Who bypasses the Great Firewall in China?

Chong Zhang, Department of sociology, Durham University

Zhang, C. (2020). Who bypasses the Great Firewall in China?. First Monday25(4). Retrieved from https://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/10256


The blockage of foreign Web sites, which is often called the “Great Firewall (GFW)”, serves an important part of the Internet censorship in mainland China. This study investigated the inequality of bypassing the GFW in mainland China, and the possible difference in some “capital-enhancing” uses of the Internet (using the Internet for work, learning and political expression) between GFW-bypassing netizens and those still suffer from strict Internet censorship. This study used data from the China Family Panel Studies (CFPS). Although there is no direct measurement of netizens’ GFW bypassing, a variable measuring the ownership of Facebook accounts was used as a proxy of the status of GFW bypassing. Firstly, the results of bivariate analyses and multiple correspondence analysis (MCA) suggest that mainland Chinese netizens who can bypass Internet censorship and access blocked foreign Web sites are more socio-economically better off (higher social class, well-educated and urban residing) and younger. Moreover, the results of ordinary least squares (OLS) regression and logistic regression models tell that in general bypassing the GFW is related to more activeness in using the Internet for learning and political expression. After controlling socio-economic and demographic characteristics, GFW bypassing is no longer found to be related to online learning, but is still related to an expression of political views online.

Keywords: the Great Firewall, Internet censorship, China, digital divide, capital-enhancing, inequality


The “Great Firewall (GFW)” is a metaphorical term describing Internet censorship by blocking foreign Web sites in mainland China (Barmé and Ye, 1997). According to some Chinese policy-makers, the GFW was mainly built for national security, since free-flowing uncensored information from foreign Web sites might pose a threat to ideological control (Zhang, 2006). But the “wall” might not be equally effective for all Internet users in mainland China. By using virtual private networks (VPN) and other tools, some mainland Chinese netizens manage to bypass the GFW and access a wide range of information resources (e.g., Yang and Liu, 2014). However, few studies have focused on the social implication of bypassing the GFW. The gap between netizens on either side of the GFW is a new form of digital divide in mainland China.

For more than two decades, there have been numerous studies on the digital divide. The focus has widened from analyzing differences in Internet access (e.g., NTIA, 1995) to differences in digital skills (e.g., Hargittai and Walejko, 2008; van Deursen and van Dijk, 2010), online activities (e.g., Zillien and Hargittai, 2009; Blank and Groselj, 2015) and even outcomes (e.g., van Deursen and Helsper, 2015). Inspired by “knowledge gap theory” (Tichenor, et al., 1970), DiMaggio and Hargittai (2002) proposed a focus on the gap of the “capital-enhancing” use of the Internet (e.g., using the Internet for career, education or political participation). Capital-enhancing uses of the Internet may be related to improvements and opportunities in life, however, but those capital-enhancing usages were tied to socio-economically advantaged populations (e.g., Hargittai and Hinnant, 2008; Helsper and Galacz, 2009). Therefore, capital-enhancing uses may likely broaden existing social inequalities. In a context of Internet censorship in China, GFW bypassing may grant some netizens more diverse information resources. Therefore, GFW bypassing activities should be considered as a kind of capital enhancing use of the Internet in the context of mainland China. It is crucial to broaden our understandings of the possible gaps induced by bypassing Internet censorship, examining the effects after GFW bypassing.

Research questions

This study investigates a possible digital divide related to GFW bypassing. This study firstly investigated whether GFW-bypassing netizens are socio-economically advantaged populations among all mainland Chinese netizens. In addition, this study also investigated whether GFW-bypassing netizens were more engaged in other kinds of “capital-enhancing” uses of the Internet, specifically using the Internet for work, learning and political expression.


This analysis used data from the survey dataset China Family Panel Studies (CFPS). Given the difficulty of securing direct information about netizens’ GFW bypassing activities due to its political sensitivity, and the fact that facebook.com, one of the most popular social networking sites in the world, is banned in mainland China, the available variable Facebook account (whether or not having a Facebook account) from the dataset is used as a proxy for GFW bypassing. For the first research question, bivariate analyses and multiple correspondence analysis (MCA) were conducted. To answer the second question, ordinary least squares (OLS) regression and logistic regression models were run.

Socio-economic divide in bypassing the GFW

Using Facebook account ownership as a proxy, this study found evidence on the relationship between socio-economic characteristics of mainland Chinese Internet users and a likelihood of bypassing the GFW. GFW bypassers were more likely to be young, belong to a higher social class, well-educated and urban living. These findings are consistent with literature on socio-economic digital divides, especially those focusing on capital-enhancing uses of the Internet (e.g., Hargittai and Hinnant, 2008; Helsper and Galacz, 2009). Even though Internet access is related to socio-economic level, more socio-economic advantaged users were linked to more advanced ways of using the Internet that could possibly help their lives (Hargittai and Hinnant, 2008; Helsper and Galacz, 2009). Well-educated and higher social class urban residents were more likely to bypass Internet censorship, and therefore have the potential to enjoy the benefits of more diverse information resources. In comparison, information resources to which the less advantaged populations could access might be relatively limited, because they were less likely to bypass Internet censorship and therefore more subject to the power of the state related to information access.

Bypassing the GFW and other “capital-enhancing” uses of the internet

GFW bypassing provides access to more diverse information resources, but whether people could really benefit more also depends on what individuals really do after having access to more diverse resources. For example, Taneja and Wu (2014) found that even being given full access to all Web sites, Chinese Web users were still more keen on browsing Web sites based on cultural proximity. This study further investigated the link between bypassing the GFW and other kinds of capital-enhancing uses of the Internet. There is a general association between GFW bypassing and using the Internet for learning and political expression online. The evidence on the link between GFW bypassing and using the Internet for learning was somewhat weak. Also, rather than concluding a direct relation between the GFW bypassing and online learning, it is more reasonable to say that the appearance of the “bypassing-learning” association was because both of them were associated with socio-economically advantaged netizens, as suggested by the findings of this study.

However, expressing political views online was found to have nothing to do with socio-economic backgrounds, but solely GFW bypassing itself. In addition, the association between bypassing the GFW and expressing political views online was found to be strong, as bypassers were at least 10 times more likely than their counterparts to express political views online. This might be related to strict Internet censorship in China not permitting negative comments on the political establishment. So bypassing the GFW might be a necessary condition for the expression of critical political opinions online, regardless of socioeconomic background.

Author Biography

Chong Zhang is a PhD researcher in the department of sociology, Durham University. His researcher interests include: social inequality and mobility, education and lifelong learning, digital studies, Marxism and neo-Marxism. His PhD researches the role of digital learning in mitigating unequal occupational mobilities between rural and urban background workers in China’s urban labour market. Chong can be contacted via email: chong.zhang@durham.ac.uk


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