At the turn of the millennium US President Bill Clinton famously compared China’s efforts to restrict access to the worldwide web to being like “trying to nail Jello to the wall”.
Fifteen years on it seems the internet wasn’t as slippery as he thought, and that China has developed some pretty good nails too. For much of January this was plain once more when Beijing began a crackdown on virtual private networks or VPNs. As regular readers of WiC will know, these tunnelling and encryption services are widely used by expats and businesses in China to circumvent local restrictions blocking the use of an increasing list of foreign websites. Without a VPN it is impossible to access Google, Facebook, Bloomberg, The New York Times and Twitter, among others.
The crackdown meant that many Chinese students with overseas university applications pending were unable to check on their status and foreigners were left frustrated as they were unable to pick up documents stored on overseas cloud services. The move had followed an earlier clampdown on Gmail access (see WiC265).
Still, it wasn’t a total shock. VPNs are illegal in China (the exception being their use in inter-company networks that are registered with the Chinese government).
The authorities have not directly confirmed that they are squeezing VPNs but on January 27 in response to a question on the issue, Wen Ku, an official with the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, said: “The rapid development of the internet is forcing the ministry to use new ways to maintain cyber security and steady operations.”
VPN providers such as Astrill, StrongVPN and Golden Frog all confirmed they were having problems and asked their customers to bear with them.“Our fight with the Chinese censors is not over,” said Astrill in a message. “We know how important unfettered internet access is to you.”
Experts said the crackdown was caused by an upgrade in China’s detection software, part of the Great Firewall, which is now able to identify data travelling on a VPN without having to locate its IP address.
It also seems the authorities are happy to cast a pretty wide net and block any content that looks like it might be illegal. “Now it seems they are doing it automatically,” the Wall Street Journal quoted Liviu, a VPN provider in Romania, as saying.
Last year there was a steady stream of official statements that hinted at a tightening of China’s digital reality. At a seminar last November Ren Xianliang, deputy director of the Cyberspace Administration told officials and internet entrepreneurs that China needed to “enhance the rule of law on the internet to create a clean cyber space”. And later that month China used the first World Internet Conference – an event it created – to lobby for “internet sovereignty” – a concept it also thought up.
Indeed, that is what many observers believe this recent VPN outage to be about – China’s increasing belief that it should have the internationally recognised right to limit what sections of the internet its citizens see.
“The internet has posed new challenges to national sovereignty, security and development interests, which requires the international community to meet urgently and seriously and pursue common governance and win-win outcomes,” Chinese President Xi Jinping said in a congratulatory message sent to the World Internet Conference last year.
Judging by its citizens’ reactions, it’s not a popular move.“This is just a new version of the isolation the Ming and Qing Dynasties chose and look how that ended,” wrote one. Another student preparing for postgraduate studies in the US asked: “This a backwards step for a country. I wouldn’t mind if Baidu returned similar results [to Google], but it is completely useless.”
Even the uber-patriotic Global Times warned against further restrictions. “We cannot always ban young people from seeing things but we can train them to keep calm whatever they see,” it noted, adding, “We hope that the motivation of China to block access to foreign websites and web pages will gradually reduce, rather than increase.”
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