China will begin blocking overseas providers of virtual private networks (VPN) used to circumvent its Great Firewall of government censorship at the end of March, official media reported.
Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) chief engineer Zhang Feng said VPN operators must be licensed by the government, and that unlicensed VPNs are the target of new rules which come into force on March 31.
"We want to regulate VPNs which unlawfully conduct cross-border operational activities,” Zhang told reporters on Tuesday.
“Any foreign companies that want to set up a cross-border operation for private use will need to set up a dedicated line for that purpose,” he said. “They will be able to lease such a line or network legally from the telecommunications import and export bureau.”
“This shouldn’t affect their normal operations much at all,” he said.
Meanwhile, the American Chamber of Commerce in China said it had carried out a recent survey of U.S. companies in the country that showed that the inability to access certain online tools, internet censorship, and cybersecurity were impeding their operations.
Around one billion people in China had access to 4G mobile internet services last year, an increase of 76.4 percent compared with the previous year, the MIIT said.
According to Zhang, overall mobile internet and data usage also surged by 26.7 percent in 2017.
An internet user surnamed Zeng told RFA that the new regulations could also hit any Chinese businesses that need unimpeded communications with the outside world.
“I have a friend who is a businessman, and makes things mainly for export, and this has already affected his order book,” Zeng said. “He usually uses WhatsApp to communicate [with customers] and now it’s very hard to log on, and this has really affected business.”
He added: “In future, he won’t be able to log on at all, so he told me he will likely have to shut down his factory.”
Internet user A Biao said the Great Firewall will continue to put huge limitations on what ordinary internet users in mainland China may do or see online.
“You can’t read truthful, objective and balanced information in a timely manner,” he said. “If you have an overseas phone, you can get online without going via the Great Firewall, but that’s pretty difficult to get hold of, so there are limitations to that approach.”
No end in sight
Xie Jiaye, head of the New York-based Chinese Association of Science and Technology, said he doesn’t see an end in sight to the crackdown on VPNs in China.
“The Chinese government already holds the power to solve this issue; if they wanted to be more open, they could do it immediately,” Xie said. “If they don’t want more openness, then it’s very unlikely that this problem will ever be resolved.”
Wu Fan, editor in chief of the U.S.-based Chinese-language magazine Chinese Affairs, said the new controls on VPNs weren’t in keeping with the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s promises of an “open internet.”
“If they opened it all up, then everybody would be able to operate and communicate normally, including Chinese companies headquartered in China,” Wu said. “There is a huge conflict here, as if the MITT is fighting against itself.”
China said last July that it planned to force both local and foreign companies and individuals to use only government-approved software to access the global internet, as overseas firms fear losing unrestricted online services by the end of February.
State-run China Mobile, China Unicom, and China Telecom have all been told to ensure their 1.3 billion subscribers can't access blocked content with VPNs.
Chinese internet users had become adept at circumventing the complex array of blocks, filters, and human censorship deployed by their government.
After censors succeeded in blocking Tor, VPNs became the tool of choice for "climbing the wall," in Chinese online parlance, and are used as much by government institutions, state-owned companies, and educational establishments as by the general public.
The licensing program indicates that the government plans to allow only users it trusts to scale the Great Firewall from now on.
Reported by Wen Yuqing for RFA’s Cantonese Service, and by Lin Ping for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.