China says it will crack down in 2017 on the use of virtual private networks (VPNs) to get around the complex system of blocks, filters, and human censorship known as the Great Firewall that limits what its citizens can see online.
Any service providers offering VPNs or special cable services to connect to the wider internet beyond sites censored by the ruling Chinese Communist Party will now be required to obtain government approval before they can operate, according to a statement released by the ministry of industry and information technology.
"China’s internet connection service market ... is showing signs of disordered development requiring urgent regulation and governance," the ministry said in a statement on its website on Sunday.
At a stroke, the move means that VPNs currently in existence are now operating in what is at best a grey area, and China's 730 million internet users are now far less likely to have access to uncensored content.
A "clean-up" operation targeting VPNs will run from now until March 2018, the statement said.
Online censorship monitor site GreatFire.org says that China currently blocks access to 135 sites in 1,000, including Google, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.
The last time government censors went after VPNs was last March, when many VPNs, which are widely used by both companies and individuals, appeared to be blocked.
The move follows a pledge of loyalty to the administration of President Xi Jinping by the powerful Cyberspace Administration on Jan. 5.
Strategy for total control
Guangzhou-based internet expert Ye Du said many people in China currently rely on VPNs to "scale the Great Firewall" and access unfettered content, but not necessarily for political reasons.
He said only a small proportion of people deliberately search out information that the government has tried to conceal from its citizens.
But he said VPNs are getting directly in the way of the government's strategy for total control of the internet within China's borders.
"The existence of VPNs in is direct conflict with government policy, which is to strengthen control over online information," Ye said. "That's why such control measures were inevitable."
But he said most users are trying to access sites needed for work or general purposes.
He added that the ruling will likely affect foreign companies operating inside China.
"If they want to help these people out, they could probably leave some loopholes to allow them access to sensitive information," Ye said.
Online commentators said they believe the aim is to stifle any freedom of expression in China.
"Their aim is a total crackdown, total control," a Zhejiang-based internet user who asked to remain anonymous told RFA. "Everything this administration has done has shown they don't want people speaking the truth."
"They are broadening the scope of their control, which they have pretty much optimized inside the Great Firewall and on social media, and now they want to close the loopholes that allow people to get over it."
Currently, Chinese users of overseas social media sites like Facebook and Twitter rely on VPNs to use the service, which often allows them to communicate with the outside world when their domestic accounts are shut down by censors.
Chinese domain names
China is already considering changes to domain name registration that could further limit use of VPNs among the country's internet users.
Draft regulations first released for public consultation in March 2016 will require websites operating in China to register with a Chinese domain name, which is subject to state control and can be used to shut down entire websites within the country-level .cn top-level domain.
Experts said the new regulations, once implemented, will put an end to overseas registration of domain names by Chinese citizens trying to avoid censorship.
The new rules will also likely affect overseas websites and content providers hoping to attract a Chinese audience or set up new services in China, they told RFA.
China has already ushered in a new era of state control over the mobile web, ordering online app stores to register with the government starting on Jan. 16.
Such apps have "resulted in the dissemination of illegal information," the Cyberspace Administration said.
Hebei-based journalist Zhu Xinxin said that VPNs are among the last options available to Chinese internet users wanting a window on the outside world.
"In doing this, the Cyberspace Administration is in breach of the constitution, because it's stripping citizens of their right to know," Zhu said. "They are trying to implement Xi Jinping's directive at the start of the year that national security must be made a top priority."
"The Chinese Communist Party is terrified by their own state of crisis, and so now China is entering into yet another so-called battle-ready state," he said.
"It looks a lot like the death-throes of a dictatorial regime, where they go crazy and try to turn China into North Korea, where information is concerned."
Reported by Hai Nan for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Xi Lin for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.