Anti-censorship tools are quietly disappearing into thin air in China

Anti-censorship tools are quietly disappearing into thin air in China

China — the biggest internet market globally with more than 1 billion users — is no stranger to online censorship. For years, authorities in the country have built out a series of techno-policy restraints, commonly referred to as The Great Firewall, to restrict open access to the internet. But those 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 like others do elsewhere.

Yet recently, some of the most popular of these tools have mysteriously started to disappear.

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

After deleting the repository, the developer of Clash for Windows, who goes by the pseudonym @Fndroid, posted on X that they would stop updating the tool, with no further detail. “Stopped updating, see you soon😅,” the developer wrote in Chinese.

“Technology is not good or bad, but people are,” the developer continued. “It’s time to face the light and move forward.”

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

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

“I must inform you that I am not in a position to provide any insights or comments on this matter. My current commitments and policies prevent me from discussing this topic publicly. 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 want to use the internet without state restrictions and monitoring.

Acting as a gateway between a user’s device and the internet and enabling private Web access by masking the user’s IP address, they have grown as a popular alternative to VPNs in China since the government’s crackdown on the latter in 2017. (Since VPNs are now only legal if they comply with certain Chinese data regulations, that has had an impact on adoption and usage, with major platforms like Apple among those that have pulled access to VPNs altogether.)

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

But setting up a proxy client requires technical know-how, which has both been a blessing and a curse.

It’s meant that adoption has been more limited to the technically adept. Yet it became an effective way to bypass state controls since the tech traditionally was less familiar to the Chinese government, too. That also boosted the credibility of the tool and others like it.

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

Overall, proxies are still less popular than VPNs, which were estimated to have some 293 million users in China as of 2021.

Proxy server usage is also tracked less well. GlobalWebIndex, an analytics firm, found that some half of all Facebook users in China accessed the platform via proxy servers, but that is a stat from a decade ago, 2013.

While proxy server usage is estimated to be in the high millions, among that number are a lot of internet “power users” making it possibly an area that would get disproportionately scrutinized.

So it was unsurprising that when Clash disappeared, the move appeared to trigger a domino effect.

Associated tools in the Clash ecosystem maintained by other developers on GitHub — for example Clash Verge, Clash for Android and ClashX, among other proxy tools — all started to get deleted or archived. Censorship monitoring platform GFW Report was the first to track this.

It’s unclear why Fndroid and the other proxy tool developers deleted their repositories.

A look at GitHub’s takedown request log seems to indicate that the government was not involved.

“GitHub does not generally comment on decisions to remove content. However, in the interest of transparency, we share every government takedown request that we action here,” a GitHub spokesperson told TechCrunch in a statement. Proxy server content developers were not on the list when TechCrunch evaluated it.

Yet the sudden disappearance has triggered speculation online that the Clash for Windows developer was identified and thus pressured by Chinese authorities, citing the issue that proxy servers reveal too much personal information online.

There are other indications that those representing the state are definitely seeking out and shutting down the activities of individual developers if they are deemed to contravene Chinese policies around internet use.

Another proxy developer, who goes by the pseudonym EAimTY and has deleted its proxy repository TUIC, posted a blog post in which they suggested state pressure was involved.

“The authorities will not hesitate to pay visits to Chinese developers who are openly creating circumvention solutions. Often, these developers work on different projects, so they are putting their income at risk if they continue to work in the circumvention space,” Charlie Smith, the pseudonymous head of anti-censorship group Great Fire, told TechCrunch.

The affected censorship circumvention tools are no longer available for installation, as users typically get their install packages from their GitHub pages. However, TechCrunch understands that some of these tools, including Clash, were still working on the systems they were installed at the time of filing this article, even as they were no longer receiving updates.

Chinese developers building tools to bypass the Great Firewall regularly get detained or punished by authorities, creating a chilling effect for future activity.

Proxy server developers are not the only ones being targeted, either. Last year, censorship circumvention tools based on transport layer security (TLS) were also blocked in the country. TLS-based tools were estimated to be used by over half of China’s internet users — 500 million users — to bypass online censorship.

Even though it is hard to estimate the exact number of users bypassing 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 various versions that have been developed with Clash Core currently has nearly 40,000 members.

“I think it’s a significant presence for the people who want to circumvent the internet that are not given official access,” said Wang at Human Rights Watch. “There are lots of universities, research institutes in China, they have to access the internet outside of China, and those institutes usually have some kind of official VPN access. But for the people who don’t have official access, or who don’t want to use that, I think they resort to a number of the smaller ones and Clash was one of them.”

Raman Jit Singh Chima, senior international counsel and Asia Pacific policy director at the digital rights organization Access Now, told TechCrunch the arms race between China’s system of censorship and opposing circumvention tools raged for years but has been accelerated since Xi Jinping became president in November 2012. It received another major burst of attention during the “blank paper” A4 protests of 2022, where protesters displayed blank sheets of paper as a symbol against censorship in response to China’s harsh COVID policies.

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

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