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

China – the largest internet market worldwide with more than 1 billion users — is no stranger to online censorship. Over the years, the country’s authorities have established a series of techno-policy restrictions, commonly referred to as The Great Firewall, to prevent open access to the internet. But those restrictions have also spawned a creative industry: circumvention tools that tens of millions of people use to get around the wall and use the internet as others do elsewhere.

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

Earlier this month, the 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 is the main route for users to download it and the developer to update it.

After removing the repository, the developer of Clash for Windows, who goes by the pseudonym @Fndroid, posted in X that they stop updating the tool, without further details. “Stopped updating, see you soon😅” the developer wrote in Chinese.

“Technology is neither good nor bad, but people are,” the developer continued. “It’s time to face the light and move on.”

Fndroid, reached for comment, similarly avoided a response to TechCrunch.

“Thank you for your email and for considering me for a comment on recent developments about 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 my privacy about it.I wish you success in your reporting and hope you find the information you need from other sources.

Proxies are a popular 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 access to the Web by masking the user’s IP address, they have grown as a popular alternative to VPNs in China since the government clamped down on the latter in 2017. (Because VPNs are now only legal if they comply with certain data regulations in China, which has had an impact on adoption and use, with major platforms like Apple among those pulling the access VPNs to everyone.)

Since then, there has been no mainstream distribution for censorship-fighting tools in China, and so consumers often access ‘unofficial’ VPNs and proxy clients like Clash through word of mouth.

But setting up a proxy client requires technical knowledge, which is both a blessing and a curse.

This means that adoption is more limited to the technically skilled. Yet it has become an effective way to bypass state controls because the technology has traditionally been unfamiliar to the Chinese government, too. That also boosts the credibility of the tool and others like it.

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

In general, proxies are less popular than VPNs, which are estimated to have about 293 million users in China as of 2021.

Proxy server usage is also tracked poorly. GlobalWebIndex, an analytics company, found some half of all Facebook users in China access the platform through proxy servers, but that’s a statistic from a decade ago, 2013.

While the use of proxy servers is estimated to be in the high millions, among that number are many “power tools” on the internet that make it possible to be an area that cannot be checked badly.

So it’s no surprise that when the Clash disappeared, the move appeared to set off a domino effect.

Associated tools in the Clash ecosystem maintained by other developers on GitHub – for example Clash Verge, Clash for Android and ClashX, and other proxy tools – have all started to be removed or archived. The censorship monitoring platform GFW Report is the first of track this.

It is not clear why Fndroid and other proxy tool developers have deleted their repositories.

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

“GitHub does not typically comment on content removal decisions. However, in the interest of transparency, we share every takedown request with the government that we act on HERE,” a GitHub spokesperson told TechCrunch in a statement. Developers inside the proxy server were not on the list when TechCrunch checked it.

Yet the sudden disappearance triggers speculation online that the Clash for Windows developer has been identified and thus pressured by the Chinese authorities, citing the issue that proxy servers reveal a lot of personal information online.

There are other indications that state representatives are certainly seeking out and shutting down the activities of individual developers if they are deemed to be in conflict with China’s policies on Internet use.

Another proxy developer, who uses the pseudonym EAimTY and has removed its proxy repository from TUIC, posted a blog post where they suggest including state pressure.

“The authorities do not hesitate to visit developers in China who openly create circumvention solutions. Usually, these developers work on different projects, so they put their income at risk if they continue to work on the circumvention space,” Charlie Smith, the pseudonymous head of the anti-censorship group Great Fire, told TechCrunch.

Affected censorship circumvention tools are no longer available for installation, as users typically obtain their installation packages from their GitHub pages. However, TechCrunch has learned that some of these tools, including Clash, still work on the systems they were installed on at the time of filing this article, even if they no longer receive updates.

Chinese developers who build tools to bypass the Great Firewall often get caught imprisoned or punished by the authorities, creating a chilling effect for future activity.

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

Although it is difficult to estimate the exact number of users who bypass censorship with a particular tool, Clash is usually on the list of recommended clients for Chinese proxy services. A Clash group on Telegram with users of its various versions developed with Clash Core now has nearly 40,000 members.

“I think it’s an important presence for people who want to avoid the internet without being given official access,” Wang told Human Rights Watch. “There are many universities, research institutions in China, they need to access the internet outside of China, and the institutions usually have some kind of official VPN access. But for people who without official access, or who does not want to use that, I think they turn to several smaller ones and Clash is one of them.

A researcher at the digital civil rights organization Access Now, who did not want to be named, told TechCrunch that the arms race between China’s censorship system and opposing circumvention tools has been going on for years but has accelerated since Xi Jinping became president in November 2012. It received another big splash of attention during the “blank paper” A4 protests in 2022, where protesters displayed blank papers as a symbol against censorship in response to China’s harsh COVID policies.

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

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