Zhang Xiang: A Reply Letter to the Domestic Security Department

Zhang Xiang, an instructor in Computer Security at Xi’an University of Technology, wrote the following in response to threatening messages he received after discussing the Great Firewall in his class. Translated by CDT. Many thanks to our translator, who wishes to remain anonymous:

A Reply Letter to the Domestic Security Department:

Although the weather cooled for a day, hot, muggy weather has returned to Xi’an. After the serious high speed rail accident, I believe every conscientious Internet user will also continue to feel stifled. As a teacher, I have no way of cheering up either. This morning I discovered a few unbelievable messages in my inbox. Of course, some were recovered from my junk mail. After reading the mail, I was shocked and then angered. I eventually cooled off and decided to openly publish this essay. I invite everyone to comment on whether what I’m saying is true.

The first letter
xxxxxxandpeople@163.com, July 29, 2011, 4:57 p.m.

You’re Zhang Xiang from the Xi’an University of Technology, right? Someone has reported that you teach how to get around the firewall during class. Please stop teaching this immediately or else we will report you to the Ministry of Education. We will also report you to your university. Please tell us your mobile phone number. We will give you a call. We hope you understand. Let’s let bygones be bygones.

The second letter

Hello Zhang Xiang. We monitored some information you put online the other day. We hope you can explain your behavior to us and delete your posts on Twitter.
Best

First of all, judging by the hollow, childish wording, I thought it was a student or former classmate playing a practical joke on me. Of course it could also be that someone who had taken a disliking to me was trying to scare me intentionally. On second thought, this kind of email looks a lot like a spammer trying to scam me.

And then, I can’t help but think about those Domestic Security Department officers who are busy to the point of death. Because my students have posted my lectures on Baidu Documents, the authorities have my various email addresses. So in the end, with all the factors considered, I think there’s a 60 percent chance it’s from the Domestic Security Department, a 20 percent chance it’s from a scam artist and a 20 percent chance that it’s a practical joke.

I invite my friends to analyze and probe what’s really going on.

1. I’m a Communist Party member, as well as a civilian instructor. I’ve always gone about my business in a proper manner. There’s a picture of me receiving an award on the official Xi’an University of Technology news website on the news section for undergraduate education. I welcome you to take a look.

When I joined this school, the Xi’an University of Technology was among the top in the nation in granting doctoral, masters and bachelors degrees. Although a lack of funding has seen it fall in the rankings during the past ten to fifteen years, the teaching staff has maintained its moral backbone. Many have observed the fruits of these years of grueling work. While employment promotion has had an effect on our school and while recruitment for our web engineering major is sluggish, yet the web engineering department at the Computer Science Institute at which I work is responsible for both majors in web engineering and the “Internet of things.” Here, the integral power of the Computer Science Institute is concentrated. It is the most tightly bound collective. The students trained here go into positions on par with Qinghua and Peking University students.

People must purport themselves righteously. If the emails are from a scam artist or were sent as a practical joke. I implore you to do the right thing. To live isn’t easy; don’t live perfunctorily. Assuming the email was from a Domestic Security Department officer: you shouldn’t use a personal email address to send me a message, nor should you ask me to use my personal mobile phone to contact you. This is what the scam artists are doing now. If you truly are from the Domestic Security Department then handle the matter openly; credible people don’t operate in secrecy. Use an official email account to send me information. Tell me your real name and give me your office number. Of course, in the short term I welcome you to use personal phones and email addresses to tell me what’s going on here. Of course, the email addresses are very likely not from the actual sender. Forging a sender’s email address is something a scam artist with a middle-school diploma can manage. I’ve hidden the address on the emails to avoid harming the innocent.

If this really was the Domestic Security Department, then all of my accounts are already being monitored. By responding publicly to your email, you will certainly see it.

2. I’d like to commend the [author of the] second letter that was sent to me for knowing how to use Gmail. The wording is polite. I’m grateful for that. I don’t hold an official post. I do not pervert the law. I wholeheartedly engage in instruction to educate people. The tax return I received last year proves I paid 394.40 yuan in taxes. To pay for family expenses, I began this year doing a bit of hourly work for others after completing my teaching duties in full. My student who are graduating this year will earn three times my salary. Those who have worked for five years earn five times my salary; ten years, seven times.

