23 October 2018
It’s estimated that around 200 million out of China's more than 730 million netizens have used VPN to access foreign websites. Photo:
It’s estimated that around 200 million out of China's more than 730 million netizens have used VPN to access foreign websites. Photo:

China beefs up Great Firewall with VPN crackdown

Chinese authorities have blocked access to Virtual Private Networks (VPN) since July 22, taking aim at people who try to get around online censorship. Web users who had violated the rules have seen internet access being cut off. The users will need to sign repentance letters if they want internet access to be restored.

VPN is a popular tool among Chinese web users to circumvent the government’s so-called Great Firewall. It is estimated that around 200 million out of the nation’s over 730 million netizens have used VPN to access foreign websites.

By redirecting web traffic through a server abroad, VPN technology allows Chinese internet users to appear as though they are connected to the web from elsewhere, enabling them to access the wider web undetected. However, the technology may expose personal information to the server abroad, and web users may also have to put along with slow internet speed and the hassle of disconnection and reconnection from time to time.

As demand remained high, many small firms and individuals have been providing VPN services to cater to the massive mainland market and make profit from internet advertising.

Chinese authorities earlier used to turn a blind eye to such VPN services, as they believed that only a small number of web users were using them, given the technical threshold. Therefore, the restrictions shielded most ordinary netizens from accessing information from foreign websites.

But the proliferation of such services has now changed the situation. As a matter of fact, many mobile Apps currently offer VPN services.

The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology issued a notice in January that all unqualified companies or individuals are barred from linking to other sites outside China through VPN. And several VPN operators have been blocked in China since then.

The government has tightened the crackdown over the weekend, and many web users have been cut off internet access due to their illegal use of VPN. They are requested to sign repentance letters and pledge to not use VPN anymore if they are to regain access to internet services.

Apart from VPN, many people purchase the “1-card-2-number” prepaid card from China Mobile Hong Kong in order to skirt mainland internet censorship.

The card enables users to access foreign websites using a server in Hong Kong. Mainlanders can easily buy this card and just recharge it online. The card has become an essential kit for businessmen and top corporate executives in China in recent years.

However, many people reported over the weekend that the card stopped working in China, and that users can’t make or take phone calls. China Mobile Hong Kong is said to have assured that the service has been restored. However, many users continue to complain about service disruptions.

Some observers believe the escalated control over internet access is temporary action ahead of the Chinese Communist Party’s 19th Congress in the autumn.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on July 24

Translation by Julie Zhu

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Hong Kong Economic Journal columnist

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