China’s Government May Soon Crack Down On VPNs

If you’ve traveled to China you’ve probably faced the “great firewall,” where access to many websites is blocked. This includes Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc. Fortunately getting around these blocks is quite easy using a VPN — Tiffany wrote a post about exactly this a while back.

A VPN (virtual private network) allows you to connect to the internet using another network, so it looks like you’re accessing the internet from somewhere else. This allows you to access websites that are typically blocked in China.

VPN

VPN use is extremely common China, to the point that I suspect most millennials in major Chinese cities use them. Clearly the government is aware of this, though they haven’t done that much to crack down on usage.

Well, while the impact on individuals won’t be immediate, it looks like the Chinese government is slowly cracking down on VPNs. Per CNN Money:

China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology has announced a 14-month “clean up” of internet access services, which includes a crackdown on virtual private networks, or VPNs.

The new regulations require VPN services to obtain government approval before operating. Using a VPN without permission is also prohibited.

Here’s a CNN clip discussing the situation:

At the moment it seems like this discussion centers more around the Chinese government and those providing VPNs, rather than those using them. However, it’ll be interesting to see what the long term implications are. Like I said, I don’t think there’s any short term impact for individuals as of now, and even if there were, I suspect many will still take their chances.

In terms of a much more extreme VPN crackdown, last year the UAE enacted a law where people could face jail time and a fine of $500,000+ for using a VPN. However, clearly that’s not being enforced much, or else much of the country would be in jail.

To those more tech savvy (or perhaps China policy savvy) than me, what do you make of the Chinese government requiring VPN services to obtain approval from the government?

(Tip of the hat to The Points Guy)

Comments

  1. depends on whose perspective. from the locals, one thing about the will of the people is that it’s impossible to stop. it’s a hugely profitable business, so I’m sure there are folks digging through every possible loophole as we speak. they’ll come up with alternate solutions not for the love of information freedom, but for the $$$.

    one method off the top of my head (haven’t tested at all) would be to switch from a centralized model to a peer-to-peer (P2P) model. Think of bit-torrent but apply that concept to VPN-ing. The one thing we KNOW about p2p is that you can’t shut it down.

    And from a tourists one, it won’t affect too much. If you’re roaming your foreign phone and accessing the net via 3G/LTE, you’re already exempt from the firewall. Ditto for certain high end hotels catering primarily to western businessmen. The govt is trying hard to give this facade of how open they are.

  2. @Lucky

    Most millennials in PRC do not use VPN. Their world is in Wechat, QQ, Sina…
    As a matter of fact, I would say most of them never used Facebook before.

  3. “VPN use is extremely common China, to the point that I suspect most millennials in major Chinese cities use them. Clearly the government is aware of this, though they haven’t done that much to crack down on usage.”

    @Ben – How many Chinese people do you know? From everything I’ve heard, it’s exactly the opposite, and the vast majority of Chinese are perfectly happy using the Chinese intranet inside the Great Firewall. In fact, it’s extraordinary that you would make such a claim, since that would require a MAMMOTH number of individuals to know how to use and pay for a highly technical solution to a problem that is mostly better served by local services. Sure, if you’re a rights activist, you might have a VPN on your phone or laptop, but that’s definitely not most Chinese. And really, why would most people care when all the services they use are hosted in China anyway?

    As for the “news” about this, unless something changes, this was an initiative announced last year that was basically implemented back in 2011 when the Great Firewall (GFW) acquired machine learning capabilities (the above comment regarding P2P being unable to be blocked is, sadly, highly erroneous). It’s well known that there are only a handful of providers that consistently work around the GFW. I strongly suspect that’s because the security services already have the capability of monitoring them, one way or another. There is no magic technical solution to keep working around what is the world’s most advanced firewall funded by an enormous and rich state (China).

  4. An article on CNBC says the following: “As part of the campaign, locally-based VPN providers need to be approved by the authorities before they can continue business or risk operating illegally.” Not sure if this apply to international visitors using VPN not based in China for personal use and not for running any businesses.

  5. I don’t know about most chinese using vpn. That sounds like a real stretch and is not consistent with my experience. Maybe chinese engaged in international business or those communicating with relatives in other countries. Hell i use wechat in and out of china. The chinese dont need facebook at all.

