Authorities in the southwestern Chinese province of Sichuan have handed an administrative warning to a man who had an app designed to evade government censorship, RFA has learned.
Police in Sichuan's Pengxi county handed an official warning to Pang Zhiyong after scanning his phone and finding an app titled Wujie Yidiantong, which roughly translates as "press once for a world without borders."
The app offers users the opportunity to browse internet content beyond the complex system of blocks, filters and human censorship known collectively as China's Great Firewall.
But individual users are increasingly being targeted and punished since a crackdown on VPN circumvention tools last year.
"At 3:30 p.m. on March 25, this team discovered a VPN circumvention app on the phone of Pang Zhiyong (Wujie Yidiantong)," a copy of the administrative decision issued to Pang seen by RFA said.
"During interrogation, Pang Zhiyong made a full confession that he had installed and used Wujie Yidiantong in order to browse websites outside China," the document said. "Pang Zhiyong has been ordered not to use illegal channels to access the international internet, and a warning issued."
The warning was given under the "Interim Regulations on the Management of Computer Networks and Their Connection to the International Internet," which have been used to target a number of internet users in recent months.
"This is about setting limits to what Chinese internet users can do online," rights activist Wang Aizhong, who had thousands of his tweets deleted by Chinese police last December after they gained access to his Twitter account.
"The limits apply to the domestic internet, but also to any situation that the authorities can monitor internationally," Wang said. "It's been several years since these rules were issued, but previously we didn't see many cases like this."
"The number of such cases has been gradually on the rise in the past year or so," he said. "The government wants to limit what internet users in China can see, to make sure they remain within an online environment that is controlled by the ruling Chinese Communist Party."
Twitter said in July 2016 that it had around 10 million users based in mainland China registered on the platform, but the technology blog TechCrunch estimated the number at more than 35 million.
Jia Pin, a Twitter user based in the southern province of Guangdong, said he knows of many Chinese Twitter users who have been issued with warnings or even administrative detentions over their use of the platform.
"I have heard of many people who have been treated in that way," Jia said. "In the more serious cases, some of them — though not a large number — have even been sentenced to prison over things they have said on Twitter."
"This just shows that they are getting stricter and stricter about controlling information, especially on platforms like Twitter and Facebook, where they have no way to delete posts," he said.
Not playing by the rules
The rules used to target Pang and others state that computer information networks must use international gateways provided by state-run telecommunications service providers to access the international internet.
"No organization or individual may establish or use such a connection by itself," the rules say. "Police may give a warning to those who violate this regulation and impose a fine of up to 15,000 yuan [U.S. $22,000]."
Last October, police in Rongchang district of the southwestern megacity of Chongqing handed an official summons and warning to internet user Huang Chengcheng for "setting up and using illegal channels to access the international internet."
Huang was held for eight hours of questioning on Jan. 4, his phone scanned, and his posts to overseas social media sites gathered by police for use as evidence.
Police said Huang's posts had "seriously contravened laws and regulations," and warned him not to use circumvention tools again, according to the Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch rights website.
Around the same time, police in Guangdong issued an administrative punishment to an internet user surnamed Zhu on the same charge.
According to the official WeChat social media account of the Shaoguan municipal police department, Zhu was fined 1,000 yuan (U.S. $148) on Dec. 27 for his use of the Lantern Pro app to circumvent government censorship.
Over the last two decades, China’s Great Firewall has grown into an alarmingly effective apparatus of censorship and surveillance, according to the 2018 Freedom on the Net report published by Freedom House.
"Internet controls within China reached new extremes in 2018 with the implementation of the sweeping Cybersecurity Law and upgrades to surveillance technology," the report said.
It said Beijing is also seeking to propagate its model of online censorship overseas by conducting large-scale trainings of foreign officials, providing technology to authoritarian governments, and demanding that international companies abide by its content regulations even when operating outside of China.
"These trends present an existential threat to the future of the open internet and prospects for greater democracy around the globe," the report said.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.