention space,” Charlie Smith, pseudonymous head of the anti-censorship group Great Fire, told TechCrunch.

Affected censorship bypass tools are no longer available for installation, as users typically obtain their installation packages from their GitHub pages. However, TechCrunch understands that some of these tools, including Clash, were still working on the systems they were installed on at the time of writing, even though they were no longer receiving updates.

Chinese developers who create tools to circumvent the Great Firewall are regularly arrested or punished by authorities, creating a deterrent effect on future activities.

Proxy server developers aren’t the only ones targeted either. Last year, censorship circumvention tools based on Transport Layer Security (TLS) were also blocked in the country. It is estimated that TLS-based tools are used by more than half of Chinese internet users, or 500 million users, to circumvent online censorship.

Although it is difficult to estimate the exact number of users circumventing censorship using a particular tool, Clash was normally on the list of recommended clients for proxy services in China. A Clash group on Telegram with users of its different versions developed with Clash Core currently has almost 40,000 members.

“I think it’s a significant presence for people who want to bypass the Internet and don’t have official access,” said Wang of Human Rights Watch. “There are many universities and research institutes in China, they need access to the Internet outside of China, and these institutes usually have some sort of official VPN access. But for people who don’t have official access, or don’t want to use it, I think they resort to a number of smaller accesses and Clash was one of them.

A researcher at the digital civil rights organization Access Now, who requested anonymity, told TechCrunch that the arms race between China’s censorship system and opposing circumvention tools has raged for years, but has accelerated since Xi Jinping became president in November 2012. received another major boost in attention during the 2022 A4 “white paper” protests, where protesters displayed blank sheets of paper as a symbol against censorship in response to China’s harsh COVID policies.

“The more authorities block access to information, the more Chinese citizens look for ways to circumvent these blockages. Innovative solutions are and will continue to be developed. The Chinese will find ways to access information, and it is likely that demand for such services will only increase,” Smith said.

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