VPN Crackdown Hits Science, Business Communities

has long been a thorn in the side of activists, journalists, and others who seek out news and information that may be banned in China. The ongoing crackdown on online speech under Xi Jinping is also increasingly impacting the day-to-day work of business people, academics, , and others who rely on the internet to conduct research or business with associates abroad. At this year’s Two Sessions parliamentary meetings in Beijing in February, Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference vice-chairman Luo Fuhe issued a proposal to improve access to foreign websites, citing the scientific and economic cost of current internet controls. Yet since then, an intensified crackdown on has hit the scientific and business communities especially hard. New regulations in January initiated a campaign against Virtual Private Networks, which allow internet users in China to bypass blocks in the that bar access to certain websites hosted outside China. VPNs have become a main target in a campaign which appears aimed at limiting access to outside information in the run-up to the 19th Party Congress meetings in October. In August, five domestic internet companies were told to cease selling VPNs and a year earlier, Deng Jiewei was arrested in Guangdong and later sentenced to nine months in prison for selling illegal VPNs.

AP’s Joe McDonald reports on how such internet restrictions impact business owners in China:

Chen’s 25-employee company sells clothes and appliances to Americans and Europeans through platforms including Facebook, one of thousands of websites blocked by China’s web filters. Chen reaches it using a virtual private network, but that window might be closing after Beijing launched a campaign in January to stamp out use of VPNs to evade its “Great Firewall.”

“Our entire business might be paralyzed,” said Chen by phone from the western city of Chengdu. Still, he added later in a text message, “national policy deserves a positive response and we fully support it.”

The crackdown threatens to disrupt work and study for millions of Chinese entrepreneurs, scientists and students who rely on websites they can see only with a VPN. The technology, developed to create secure, encrypted links between computers, allows Chinese web users to see a blocked site by hiding the address from government filters.

Astronomers and physicists use services such as Google Scholar and Dropbox, accessible only via VPN, to share research and stay in touch with foreign colleagues. Merchants use Facebook and other blocked social media to find customers. Students look for material in subjects from history to film editing on YouTube and other blocked sites. [Source]

ZDNet’s Asha McLean reports on a recent survey by consumer research company GlobalWebIndex about the habits of China’s VPN users:

The firm’s survey of Chinese internet users found that 14 percent use a virtual private network (VPN) daily. For China’s online population of 731 million, this means 100 million regular users.

Chinese astronomers and physicists surveyed said they use services such as Google Scholar and Dropbox, accessible only via VPN, to share research and stay in touch with foreign colleagues.

Similarly, merchants said they use Facebook and other blocked social media to find customers, while students use YouTube and other blocked sites for subjects such as history and film editing.

[…] The VPN crackdown is part of a campaign to tighten political control that activists say is the most severe since the 1989 suppression of the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy movement. [Source]

Last month, a report in Science Magazine looked at how the VPN crackdown is impeding scientific research in the country:

Many scientists in China routinely bypass the Great Firewall using VPN software that routes traffic through foreign servers. The central government had long tolerated VPNs, but these are now in the crosshairs.

[…] Internet access “has definitely gotten worse,” says a geneticist who splits his time between institutions in China and overseas. The new restrictions make working in China “a total disaster,” he says. And they are likely to be a shock for both foreign and Chinese scientists working overseas who might apply for positions in China. The astronomer who spoke to Science recalls instances in which applicants suddenly couldn’t access materials needed for presentations. “This affects their performance and discourages future applicants through word of mouth,” he says.

Even before the crackdown, scientists had to cope with slow internet speeds. With an average connection speed of 7.6 megabits per second (Mbps), China ranks 74th globally, according to a recent study by Akamai Technologies of Cambridge, Massachusetts. That is less than a third as fast as South Korea, the world leader at 28.6 Mbps. [Source]

While VPN use has been officially restricted in China for years, authorities have largely tolerated their use. Government officials, including Fang Binxing, the creator of the Great Firewall censorship system, have been known to use VPNs to navigate the World Wide Web. Read about the history of the Great Firewall and technologies used to circumvent it via Global Voices, and listen to a discussion with Adam Segal on the Sinica podcast on China’s tightening control over cyberspace.