16 November 2018
China has targeted VPN apps that allow people in the mainland to gain access to banned foreign websites such as Google and Facebook. Photo:
China has targeted VPN apps that allow people in the mainland to gain access to banned foreign websites such as Google and Facebook. Photo:

China regressing to a state of information seclusion

While China has maintained a firm grip on the cyberworld, netizens in the mainland still manage to gain access to highly popular but banned foreign websites such as YouTube and Facebook by using software and apps such as the Virtual Private Network (VPN).

Hong Kong citizens and foreign tourists in the mainland can also log on to these websites through their smartphones by installing roaming SIM cards.

Chinese authorities are well aware of these “criminal acts” but have been looking the other way.

However, President Xi Jinping is determined to rule the country with an iron fist and tighten his control over every aspect of society. So much for such leniency.

According to foreign media reports, mainland authorities have ordered Apple to remove all VPN apps from its mainland-version App Store, including the highly popular Express VPN and Star VPN, on the grounds that these apps would enable public access to “inappropriate content”.

And Apple, which immediately did as it was told, has come under fire from Chinese netizens for its submissiveness. In a bid to allay public anger, chief executive Tim Cook had to publish a soft-toned statement explaining his decision.

Apart from Apple, Amazon also heeded Beijing’s call.

Banning VPN apps literally means depriving people in the mainland of their last remaining tool to gain free access to the internet. From now on nobody on Chinese soil will be able to climb over the Great Firewall anymore.

While the rest of the world is becoming one because of the internet, which transcends geographical boundaries and connects people from around the globe, China is swimming against the tide and regressing to a state of information seclusion.

It is indeed mind-boggling why China’s leaders are turning their country into an isolated island as far as information is concerned, considering that China has actually benefited a lot from globalization and the information superhighway.

Chinese tech giants such as Alibaba, Tencent and Huawei have all benefited from the global market.

Beijing’s efforts to tighten internet restrictions and suppress freedom of information on its soil have already raised concerns among foreign investors.

According to a survey published by the German Chamber of Commerce in China in September last year, factors such as the escalating cyber censorship, slow internet connection when one is visiting foreign websites and the lack of intellectual property protection are discouraging German companies from investing in China.

Many in the mainland are getting increasingly concerned about the implications of escalating internet restrictions for society and the economy.

During this year’s annual meetings of the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) in March, some delegates publicly called on the party leadership to ease restrictions on cyberspace.

Among them was Luo Fuhe, CPPCC’s deputy chairman, who delivered a speech during the meeting in which he urged the authorities to allow public access to non-political foreign websites because excessive internet censorship, he said, is “hindering scientific research and economic development”.

Unfortunately, under President Xi’s rule, there is little tolerance for dissent in the mainland, and everything has taken a backseat to “maintaining domestic stability”. Indeed, chances for Luo’s humble wish to be granted are very remote.

While the Chinese government is promoting innovation and creativity in the private sector, it is denying the public the internet platform through which they can draw inspiration and stimulate new ideas.

True, stepping up internet restrictions might enable the authorities to root out dissent against the communist state in the short run, but in the long run it would only strangle whatever creativity or innovation there might be in society.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Aug. 4

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Hong Kong Economic Journal contributor

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