In spite of an earlier denial, the Chinese government has tightened its grip on the Internet, stepping up efforts against netizens’ access to unsupervised connections, including those via virtual private networks (VPNs) halfway through its 14-month-long crackdown nationwide.
VPNs are third-party services that help bypass the so-called Great Firewall, installed by state censors to filter traffic between Chinese and overseas servers and block banned websites such as Google, Twitter and scores of international news media, including VOA.
“Some local services have been brought offline, some VPN apps no longer work, and the authorities are targeting other specific VPN providers,” Charlie Smith, a co-founder of Greatfire.org, said in an emailed reply to VOA.
The anti-censorship group’s earlier report showed that China blocked 135 of the world’s top 1,000 websites.
Following the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology’s announcement in January to clean up unsanctioned VPNs, the authorities were reported to have required the country’s three largest telecommunication firms — China Mobile, China Unicom and China Telecom — to shut down what they call illegal networks by February 1.
Guangzhou Huoyun Information Technology Ltd., which operates in around 20 cities across China, was also said to have received a directive from the authorities to start blocking services beginning last Tuesday.
Yet the ministry on July 12 denied it has issued any such notice, accusing foreign media of having reported falsely.
“The object of the new regulation is those unauthorized enterprises and individuals who haven’t got the license to use VPNs… As for those foreign trade enterprises and multinational companies [which] need to get access to cross-border network, they can rent VPNs from those authorized carriers,” the ministry reiterated, according to local media.
The tightening move, however, has triggered worries and harsh criticism from online users and expatriates in China, as well as the country’s top-tier academics and researchers, some of whom say their work and competitiveness will be negatively impacted if they are cut off from the outside world.
While some find government-approved carriers acceptable, other users say they can’t possibly seek such carriers to get around the government’s great firewall.
Michael Qiao, formerly a journalism professor from Beijing Foreign Studies University, said he hasn’t been able to access free-of-charge VPNs over the past month and one of his two paid VPN services has also ceased to work.
Qiao speculated that the recent tightening may have something to do with the enactment of China’s Cybersecurity Law in June, increased traffic to fugitive tycoon Guo Wengui’s Twitter postings or the upcoming 19th party congress.
The Xi administration has long promoted the concept of “cyberspace sovereignty” — control of China’s own digital space.
Overall, Qiao finds the government’s long-term trend to stifle Internet freedom a violation of basic civil rights.
“It’s within [everyone’s] fundamental human rights to have access to information and communications. Some researchers or intellectuals may argue that their access to information shouldn’t be as restricted as ordinary people. That’ll be an act of discrimination. It’s not right,” he said.
Cat and mouse game
He added that Beijing can’t possibly win the cat and mouse game, as the precedent of the country’s ban on private satellite dishes has shown.
But Greatfire.org’s Smith isn’t as optimistic.
“This is a cat and mouse game until the cat gets tired and decides to eat the mouse, and at the moment I can hear Xi Jinping’s large round belly starting to grumble,” he said.
Qiao said the all-out ban aims to consolidate Xi’s grip on power while the country risks a brain drain, which will hurt its intellectual creativity and future technological and international trade development.
Already, Freedom House, a U.S.-based democracy and human rights non-profit group, has branded China as “the world’s worst abuser of Internet freedom.”
While lodging complaints over the government’s abuse of internet freedom, many online users took to social media to seek help.
On Weibo, China’s Twitter-like microblogging platform, a user asked for pointers to VPNs that still work since he has problem connecting many of his usual VPNs.
“If I tell you here, those VPNs will soon cease to work,” one replied while another said jokingly “Are you trying to get our VPNs banned?”
Other users compared China’s ban to that in Russia, whose parliament passed a bill on Friday to outlaw VPNs and other proxy services, citing concerns about the spread of extremist materials.
“[China] joins hand with the Big Brother,” a Weibo user commented while another mocked “[Other than Russia], come to think of North Korea, suddenly I no longer feel so sad.”