I don’t have an advanced degree, nor am I academically corrupt. I simply want to devote myself to answering academic questions and to provide mutually beneficial instruction. I want to teach the students the most advanced knowledge, making myself worthy to both student and parent. The greatest title bestowed upon me is that of teacher. My desire is to see my students fill the world.

3. Relatively speaking, the second letter understood basic human kindness. It showed me basic respect, so I will respond to it first.

Assuming you really are from the Domestic Security Department, I’ll I can say is you must be tired. As someone from within the system, I understand the tough spot you’re in. In respect to your request for me to erase my Twitter post, please pardon me for being unable to comply. First, as a matter of character, once I’ve made a comment, there is no way of taking it back. I use my real name and so I take responsibility for what I’ve said. Secondly, the constitution and the law stipulates that every person enjoys freedom of speech. The party constitution requires party members to be resolute in making criticism and self-criticism. Please tell me first, which sentence of mine violated the law? And please provide me with the corresponding legal provision.

Finally, as a fair-minded scholar who has researched internet safety and cyber attack detection, as someone who is in the same field of studies as President Fang Binxing at the Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications, I can tell you with full confidence that even I could never expect to be able to delete what’s been said online. The truth will certainly be reposted in every nook and cranny of the internet. It will enter into the hearts of everyone who sees it. There’s a saying that words are like splashed water; they do not disappear into the air but sink deeply into the earth.

The truth will never be extinguished. It will circulate and be endlessly reborn.

4. The second letter says “We monitored some information you put online.” All I can say is you must be tired. Perpetual monitoring is without a doubt tiring and tedious. What’s more is you’re using outdated technology.

For millennia, in China and abroad, common scholars have produced much of our scientific technology. Academia in China is corrupt to an extreme degree today. Do you think President Fang and others at the Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunication – with all the scheming and purloining of our nation’s scientific research funds – have the mental vigor to research advanced technology?

President Fang at the Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunication, this bureaucratic, beastly, authoritarian official, has used public authority to block a great amount of technology websites. He has seriously impeded the proliferation of scientific technology. Many working in academia can’t see other countries’ progress in advanced research, but can only operate blindly, making poor quality imitations. The continuation of such trends can seriously delay the nation and its people’s future. Of course those like President Fang are afraid of others knowing that they are using outdated technology and products to swindle the country because it would prevent them from taking research money for themselves.

I say you’re tired because your workload is ever increasing. More and more people know about the internet. More and more people understand that if someone doesn’t say something, then corruption will become more and more severe. And so the keywords on your list continue to grow, as do the number of websites you must monitor. The number of people selected for monitoring is also increasing. With this busy, boring work and outdated technology and equipment, someday you will work yourself to death. Please make your decision sooner rather than later.

5. The first letter takes an illegal matter, a matter that should never see the light of day, and phrases it in such strong, justifiable words. It sounds like it was written by someone in the mafia. It’s not often one sees such an extreme level of shamelessness. Of course, perhaps you were forced into doing it, but even if you are working within the system, you should learn from the author of the second letter. You’re also a person. Only after respecting others will others respect you.

The writer said: “Someone has reported that you teach your students in class how to get around the firewall.” Please don’t pull my students into this. My students range from freshmen to those in their final year of master’s research to doctoral degrees. I have received them equally and have honestly bestowed them with scientific knowledge regardless of their scores or family background. Even though most young teachers [in my school] don’t dare give their students failing grades because they are afraid it will affect their evaluations, my students rank me in the top 10 percent even though the number of students who fail my class is around 15% or higher. Justice calms the heart. I am not afraid. So please do not slanderously portray my students as those who don’t know the difference between right and wrong.

Of course there are members of the 50 cent party and informants among my students. During school closures, every instructor has taken part in exercises in which we consider our students. The teachers are already aware of their identities. If people didn’t know, then they are blind. I can’t believe that because of this matter someone would report me. I have taught each student individually according to their capacities, so of course I understand them.

6. Supporting my belief that it was the Domestic Security Department is the intimidating language used in connection with the phrase “scaling the firewall.”

