As the largest internet market in the world with over 1 billion users, China has long been known for its strict online censorship policies. A series of techno-policy restraints, also known as The Great Firewall, have been put in place by authorities to keep the internet access restricted. However, these restrictions have led to the development of circumvention tools used by tens of millions of people to bypass the wall and access the internet freely. But recently, some of the most popular tools have mysteriously started disappearing.
Clash for Windows, a popular proxy tool that helps users bypass firewalls and circumvent China’s censorship system, suddenly disappeared from GitHub, the main route for users to download and update it. The developer, @Fndroid, announced that they would stop updating the tool without further detail. Fndroid declined to comment on the matter, leading to speculation about potential government pressure on developers of proxy tools.
Proxies, as a gateway between a user’s device and the internet, have become popular alternatives to VPNs in China since the government cracked down on VPNs in 2017. These tools require technical know-how to set up, making them less accessible to the general public, but more effective in bypassing state controls. Despite this, proxy server usage is still tracked less well compared to VPNs, making it an area that would get disproportionately scrutinized by the government.
The sudden disappearance of Clash for Windows triggered the removal of associated tools in the Clash ecosystem maintained by other developers on GitHub. It is unclear why these developers deleted their repositories, but there are indications that developers could be pressured by the Chinese government if their activities are deemed to contravene Chinese policies around Internet use.
Chinese developers building tools to bypass the Great Firewall regularly face detention or punishment by authorities, creating a chilling effect for future activity. Even last year, censorship circumvention tools based on transport layer security (TLS) were also blocked in the country, affecting over half of China’s internet users. Despite the crackdown, the demand for such services is likely to continue increasing.
Overall, the disappearance of these tools has raised concerns about the escalating arms race between China’s system of censorship and opposing circumvention tools. As Chinese citizens continue to look for ways around the blocks, it is expected that innovative solutions will continue to be developed to meet the demand for access to information.