Despite the country is surrounded by a festive mood as Chinese New Year is approaching, the Chinese government dropped a bombshell at many China watchers and Internet savvy last Sunday when the nation’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) declared unauthorized virtual private network (VPN) services “illegal”.
VPNs help users leap China’s Great Firewall—a popular term referring to the complex censorship apparatus that filters information considered “sensitive” or “harmful” by the government.
The MIIT released the notice on its website, saying it would launch a nation-wide campaign against unauthorized internet connections and that all special cable and VPN services in China shall obtain prior government approval. Meanwhile, basic telecom services providers shall build profiles of their VPN users. The campaign will run until March 2018.
Like many laws and regulations in China, the new VPN and cable regulations are purposefully vague. It’s unclear how the government will carry out the campaign or enforce these regulations but the language of the notice indicates that it is targeting at companies who provide VPN services to users.
While this came as a surprise to many, China’s crackdown on VPNs is nothing new.
The regulation comes weeks before the annual meeting of the National People’s Congress (NPC), China’s national legislature, which is set to meet in Beijing on Mach 5, 2017. The last major crackdown on VPNs also happened around the annual NPC meeting in March 2016. Many companies complained that their paid-forVPN services were not functioning for up to a week.
In January 2015, major VPN providers such as Astrill, Strong VPN, and Golden Frog admit that their VPN services in China were intervened. Over half a year later, the developer of Shadowsock, an open-source proxy project to help Chinese users circumvent internet censorship, said he was warned by the police to take down hits project from GitHub, a website for sharing and collaborating on software code. In the same month, GoAgent, another widely-used VPN tool, also read its GitHub repository removed.
The crackdown has undoubtedly caused an online outcry. Data from research service Statista showed that 29 per cent of internet users in China, or 200 million people, were using VPN services in 2015.
According to South China Morning Post, aside from the worry that VPN users would be held accountable by security forces for using such service, on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter-service, Chinese internet users also expressed “fears of losing touch with the outside world”. A Weibo analytics tool developed by prestigious Peking University shows that most users consider the regulations as a modern version of China’s (in)famous isolationistic policy in the 15th century.
Some argue that a large economy like China would not risk hurting its booming internet-baed industry, it would not be the first time the Chinese government to enforce an internet blackout if that ever comes necessary.
On July 5, 2009, a riot killed nearly 200 people and injured another 1,700 in Urumqi, capital of northwest China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. Internet access in the region was cut off for nearly a year in the wake of the riot to “prevent violent crimes from happening again”. In addition to Internet access and short message service (SMS), the regional government also suspended international direct dialing (IDD).
While for many individual and companies it is hard to imagine life without the internet or with an intranet and that people would take to the street if such thing ever happens, the story of Xinjiang’s internet blackout may shock (and alarm) them by the extent to which people could put up with and get accustomed to their right to internet access being taken away.
Below is a translation of some excerpts from an interview between a tech writer named “Shi Shixin” and three Urumqi internet users who experienced the internet blackout. The original post has been deleted on Weibo and is still accessible on WeChat at the time of writing.
Q: How did the internet blackout affect your life?
“It cured my internet addiction (laugh).” Interviewee A said, “I wouldn’t say the blackout was a bad thing for me. I even started buying magazines and read them.”
“It affected my parents’ work to some extent. They had to use a USB drive to share files. (If they wanted to get) data from outside (of Xinjiang), they had to have them copied in a disk and mailed via EMS. But the inconvenience it caused the adults were just as much as these.”
Interviewee B doesn’t think the blackout had too much impact on him. “Before the blackout I only surfed the internet to watch animations, play games, and chat on QQ (a popular Chinese chat app developed by Tencent). (After the blackout) I used Shali Blog to replace Kaixin001 (a then-popular Chinese social networking website launched in March 2008). There was a website called “zn11” which downloaded the front pages and subpages of some portal sites and put them up on its own site. Although the updates were slow and incomplete, that website was quite popular and had built quite an audience in Xinjiang’s intranet.”
“Mankind’s capacity to adapt is no joke. Actually, compared to the blackout, my overall amount of time online did not decrease. It’s just that the subjects I read or dealt with online changed.”
“If there is anything that still affects me, it would be that I am still quite paranoid.” Interviewee C said, “You cannot download anything during the blackout. Nor could you update any softwares. I didn’t dare deleting anything from my computer. I could only get new movies and games from pirated disks vendors at some computer centres. Disks were valuable resources during the blackout. My friends and I would get together offline and copy stuff from each other’s sticks. Some of my friends like adding extra hard drives. Can you imagine that back in 2009 their hard drives had already reached 2TB or 3TB capacity?”
The year of internet blackout in Xinjiang was also the best year for the region’s local internet industry, even though most of those booming website were copycats of the websites on the internet.
Q: When the blackout was over, did you celebrate? What would you have done if the blackout had continued?
“What is there to celebrate about? I don’t have a Stockholm syndrome.” Interview A said indifferently, “If it had continued I wouldn’t have done anything. I could live with an intranet. If it’s out, it’s out.”
Interviewee B, “I did (celebrate), if my memory serves? Maybe I stayed up the whole night or played mahjong with my friends. I can’t quite recall.”
Interviewee C, “The weekend when I could access the internet again, I played (video games) for three days. I updated whatever that needed updates. I think if the blackout had continued, it’d just be it. After all, life continues and the internet is not the only in life.”
The 10-month internet blackout has changed quite a few things. Many people even started to think that “the blackout is good for us”. On IYaxin, a Xinjiang-baed portal site, had even published a commentary titled “My life is better without the internet”.