As someone who has worked within the system, and as an old party member, I have friends and student in the military, Domestic Security Department, police, government and [related] work units. Of course I know what the Domestic Security Department fears the most. But I can tell you that I don’t practice Qi Gong [i.e., I am not a member of Falun Gong] so you can relax.

As a teacher who leads by example, I only give my students tools that lose their effectiveness within a short period of time. I lead them to the door and then emphasize the use of many different kinds of open-sourced software for long-term, uninhibited internet use. Furthermore, I warn them, if they see anything that makes them uncomfortable, they can always watch a week’s worth of network news to recover.

Scaling the firewall

I can confidently say that it is completely necessary to teach this content to computer science majors. Yet many students majoring in computer sciences, web engineering, software engineering, and “the Internet of things” don’t take classes from teachers with such professional training. Plus, there aren’t too many diligent teachers. So it creates [a situation] in which knowledge of how to scale the wall is passed on orally by a small group of students. So this lack of guidance causes students to either wallow around on porn [websites] or to be tricked and cheated.

Everyone can figure it out by looking at the low graduation rate of computing majors at the country’s best schools. Look at the number of automation and auto-control majors who are making software and stealing the rice bowls of the computing majors.

Think for a moment about all the websites in the world. On the mainland, we can’t visit 80 percent of them. At the same time, there are also many technology blogs that are restricted. There’s no way to view a large number of teaching videos. How can we study the latest culture and knowledge? Most teachers are not of a high level, nor are they serious about teaching. Few students have good self-study skills. They spend their days idly, submersed in computer games or causing trouble outside. If you’re from the Domestic Security Department, if you have children, do you think things can continue like this?

7. Let me clarify that today the phrase “scaling the firewall” has already become positive. This behavior is already a simple matter. Generally speaking, nearly half the people who get online know about getting past restrictions on internet use—restrictions such as: legal restrictions imposed by employers; restrictions used by universities in order to save money; Green Dam software used by elementary and middle schools; various restrictions used by internet cafes, and of course the illegal filtering that is enforced using public power. Breaking boundaries in search of freedom is part of everyone’s nature. I trust that, as [as a member] of the Domestic Security Department, you also feel this way. It’s just that you can only sit stifled in silence.

Narrowly speaking, I’m talking about breaking through the illegal “Great Firewall” on which President Fang and his gang at the Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunication have squandered the country’s financial resources and ignored the country’s laws. I already said above, the technology they are using is extremely outdated. It’s nothing more than pulling the wool over uncultured bureaucrats’ eyes. While [those who filter the internet] can scale the wall whenever they want, and have access to advanced technology, there are still quite likely some who have not lost their consciences, and who do not savor their demeaning lackey work.

Many university students can scale the firewall; it’s merely a questions of when. Just look at the shoe that was thrown at President Fang and you’ll know how much the students hate him. They hope to see him brought to justice. While he’s illegally controlling everyone in China, he himself enjoys uninhibited access to the internet. What a case of split personality disorder.

8. Let me make another appraisal of techniques to scale the wall. It’s really such a simple matter. Unless the whole country is cut off and isolated from the internet, there’s no technology that can block the internet. Try to understand this. Regardless of their major, most men who have been to university have no trouble with this. Many women can do it too.

One reason why the internet can’t be blocked is technical. It’s fundamentally impossible. It’s impossible for the same reason that thousands of miles of great wall could not protect the second Qin emperor from being killed. Another reason is that President Fang and his followers aren’t even in the industry. The technology they use to fool people is substandard. Finally, no matter where you go, you will find good people. There are people inside the system that passively let things slip and refuse to cooperate with [government] authority. Although they are forced to aim, their conscience [compels them to miss the target by] lifting the barrel of their gun a few centimeters.

Besides this, in the IT industry, some corporations that help manufacture web monitoring equipment are staffed with people whose backgrounds are in government. Their management is chaotic; their companies’ prospects dim. It’s difficult to retain anyone with real technical talent. Furthermore, those [with real technical talent] will often, in addition to working from within the company, also work outside the company developing new tools for getting around the firewall.

So climbing the wall is simple. Any fuss over the matter is expressed only by the ignorant.

