As the National People’s Congress convenes, the Chinese government is attempting to plug the hole virtual private networks have drilled through the “Great Firewall” as Beijing shores up the complex system of blocks, filters and human censorship the government uses to control speech on the Internet.
Many Internet users in China rely on VPNs to get around the "Great Firewall," the nickname used for the barriers Beijing erects to limit the content users in the country can see -- including sites from overseas media organizations and other politically sensitive content.
Guangzhou-based rights activist Jia Pin said he has been unable to scale the Great Firewall for the past week.
"I used to use ... software that worked really well, and never had any problems before, but I haven't been able to climb the wall in the past week or so," Jia told RFA's Chinese Service. "The VPN isn't working very well either, especially in Guangzhou, where the problem seems to be worse."
Jia said many of his friends reported similar problems.
"I think it's to do with the parliamentary sessions ... because I've never seen this before," he said.
Another Internet user in Guangzhou, Liu Sifang, reported similar issues.
"It's still possible to get around because I have several different VPNs, and I can switch between them," Liu said. "But sometimes it's hard to connect to the VPN server, or the connection needs to be repeatedly reset."
Informal speed testing carried out by the Tips for China blog showed varying speeds, with many VPN services blocked on Sunday, the second day of the annual session of the National People’s Congress, the blog reported in an update on Thursday.
The blog also reported intermittent service and slow speeds on VPNs run by VyprVPN and ExpressVPN.
One service provider cited the annual parliamentary sessions in Beijing as the reason for the problems.
"Due to political meetings in Beijing, VPN access from China may be limited," the Astrill virtual private network service tweeted ahead of the National People's Congress annual session, which runs from March 5-15.
"We ask for your patience. Thanks for understanding," the tweet said.
One Twitter user commented: "@astrill, I did not sign up for a two year contract for this … already without VPN for one week in China! Has affected my business, not happy."
Without a VPN, many online services run by foreign companies like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are blocked.
Other services hit
While Beijing may be trying to stonewall VPNs, other Internet services are also getting blocked.
Internet users also reported that the social media accounts of Hong Kong's English-language South China Morning Post newspaper were deleted in China during the parliamentary sessions.
Its website, scmp.com was blocked China on Thursday, according to an online analysis by GreatFire.org, while the paper's Chinese-language news site nanzao.com showed contradictory results.
The SCMP's official accounts on the Twitter-like services Tencent and Sina Weibo returned an error page, with users reporting no visible posts on its page on the smart phone app WeChat.
"This account has been closed, and the contents are not viewable," a message on the SCMP's WeChat account page said on Wednesday.
The ruling Chinese Communist Party's powerful propaganda department issued a directive last week detailing required coverage of the NPC by the country's media.
Among the points was an order to "strictly control negative reports in new media," according to a translation of a leaked memo published by the China Digital Times website.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists reported last week that heavy-handed government censorship has now been extended to cover social media like Sina Weibo.
The CPJ based its report on leaked censorship logs obtained from a former employee of the company, which list some four pages of dos and don'ts for censorship staff working at the company between April 2011 and late 2014.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.