Current affairs blogger Xiang Dongliang has had his Weibo account banned for reporting Hu Xijin, a nationalist blogger and retired editor-in-chief of the Global Times, for using a VPN to circumvent the Great Firewall of China (GFW). Hu Xijin has long been known for his “wolf-warrior-style” rhetoric on social media, including on overseas platforms such as X (formerly Twitter) that are blocked in mainland China and require a VPN to access.
The drama began on November 24, with a video released by the People’s Court of Wenchuan county, in Sichuan province, sternly warning Chinese internet users: “If you use software to circumvent the firewall in China, no matter what your purpose is, it is considered an illegal act.” The spokeswoman in the video further cautioned that “by scaling the wall, you’re actually putting yourself right in the middle of the enemy’s hunting ground, blithely walking into the enemy’s carefully laid illegal, collusive, and political traps.” More worrisome still, the video interprets the vaguely defined crime of “firewall circumvention” as a “hacking attack,” or a criminal intrusion into a computer system.
In response to the video, current affairs commentator and blogger Xiang Dongliang—who writes under the handle “Basic Common Sense” (基本常识, Jīběn Chángshí)—reposted a quote from the Wenchuan court and duly reported Hu Xijin to the authorities for using a VPN to “scale the wall” and access overseas websites:
People’s Court of Wenchuan County: “If you use software to circumvent the firewall in China, no matter what your purpose is, it is considered an illegal act.”
As it transpired, Xiang’s attempt to raise awareness of the law—or at least highlight double-standards in its application—turned out to be a thankless task. The next day, on November 25, Xiang’s personal Weibo account was banned “due to violation(s) of relevant laws and regulations.” In a post to his still-active WeChat account under the title “Is Hu Xijin Above the Law?” Xiang noted the absurdity of punishing an individual do-gooder for attempting to report illegal activity to the relevant authorities:
If what the Wenchuan County Court said is correct, then retiree Hu Xijin’s “wall-scaling” behavior is obviously illegal and he should be arrested—and my Weibo account will have helped to eliminate a public scourge.
If it is not illegal to circumvent the firewall and go online, then the Wenchuan County Court, as an organ of our nation’s judiciary, has spread incorrect legal information and gravely injured the dignity of the law. If that is the case, they should issue a clarification and apology—and my Weibo account will have provided a valuable service by refuting such rumors.
[…] If a certain retiree dares to circumvent the firewall, he ought to come clean and admit it, right? If such circumvention is legal, then allow everyone to access the open internet and see for themselves. And if it is illegal, then he should surrender himself to the authorities immediately and hope they’ll be lenient with him.
Everyone is equal before the law. No matter “Hu” you are, you are not above the law. [Chinese]
Technically, the use of VPNs without government permission is illegal in China, and those caught using them can face punishment, typically in the form of warnings, fines, or visits from the police to “drink tea” and discuss one’s posts on overseas social media. But some punishments are more extreme: in 2017, a man was sentenced to five and half years in prison for selling VPN service, and a Uyghur university student was sentenced to 13 years in prison for merely using a VPN. Recent changes to government regulations on internet access have increased the penalties for those caught “scaling the wall.” The prolific blogger program-think, who provided detailed instructions on Great Firewall circumvention on his blog for many years before his 2021 arrest, was convicted of “inciting subversion of state power” (a charge based on his writings published on overseas sites) and sentenced to seven years in prison.
The Xiang Dongliang vs. Hu Xijin controversy attracted a lot of attention online, both inside and outside the GFW. CDT editors collected a number of sardonic comments posted outside the Great Firewall by Chinese users on X (formerly Twitter):
wangluo8899: As the villain from [the television series] “In the Name of the People” once said, “I say what’s legal and what’s illegal.”
aug26th: “Eunuch Hu” was ordered to scale the wall, but that order cannot be made public.
zhihunanana: “Safe Beijing” is very efficient indeed, and solves people’s problems immediately.
15742724An: China’s laws are flexible, precise, and selective.
woyongdehuawei: How dare you mess with a eunuch bearing a golden “circumvent-the-GFW” free pass given to him by the Emperor?
zh4915045615971: Thumbs-up for China’s speedy response.
hahaha1603: Such a dramatic conclusion.
shokoshen: Scaling the wall depends on your status, and Hu Xijin is no ordinary person.
In a November 27 article, Wei Chunliang, author of the WeChat blog 亮见 (Liang Jian), came to the defense of his fellow blogger Xiang Dongliang, and noted the logical fallacies inherent in banning Xiang’s account while ignoring Hu’s transgressions:
Either Hu Xijin broke the law, or the Wenchuan County Court made a mistake. It must be one of the two. This dovetails perfectly and I don’t see any logical loopholes in it.
Xiang Dongliang thought that he was either helping to eliminate a public scourge or helping to refute rumors. Either way, he was doing a good deed.
I always thought that although the internet was divided into “internal” and “external” territories, logic recognized no borders. All human beings, whether inside or outside the wall, must recognize logic.
Turns out we were wrong about that. [Chinese]
Arthur Kaufman contributed to this post.