  6. Something trump should learn from the Chinese and implement here. Not sure why people make a big deal about the First Amendment. The only truth is the truth that comes from the white house. The biased media lies so much. They are saying he will take away health insurance, and build a wall. Lies. Its a media conspiracy.

    America needs to become more like China. I have already bought my gas mask. And ordered a whip and gun too. Fun times!

  7. “Hmm wonder what foreign companies will do to access their networks from inside China”
    I’ve worked with Microsoft in China and they’ve basically gotten an exception for their internal networks. It seems the same as any US internet. I’m sure it is the same for other foreign companies.

  8. “I’ve worked with Microsoft in China and they’ve basically gotten an exception for their internal networks. It seems the same as any US internet. I’m sure it is the same for other foreign companies.”

    Not without a back door, I can guarantee you that. Anything going in their country they have the need to control.

    I can’t stand Drumpf but I think he’s right in one respect, in his focus on China – they are far less trustworthy than even the Russians and much more of a near term threat.

  9. May be a short term issue, but won’t be a long term problem. The cat and mouse game continues….China will try to clamp down, and it may work for a bit, but VPN providers will find new ways to circumvent the wall. Though it sounds like a ‘new’ policy, it’s really just more of the same. And I say this living in Beijing, using my VPN, as I have for the past 12 years.

  10. One funny thing is when you using a sim card from Hong Kong carrier and romaing in China. You will realize that there are no WALL at all. Hopelly they won’t crack down this service.

  11. Based on my experience in HK, which is just next to the border, I think 90% of university students that were born after 1980 would have used a VPN before; however, for those that would habitually use it, probably just 30%. A lot of people only use it once in a while to update on news outside (~?once a week), or clear messages on instagram / facebook.

    Since it is such a big country with areas that are still untouched, the exposure to VPN per capita is still low. The actual need of using a VPN per se is not really that high, there is no problem with keeping in touch with the rest of the world with email or wechat although some messages would get “lost”; there is no problem doing most online shopping, buying tickets, booking hotels, watching sports news; so in reality cyber censorship is affecting people less than you think, life as usual. Most people are politically inert, even if they want to read more about “sensitive news”, there are other channels, through smuggled printed materials from the airport, or land border; or even within this wide spectrum of state-monitored media, there are kim joing-il style newpapers, there are also the “hipper” ones. News can also float around in forums, or weibo where censorship is frequently not fast enough.

    The general public however are pretty happy with the Intranet, and the Wechat ecosystem- a heavily state subsidized, controlled, and monitored utopia. They do not really mind the lack of privacy because they “are not doing anything illegal” and hence “blameless”. They would compare that to backdoors used by the US government, or S. Korea thinking that it is not any better or worse. They would also think it is a norm for credit card companies to sell your personal information- Visa Master and AE are not any less evil than ChinaUnionPay. Yes but I beg to differ, there is one thing that China lack- legal protection of civil rights; take time to read the constitution, it is a joke, and the way they execute it, a bigger joke.

    Privacy invasion is inevitable no matter where you are, but the scary thing in China is the lack of legal protection when that information is being used against you- which happens All The Time.

  12. @ Ivo sio
    That is because it is using a VPN approved by the government via the network operator, it is unlikely they will crack that down, since China Mobile China Unicom and China Telecom are all heavily controlled/ subsidized/ monitored, as the name tells you.
    In fact you can buy “China SIM cards” in HK in particular requesting those with access to the real internet- they are more expensive and tend to be slower (network latency)

  13. I’m not sure how safe VPN actually is. My employer does not allow us to access some paricularly sensitive data (e.g. HR) – not even via VPN – when travelling to two countries: China and – guess what – the US. I don’t know whether this restriction is justified or not, but I think it’s because our IT people are not fully trusting VPN.

  14. Simply build a locally hosted ShadowSocks (you can find it on GitHub – it’s open source). It’s really easy and reliable.

    Regarding how many people are using VPN in China….I’ve lived in China for 20 years in various different cities… the ratio is really not high.

    Best luck.

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