In the fall of 2011, a friend and I got on to discussing Tibet. "Do you know," he said, "that Tibetans are setting fire to themselves?"
I had spent from 2005 to 2008 in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, but I had never heard of acts of self-immolation. My friend filled me in on the ghastly details, and then added, "Everyone beyond the wall knows this. A writer who cares about China, but who doesn't go over the wall, suffers from a moral deficiency. You shouldn't let a wall decide what you know."
When my friend said "beyond the wall," he was referring to the notorious Great Firewall of China, which since around 1998 has been a government project to screen and block Internet content. Seventeen years on, the firewall is a frustrating feature of life that splinters the Chinese world into two.One world stands for free information and the exchange of ideas, the other for censoring and monitoring. The wall fences in a Chinese information prison where ignorance fosters ideologies of hatred and aggression. If the firewall exists indefinitely, China will eventually revert to what it once was: a sealed off, narrow-minded, belligerent, rogue state.
That day back in 2011, my friend helped me install virtual private network software — what we refer to as a "ladder" — which allows users to get over the firewall. Once my ladder was set up, I could enter the web without restrictions. Thus, I started my life as a firewall refusenik.
Many Chinese people, perhaps most, know more about the country's ancient history than about events of recent decades. Before I accessed the free web, I was one of them, the ignorant masses. Going over the wall for the first time opened a window onto a world of truth.I had known that the Chinese Internet was subject to monitoring and control, but I had never grasped what that meant. On the few occasions that I had traveled abroad, I was usually too busy to spend significant time online. Only when I'd tasted freedom at the urging of my friend did I know the bitterness of its absence.
But much of what I found was disturbing. One of the first things I looked up were reports and shocking photos of the Tibetans' self-immolations. I then sought information about China's recent history: the Anti-Rightist Campaign of 1957-1959, in which hundreds of thousands of intellectuals were persecuted, the Great Famine of 1958-1962, the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976, and the Tiananmen killings of June 1989.
Many Chinese Internet users know they are not free online, but they accept this. Online games and myriad social media platforms keep everyone busy. We can make restaurant reservations and shop all we want. Only a small number of people sense what they are lacking.
My first V.P.N. was shut down by the authorities after three months. But back in 2011 and 2012, it was easy to find a new ladder. I could ask on Weibo for help: People would send anti-firewall software solutions to me directly. If I got in a real bind, friends would help me install new software. By 2014, I had set up six different ladders.
By my count, of the world's 30 most visited websites, 16 are inaccessible in China, including Facebook and Google (Yahoo and Bing are available). In some cases, such as with Google, the web companies are not willing to cooperate with the government's surveillance program. Many web services are blocked, it seems, for no other reason than that they are foreign.
Blocked websites nearly all have Chinese counterparts. For search, instead of Google, there's Baidu. If we can't get on Twitter, we can use Weibo. There are plenty of domestic platforms to share personal photos and videos. The government hopes to foster an Internet society that doesn't concern itself with politics or current affairs. It has been largely successful, but the firewall and its architects still infuriate a large part of China's online population.
Everyone — young, old, southern, northern — hates the "404 Not Found" error message. When it appears, many curse the father of the Great Firewall, the former chief of the Beijing Post and Telecommunications University, Fang Binxing.
In recent years, the word "wall" has been used creatively. If your Internet account is canceled, it has been "walled." If you are arrested, your freedom curtailed, your posts deleted, these can also all be cases of being "walled."
Plastered all across China this summer are propaganda posters with the slogan "Why is China strong? Only because of the party." The Chinese word "strong" (qiang) is a homonym of "wall," which inspires subversive people to render the slogan as "Why is China walled? Only because of the party."
I have now gone through eight V.P.N.s. No one seems to know why or how a V.P.N. is shut down. It might be working normally one day, and the next, it's down. You might think it is just another temporary stoppage, but after many attempts to get back online, you realize that your V.P.N. was blocked.
The government's firewall technology has become ever more sophisticated, and the cracks in the firewall have gotten smaller. Nearly every day a new V.P.N. provider is shuttered, and it is harder and harder to find a reliable long-term option.
This is one aspect of a diminishing space for dissent. In the past one-and-a-half years, 12 of my friends have been arrested, including scholars, lawyers and journalists. The Internet was their main channel of communication.
This situation can't continue. In the end, this is a war between surveillance technology and Internet technology. It's hard to imagine a government that opposes creativity can permanently have the upper hand.
In recent years, I have seen millions of Internet users express new indignation toward surveillance, screening and blocking. More Chinese people are realizing the value of freedom of expression and of access to all information.