On July 10, Bloomberg revealed that China’s government has required the three big Chinese telecommunications firms — China Mobile, China Unicom, and China Telecom — to ban individuals’ access to virtual private networks, or VPNs, by February 1. A VPN is a third-party service that routes web traffic through servers in another country or location. As netizens in China have been suffering from the torture of the Great Firewall (GFW) for years and VPNs are the only resort for people to get access to the international internet, Bloomberg’s report was immediately widely spread across China — despite the fact that Bloomberg itself is also blocked by GFW.
Although the news is not a thunder from a clear sky — as The Diplomat has reported, China declared its decision to crackdown on VPNs earlier in January 2017 — Bloomberg’s report and the detailed timeline still give Chinese netizens a new blow.
On July 12, the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology finally replied to the report, claiming that “ the foreign media reported falsely” and the ministry hasn’t “issued such a notice.”
Ironically, the Ministry’s further explanation did actually partly confirm Bloomberg’s report. The Ministry told thepaper.cn, a Chinese news website:
The new regulation issued in January this year won’t affect the domestic and foreign enterprises and the majority of users who legally get access to the internet… The object of the new regulation is those unauthorized enterprises and individuals who haven’t got the licence to use VPNs… As for those foreign trade enterprises and multinational companies who need to get access to cross-border network, they can rent VPNs from those authorized carriers according to the law…
However, the Ministry neither elaborated on the law nor clarified who could be authorized to use a VPN. As usual, the issue becomes a new gray area, where nearly anyone could have broken the law without knowing it.
As The Diplomat has repeatedly reported, China has launched a series of regulations to tighten internet control recently. Regarding the issue of VPNs, the ban, whether limited to unauthorized VPNs or not, will not only affect millions of netizens’ daily lives, but also numerous enterprises operating in China. As China keeps boasting its ambition to defend global trade and internationalization, its increasingly tight controls on the internet can’t be conducive to the big picture.
Charlotte Gao holds a MA degree in Asian Studies. Her research interests center around East Asian topics. She has worked in the past as a news editor, reporter, and writer for multiple traditional, online, and new media outlets.