China – The The largest internet market globally – with over 1 billion users – is no stranger to online censorship. Over the years, authorities in the country have created a series of techno-policy restrictions, commonly referred to as The Great Firewall, to restrict open access to the Internet. But those restrictions have also given rise to a creative industry: devices used by millions of people to get around the wall and access the Internet like they do elsewhere.
Yet recently, some of these most popular devices have started mysteriously disappearing.
Earlier this month, client software for Windows, Clash, a popular proxy tool that helps users bypass firewalls and circumvent China’s censorship system, suddenly stopped appearing on GitHub: This was the main way for developers to download and update it.
After deleting the repository, the developer of Clash for Windows, known by the pseudonym @Fndroid, Posted On X that they will stop updating the tool, without any further details. “Stopped updating, see you soon😅” the developer wrote in Chinese.
The developer further added, “Technology is not good or bad, but people are.” “It’s time to face the light and move on.”
Fndroid, contacted for comment, was equally evasive in responding to TechCrunch.
“Thank you for your email and for considering me for your comments on recent developments regarding the Clash for Windows project,” the developer wrote in a message.
“I must inform you that I am in no position to give any insight or comment on this matter. My current commitments and policies prevent me from discussing this topic publicly. I appreciate your understanding and respect for my privacy in this regard. I wish you success in your reporting and hope you get the information you need from other sources.
Proxies are a notable weapon in China for those who want to access the Internet without state restrictions and surveillance.
Acting as a gateway between a user’s device and the Internet and enabling private web access by hiding the user’s IP address, they have grown as a popular alternative to VPNs in China since a government crackdown in 2017 . (Since VPNs are now only legal if they comply with certain Chinese data regulations, that has had an impact on adoption and use, including major platforms like Apple that have pulled access to VPNs entirely.)
Since then, there has been no mainstream distribution for censorship-fighting tools in China, and so consumers generally reach out through word of mouth to ‘unofficial’ VPNs and proxy clients like Clash.
But setting up a proxy client requires technical know-how, which is both a blessing and a curse.
This means that adoption has been limited to the technically adept. Yet it became an effective way to circumvent state control because the technology was traditionally less familiar even to the Chinese government. This also increased the credibility of the tool and other tools like it.
“I think there is a sense that anything that is easily accessible is compromised,” Maya Wang, interim China director for Human Rights Watch, said in an interview with TechCrunch.
Overall, proxies are still less popular than VPNs, which were estimated to have about 293 million users in China by 2021.
Proxy server usage is also less well tracked. Analytics firm GlobalWebIndex found that half of all Facebook users in China accessed the platform through proxy servers, but that’s a figure from a decade ago, in 2013.
While proxy server usage is estimated to be in the millions, a lot of that number are Internet “power users”, making this likely an area that will be disproportionately scrutinized.
So it was not surprising that when Clash disappeared, the move appeared to trigger a domino effect.
Associated tools in the Clash ecosystem created by other developers on GitHub – for example Clash Verge, Clash for Android and ClashX, among other proxy tools – all began to be removed or archived. Censorship monitoring platform GFW Report was the first to track this.
It is unclear why Fndroid and other proxy tool developers removed their repositories.
A look at GitHub’s takedown request log shows that the government was not involved.
“GitHub generally does not comment on decisions to remove content. However, in the interest of transparency, we share every government removal request we take action on here,” a GitHub spokesperson told TechCrunch in a statement. Proxy servers were not on the content developer list when TechCrunch evaluated it.
Yet suddenly it has begun to disappear Estimate Online that the Windows developer was identified as conflicting and thus pressured by Chinese authorities citing the issue that proxy servers reveal too much personal information online.
There are other indications that those representing the state are certainly pursuing individual developers and shutting down their activities if they are deemed to be in violation of Chinese policies regarding Internet use.
Another proxy developer, who goes by the pseudonym EAimTY and has removed his proxy repository TUIC, posted a blog in which he suggested that state pressure was involved.
“The authorities will not hesitate to go after Chinese developers who are openly creating fraudulent solutions. Often, these developers work on different projects, so they are putting their income at risk if they continue to work in a fraudulent area,” Charlie Smith, the pseudonymous head of the anti-censorship group Great Fire. told TechCrunch.
The affected censorship circumvention tools are no longer available for installation, as users typically obtain their install packages from their GitHub pages. However, TechCrunch understands that some of these tools, including Clash, were still working on systems that were installed at the time of filing this article, even if they were no longer receiving updates.
Chinese developers creating tools to bypass the Great Firewall are regularly detained or punished by authorities, which has chilling implications for future activity.
Proxy server developers are not the only ones being targeted. Last year, censorship circumvention tools based on Transport Layer Security (TLS) were also blocked in the country. It is estimated that TLS-based tools are used by more than half of China’s Internet users – 500 million users – to bypass online censorship.
Even though it is hard to estimate the exact number of users who circumvent censorship using a particular tool, Clash was commonly on the list of recommended clients for proxy services in China. A Clash group on Telegram with users of different versions developed with Clash Core currently has about 40,000 members.
“I think it’s an important presence for people who want to escape the Internet who haven’t been granted official access,” said Wang at Human Rights Watch. “There are a lot of universities, research institutions in China, they have to access the Internet outside of China, and those institutions usually have some kind of official VPN access. But for those who do not have official access, or who do not want to use it, I think they resort to many smaller ones and Clash was 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 anti-circumvention tools has been going on for years, but it was not until Xi Jinping became president in November 2012. Since then it has increased rapidly. Another gained major attention during the “blank paper” A4 protests of 2022, where protesters displayed blank sheets of paper as a symbol against censorship in response to China’s harsh COVID policies.
“The more authorities block access to information, the more Chinese citizens look for ways around these blocks. Innovative solutions have been and will continue to be developed. Chinese people will find ways to access information and it is likely that demand for such services will only grow,” Smith said.