China launched a fierce crackdown on the free flow of information, particularly on the internet and social media, ahead of the 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) held in October. While many Chinese netizens hoped that the strict internet controls would be relaxed by the Chinese government once the Congress closed, reality just gave them a slap on the face.
On December 20, JCRB.com, the website managed by China’s Supreme People’s Procuratorate, reported a criminal case involving a Chinese man selling VPNs — a third-party service that routes web traffic through servers in another country or location. (For netizens in China, VPNs are the only resort for them to bypass the Great Firewall and get access to the uncensored international internet.)
According to the report, the procuratorate in Pingnan County, Guangxi Province sentenced Wu Xiangyang to five-and-a-half years in prison and a 500,000 yuan ($76,000) fine for selling VPNs without a proper license.
Wu was accused of illegally running the VPN business from 2013 to June this year through his online shop. In those four years, he had made 792,638 yuan in revenue and around 500,000 yuan in profits. Thus, he violated Article 225 of China’s Criminal Law involving “illegal acts in business operation,” the report said.
It’s worth noting that the sentence was unusually heavy, even by China’s standards.
Article 225 of China’s Criminal Law reads:
Whoever, in violation of State regulations, commits any of the following illegal acts in business operation and thus disrupts market order, if the circumstances are serious, shall be sentenced to fixed-term imprisonment of not more than five years or criminal detention and shall also, or shall only, be fined not less than one time but not more than five times the amount of illegal gains; if the circumstances are especially serious, he shall be sentenced to fixed- term imprisonment of not less than five years and shall also be fined not less than one time but not more than five times the amount of illegal gains or be sentenced to confiscation of property…
As Wu has been sentenced to more than five years in prison, it is obvious that the local procuratorate believed that his circumstances were “especially serious.”
In January this year, another man who also sold VPNs without license was sentenced to nine months in prison by the procuratorate in Dongguan City, Guangdong Province, although this man did make less profit compared to Wu.
After the report of this latest case, hundreds of Chinese netizens commented to condemn the verdict, despite China’s severe censorship.