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WhatsApp is seen with other mobile apps on a smartphone in Beijing, Tuesday, July 18, 2017. Users of WhatsApp in China and security researchers reported Tuesday widespread service disruptions amid fears that the popular messaging service may be at least partially blocked by authorities in the world's most populous country. The app was partly inaccessible unless virtual private network software was used to circumvent China's censorship apparatus, known colloquially as The Great Firewall. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)
AP Photo/Andy Wong
All under watch.
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The Guardian and Washington Post are the latest casualties of China’s Great Firewall

By Natasha Frost

June 4, 1989, was just another day for the citizens of Beijing. That, at least, is the takeaway to be found from all but the most ingenious searching of the Chinese internet. Facebook, English-language Wikipedia, the New York Times, Quartz, and dozens of other potentially controversial news sites have been inaccessible for some time. Now, the Guardian and the Washington Post join that illustrious list.

The apparent ban, the South China Morning Post reports, seems to be a reaction to the 30-year anniversary of Tiananmen Square, in which troops armed with assault rifles and tanks fired into crowds of pro-democracy demonstrators and bystanders, killing thousands. It is not clear whether particular stories by the outlets provoked the response, or indeed whether the ban will be permanent—Chinese internet authorities are not in the habit of justifying or confirming their decisions to block particular websites.

On WeChat, users have found their own activity under attack: keywords or pictures related to the event have been almost instantaneously deleted, with their posters sometimes summarily blocked. On the days of the anniversary itself, users were not even able to change their avatars.

Western governments and media freedom groups alike have condemned China’s Great Firewall as a restriction on both speech and fair practice. But the Chinese government has no intention of stopping. As the Washington Post reports, it claims such censorship practices are crucial to the country’s “internet sovereignty” and therefore not up for negotiation. (Increasingly, it has promoted its internet censorship as a model for other authoritarian governments to consider.)

As many as 10,000 websites are presently unavailable in China, barring the use of a VPN. VPNs are also under attack, with increasingly sophisticated AI-powered algorithms tasked with ferreting them out. Those who do succeed in finding workarounds, or resisting government censors, face losing their accounts altogether—or a knock on the door from state security officials brandishing print-outs and handcuffs.