Man Jailed in China's Guangdong For Selling Software to Scale The 'Great Firewall'

Deng Jiewei receives a nine-month jail term in a case that lawyers say makes him a political prisoner.

China Network Management Police check an internet cafe in Beijing in a file photo.

Authorities in China's southern province of Guangdong have handed a nine-month jail term to a man who helped customers evade censorship limiting what Chinese internet users can see online.

Deng Jiewei was handed the jail term by a court in Guangdong's Dongguan city after he allegedly set up a website in October 2015 to sell software helping users to scale the complex system of blocks, filters, and human censorship known collectively as the Great Firewall.

Deng is accused of running the site with friends, and being responsible for the technical side of the business, according to the judgment in the case issued by the court.

"The court holds that the case is serious, and rules that the defendant be jailed for nine months, and the proceeds of the crime amounting to U.S.$13,000 be forfeited to the authorities," the judgment said.

But rights lawyer Yu Wensheng said the court's assumption that it is illegal to circumvent the Great Firewall is flawed.

"The authorities don't want people to see what's online outside China, but that in itself is illegal, because there isn't a single law that supports it," Yu said.

"Actually, preventing Chinese people from accessing the overseas internet is a curb on one of the basic rights of the individual," he said. "This young man's circumvention software doesn't constitute a crime of any kind."

"These are public networks, and anyone can use them, and read what is there ... strictly speaking, this young man is a political prisoner," Yu said.

Stability maintenance

Fellow rights attorney Ren Quanniu said the government is currently in a phase of intensive "stability maintenance," meaning that many online activists are now being targeted who would previously have been left alone.

"Lately I've seen a number of university students who have been called in by the university authorities and the police for stern 'chats' just for using circumvention software," Ren said.

"The law is vague on this issue. I don't know if they're acting on some internal document, but so far as the law is concerned, there is no basis for this [sentence]," he said.

"The authorities themselves have claimed that people can use the internet freely in China, but this is clearly not the case."

Mobile phones targeted

Meanwhile, security researchers have found a new form of mobile phone malware similar to that which was used to infect the phones of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong during the Occupy Central movement of 2014.

Security research company Lookout said they have identified a mobile trojan called xRAT with sweeping powers to collect data from devices, and the ability to self-destruct once detected.

"The malware is associated with the high-profile Xsser/mRAT malware, which made headlines after targeting both iOS and Android devices of pro-democracy Hong Kong activists in late 2014," the company said in a blog post.

The malware is able to access sensitive user information including browser history, text messages, contacts, call logs, and data from popular social media messaging sites and to undermine attempts to debug the infected device, it said.

It can also record audio and store it externally.

Lookout said that many similarities strongly suggest that mRAT and xRAT have been developed by the same party.

"Its main target seems to be people in mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Macau," Hong Kong-based security researcher Sang Young told RFA. "It's not yet clear whether or not it's targeting a specific sort of person."

"One of its special functions is that it can delete audio and photographic files [on a device], which are needed by certain professions, for example, journalists," Young said. "If these get deleted, there is no way of restoring them."

Reported by Wong Lok-to and Wen Yuqing for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.