9. Lastly, I’ll discuss what made me think it was a scammer. The first letter stated: “Please stop teaching this immediately or else we will report you to the Ministry of Education. We will also report you to your university. Please tell us your mobile phone number. We will give you a call. We hope you understand. Let’s let bygones be bygones.” These words closely resemble the language used by internet scammers. Community police have gone around posting warnings to prevent people from being tricked [by similar scams]. As soon as one receives threatening mail or text messages, they should report it to community police immediately.

If it really was the Domestic Security Department, do you think the Xi’an University of Technology has worked so hard all these years and no one with a guiding sense of right and wrong is left? Do you really think the education department is just going to take your words and punish an ordinary instructor? If so, then how many teachers would be left in this country? That would set off a stampede. Open your eyes wide and look. Those people whose careers took a hit some twenty years ago, now they are living more comfortably than the people on the inside.

In regard to these threatening words, I can only speak as an old party member for more than a decade; I will not be intimidated; don’t give me any more of this mafia bullsh*t.

Because I’m committed to teaching and educating people, I have endured at least ten years of poverty. I won’t abandon teaching in the future.

I’m going to make a bet as to what extent education will decline, as to how long this society will go on disrespecting knowledge and instruction. Let’s see how long this mob can continue to run amuck and flagrantly disregard the law.

10. As an educator, I invite everyone to critique the education system. I invite everyone to oppose corruption. We’re all sitting in a high-speed rail car; it takes effort from everyone if we don’t want to run off the track. I recommend that everyone watch the famous German movie “The Lives of Others.” I invite everyone to look inside and ask yourselves, what kind of person am I?

The movie, “The Lives of Others” describes what happens after the Berlin wall came down. Just copy this downloading link into Xunlei.com, Flashget, eMule or other downloading tools and you can download it. Sharing ed2k files cannot be blocked—even people like President Fang Binxing at the Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications cannot block this with their outdated technology—the authorities lacks the ability.

11. The Xi’an University of Technology is a research university. It does its utmost to train the backbone of the country. Not many of our students leave the country and many employers have praised our university. I urge employers to ask Xi’an University of Technology Computer Science Institute web engineering and “internet of things” graduates if they can get around the firewall. I can tell you with certainty, those who can’t were not good students.

For students of computer sciences, a field that severely lacks a clear teaching emphasis, and for software engineering majors, who can only receive instruction on par with vocational schools, you can be a bit softer. Please ask them if they know what getting around the firewall means and reject those who don’t know.

12. Finally, I will discuss my lesson plans. Only after some students posted my lesson plans in Baidu Documents were these two letters, ostensibly from the Domestic Security Department, able to reach the mailbox I use for receiving homework, answering questions and other official uses.

In the future, I ask my students not to post my lesson plans online. They are intentionally made imperfect. Within them, there are a few intentional mistakes that will mislead those who did not attend my class. Although students have always given me a poor mark on my lesson preparation and this has always lowered my overall score, it is worth doing. Although I have no chance of being judged as excellent, my students’ eyes are still keen. I always get above a 90 percent approval rating. For education, it is worth it. My purpose in doing this is:

I don’t want to let myself depend on the lesson plan and fail to teach in a lively manner. You have to suspect that teachers with perfect lesson plans didn’t write them themselves. These years, there are more and more teachers who do it like this. Every year I have to turn down teachers who ask me to complete their lesson plans for them. The fact that a lesson that I made in 2003 is still widely used is great proof of this.

Lots of the things I teach in class won’t appear in my lesson plans. This is to avoid having students who come to class but don’t listen, then study the lesson plan before the test. If you didn’t listen in class, you will certainly fail.

Let it be known among my students, you don’t need to print out the lesson plan. Most of the information is in the book. A bit of it I emphasized in the lecture and you should write it in your notebooks. When you’ve finished taking exams you can throw out any Chinese textbooks. Go to the library and read some foreign textbooks, or a few of you can get together and buy some classic foreign textbooks. Even if it was a textbook I edited, throw it out. I know it is incredibly lacking compared to the foreign books.

A grave reminder: the tools themselves are innocent. Use Google properly. Obey they law. Building a society ruled by law requires everyone’s participation. Uprooting corruption requires everyone to act.

Read more about the Domestic Security Department, via CDT.