Authorities in China are actively pursuing internet users who use circumvention tools to avoid the complex system of blocks, filters and human censorship known collectively as the Great Firewall.
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.
An internet user surnamed Liu who frequently uses virtual private networks (VPNs) to scale the Great Firewall said the ruling Chinese Communist Party doesn't want its citizens to have free access to non-government sources of information.
"VPNs are specifically designed to get around China's Great Firewall, meaning that we can see how different the news is in China, where it is tightly controlled, to the U.S., where the flow of information is relatively free," Liu said.
"[We can also see] by comparison how they are more advanced than we are in terms of the information economy and in terms of democracy," he said. "There is going to be a backlash; an inevitable side-effect of the suppression of news, and also an expression of the curiosity that oppressed people have about the outside world."
Meanwhile, police in the southern province of Guangdong issued an administrative punishment to an internet user surnamed Zhu for "setting up and using illegal channels to access the international internet."
According to the official WeChat social media account of the Shaoguan municipal police department, Zhu was fined 1,000 yuan on Dec. 27 for his use of the Lantern Pro app to circumvent government censorship, in violation of articles 6 and 14 of China's "Interim provisions for the management of computer information networks (international internet)."
A duty officer who answered the phone at the Shaoguan police department declined to comment, referring inquiries to the internet police.
But an officer who answered the phone at the Shaoguan municipal internet police said they didn't know anything about Zhu's case.
Scaling the wall
Rights lawyer Liang Xiaojun said fining people for viewing the overseas internet is "ridiculous," but that not everyone in China is concerned about it.
"Actually they are forbidding people from circumventing the Great Firewall in order to control their thoughts," Liang said. "But many people in China think that they don't need to scale the Great Firewall to view things outside ... there are so many different types of information on Weibo, and that's enough."
"Others don't need to scale the wall, so they don't think there's a problem.
An internet user surnamed Wu from the southwestern province of Sichuan said the government doesn't want people to see anything that challenges the official version of the news.
"They are afraid that we will be able to learn more," she said. "There are a lot of things we can't even see."
An internet user who asked for anonymity said: "The Chinese Communist Party is trying to control all aspects of society to maintain its political power. It monitors people's thoughts and behavior, and suppresses the vitality of the whole of society."
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, and by Ma Lap-hak and Fok Leung-kiu for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.