On 27 June 2013, fifty-three year-old Fang Binxing, President of Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications (Beijing youdian daxue 北京邮电大学), delivered a speech to students in which he said he was resigning due to poor health. A transcript of the speech was posted to the Internet; it attracted thousands of angry comments on social media sites, cursing Fang and wishing him a swift demise. The ill-wishers were not former students unhappy with his stewardship of the University. They were Internet users enraged by government censorship. They knew Fang as the ‘Father of China’s Great Firewall’ for his work on the blocking and filtering system that denies the country’s Internet users access to a number of foreign websites and web pages.
Fang began his career as an academic after earning his PhD in computer science at the Harbin Institute of Technology (Harbin gongye daxue 哈尔滨工业大学) in 1989. His work on the Great Firewall began in 1999 when he was appointed Deputy Chief Engineer of the National Internet Emergency Response Centre (Guojia hulianwang yingji zhongxin 国家互联网应急中心) — a shadowy government organisation that became responsible for developing key components of the Great Firewall. Fang was clearly talented: just one year later he was appointed Chief Engineer and Director of the Centre, and the following year he received what media reports call a ‘special allowance’ from the State Council (Guowuyuan teshu jintie 国务院特殊津贴), presumably for his work on Internet censorship.
An interview with Fang published in the English-language Global Times in February 2011 noted that ‘he confirms he was head designer for key parts of the Great Firewall reportedly launched in 1998 but that came online about 2003.’ By 2007, when he left the National Internet Emergency Response Centre, the technology behind the Great Firewall as it functions today was firmly in place. That year, he worked as ‘information security special advisor to the Ministry of Public Security’ according to the Global Times, and also took up his position at the Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications. His leadership at the University exposed him to the public gaze, which is when the online abuse against him started.
The first major Internet mob action against Fang was in December 2010, when he tried to open a microblog account on Sina Weibo. Relentless waves of criticism, often written in violent language, led him to delete the account within a few days. In his February 2011 Global Times interview, he said: ‘I regard the dirty abuse as a sacrifice for my country … . They can’t get what they want so they need to blame someone emotionally: like if you fail to get a US visa and you slag off the US visa official afterwards.’ He was unrepentant of his role, and while he refused to divulge to the Global Times anything about the technology behind the Great Firewall, he made a number of revealing statements:
I have six VPNs [Virtual Private Networks] on my home computer … but I only try them to test which side wins: the GFW or the VPN … .
I’m not interested in reading messy information like some of that anti-government stuff … .
… It’s a ceaseless war between the GFW and VPNs.
So far, the GFW is lagging behind and still needs improvement.
The situation is better described as traffic control.
Drivers just obey the rules and so citizens should just play with what they have.
Not all citizens want to play with what they have: in May 2011, during a speech Fang gave at Wuhan University’s School of Computer Science, a student threw eggs and shoes at him. Online, anonymous commentators offered a reward to the shoe and egg thrower. After that, Fang stayed out of the limelight until he made his retirement speech.