New rules banning the use of circumvention tools to get around internet censorship in the southwestern Chinese megacity of Chongqing could soon be rolled out nationwide, activists told RFA.
Chongqing only recently made public the new regulations, which came into effect last July and ban the city's 50 million residents from "scaling the Great Firewall."
Individuals and companies that use tools like virtual private networks (VPNs) to circumvent the complex array of blocks, filters and human censorship that limits what Chinese internet users can see online will be ordered to disconnect, while anyone profiting from such activity will be fined, according to the Chongqing regulations.
This could include anyone seeking to read news that the ruling Chinese Communist Party regards as unflattering, businesses wanting to use blocked social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and Google to communicate, and academics seeking access to overseas research.
Rights activist Ou Biaofeng said he fears the Chongqing regulations are being piloted in the city and will soon be rolled out nationwide.
"I think that the government is using Chongqing as a testing ground, and then they will apply it to the whole country," Ou told RFA in a recent interview.
He said the impact would be huge.
"A lot of people use circumvention tools to access information from overseas at the moment," Ou said. "This is going to spread fear among all those people that climb the Great Firewall."
The Chongqing rules are the latest in a string of draconian regulations issued by Beijing in a bid to exert complete control over what China's 731 million internet users can see, or post, online.
Last November, Beijing issued a raft of new measures that could undermine their use of virtual private networks (VPNs) to get around censorship.
The draft regulations would require any 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.
And state news agency Xinhua news agency suggested in a Jan. 11 report that the requirement, which sparked concerns at the time over deeper censorship and access by foreign businesses to the Chinese market, is unlikely to be dropped.
Xie Jiaye, head of the New York-based Chinese Association of Science and Technology, said he sees the Chongqing rules as part of this strategy.
"These kinds of controls on information will be of no benefit to China's economic or technological development," Xie told RFA. "In fact, there are no benefits at all to the kind of control and censorship that the Chinese government exercises over the internet."
He said he can't see any evidence that controls will be relaxed any time soon.
"That's not very likely, certainly not during the 10 years President Xi Jinping will be in power," Xie said.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) hit out at the ban in a blog post by China director Sophie Richardson.
"The Chongqing regulation is unprecedented as it places a blanket ban on the use of VPNs and other circumvention methods used to connect to the global internet," Richardson wrote, adding that previous regulatory efforts have focused on providers and let individuals alone.
"It is unclear whether other local governments will soon follow suit, but the ban has already had a chilling effect among VPN users across the nation—many netizens posted frightened or crying emojis to express their displeasure," she wrote.
'Cutting us off'
Chongqing resident Zhang Lin said the rules are aimed at ensuring that no voices critical of the government can be heard online in China.
"They want to suppress people's freedom of expression and stop ordinary people from having a voice," Zhang said. "They want to cut us off from the rest the world, from public opinion in other countries."
Fellow Chongqing resident Xu Yuanqing agreed.
"They want to oppress people, to shut us down so we can't be seen or heard," Xu said. "That way, there won't be any international pressure [on the government]."
"They shouldn't be allowed to cut us off like this; I hope people overseas will pay attention to what's happening in China."
Reported by Xi Wang for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wong Lok-to for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.