A Weibo user who works as a computer programmer in Chengde, Hebei province, has reported that he was fined and had three years of income confiscated by the local public security bureau for using a virtual private network (VPN) to circumvent the Great Firewall (GFW) while working for an overseas client. Supporting documentation provided by the programmer on Weibo showed that the Shuangqiao Branch of the Chengde public security bureau (PSB) levied a 200 yuan ($27 U.S. dollar) fine and confiscated three years of the man’s earnings, totaling 1.058 million yuan (over $144,000), for the period 2019-2022.
A post on X (formerly Twitter) by 李老师不是你老师 (@whyyoutouzhele) notes that the programmer’s work for an overseas client consisted of writing code on Github, answering user support questions, and using Zoom to work remotely:
In a now deleted Weibo post, archived by CDT Chinese, the programmer provided a rough timeline of events and explained that he plans to appeal the PSB’s decision in court:
I work for an overseas company and was fined 1,058,000 yuan by Shuangqiao Public Security Bureau (PSB) in Chengde, Hebei Province for accessing the global Internet. I will be filing for an administrative appeal after the October 1 National Day, and I invite everyone to watch the live broadcast of the court proceedings. If you know a lawyer willing to represent me, please contact me. Thank you.
Thank you, online friends, for your support and concern. The following is a rough timeline of the matter:
In September 2022, I was visited by the local public security bureau. They believed that a Twitter account that had posted a lot of [political] commentary belonged to me. I told them that I was currently employed by an overseas company, so from time to time, I liked or retweeted my employer’s tweets from my personal Twitter account, but that the Twitter account that had posted the commentary did not belong to me. I also explained my employment situation and showed them information pertaining to my personal Twitter account. That day, they confiscated my mobile phone, laptop, and several hard drives, which were returned to me approximately one month later.
In April and July of this year, I was interviewed by the police several times, during which I explained my employment situation in detail and provided [them with] my bank card, my employer’s company registration information from the country in which it is located, the consulting contract I signed with the company, and other supporting documents. During this period, the PSB informed me that their investigation concluded I had nothing to do with the Twitter incident, but that I would be penalized for circumventing the GFW, and that my income would be deemed “illegally obtained income.”
In August of this year, a formal administrative penalty verdict was issued: circumventing the firewall is illegal, thus any income earned from “scaling the wall” is considered illegally obtained income.
On September 5 of this year, I applied for administrative reconsideration, but the department in charge of reconsideration essentially concurred with the opinion of the PSB. If I wish to proceed, I will need to file an administrative appeal through the courts.
Throughout this process, I have stated many times that both github.com and my employer’s after-sales service and support website can be accessed without circumventing the GFW, and code can be written on a local computer without circumventing the GFW, but these explanations were not accepted.
The next step is to retain a lawyer to actively prepare for my administrative appeal in the courts. [Chinese]
Classifying earnings from work done outside the Great Firewall as “illegally obtained income” could have a chilling effect on Chinese professionals who use VPNs to access the global Internet for work. Since a 2017 crackdown on VPNs and the introduction of new rules regulating their use, numerous VPN apps have disappeared from Chinese app stores; many Chinese domestic VPN providers have been fined, driven out of business, or even imprisoned; state-run telecom providers have been ordered to block customers’ access to VPNs; Chinese Twitter users have been tracked down and punished; and academic, scientific, and business communities have been hit hard by lack of access to essential online source material. VPN regulation enforcement and punishment can vary widely, ranging from minor fines and naming and shaming to long prison sentences. In February of 2023, legendary blogger program-think was sentenced to seven years in prison for “inciting subversion of state power,” a charge based on his online writings, which were published only on platforms outside the Great Firewall. (His wife, Bei Zhenying, was harassed by the police and forced to delete her Twitter account.) The ethnicity of the accused can also have an impact, with Han Chinese generally subject to much lighter punishments for VPN infractions than Uyghurs or Tibetans. In June of this year, IBT and RFA reported that a Uyghur university student majoring in computer science was arrested in 2017 and is currently serving a 13-year prison sentence for using a VPN to view “illegal information online.”
A recent WeChat post from Tess外贸Club (“Tess Foreign Trade Club”), extrapolating a cautionary tale from the news about the programmer who had his income confiscated, reminds those working in foreign trade that their earnings may now be considered “illegal income”:
The [Shuangqiao] Public Security Bureau believes that the [programmer’s] activities were based on circumventing the GFW, which is an illegal act, therefore any income from that illegal act is illegal income, and all of it must be confiscated.
This result must have sent a chill down the spines of many businesspeople working in foreign trade, particularly veteran foreign traders.
[…] So here is a reminder to all individuals and businesses working in foreign trade, and even to institutions that provide training for those who work in foreign trade:
1. Using Google for business development is illegal.
2. Courses that teach how to use Google for business development are illegal.
3. Using Facebook for business development is illegal.
4. Courses that teach how to use Facebook for business development are illegal.
5. Using WhatsApp is illegal.
6. Business orders negotiated over WhatsApp are illegal.
7. Using TikTok is illegal.
8. Using TikTok for business development is illegal.
9. Using non-Chinese LinkedIn for business development is illegal.
10. Teaching people how to use non-Chinese LinkedIn for business development is illegal. It is even illegal to use GFW-blocked AI software to take and fulfill orders.
Since these activities are all illegal, any money earned through them is naturally illegal income, subject to confiscation.
Take a look at other people’s stories, take a look at your own life, and realize we are all the same—today it is him, but tomorrow it might be you. [Chinese]
Shuai Li, writing at Medium, delved into the identity of the programmer, his employer, and his prolific work on Github. The programmer’s plight, in addition to generating some discussion on Reddit and other tech-related sites, is beginning to fuel a groundswell of criticism on Chinese social media. Some media outlets have begun investigating Chengde’s over-reliance on fines and confiscations, while internet users have started leaving scathing comments on the social media accounts of Chengde’s various municipal departments. A recent post on X (formerly Twitter), embedded below this paragraph, features screenshots of critical comments left on the social media accounts of the Chengde Fraud Squad, the Chengde Traffic Police, the Chengde Legal Affairs Office, and even the scenic Chengde Mountain Resort. On the Chengde City Fraud Prevention Squad’s Douyin account, one visitor commented, “Hey Officer, I read that someone got swindled out of 1.05 million and they’re going to sue—what do you think of that?” The Chengde Traffic Police’s official Weibo account was inundated with snarky comments, including this: “I’d like to use my real name to report [lifestyle blogger] Li Ziqi and [nationalist blogger] Hu Xijin for circumventing the GFW to earn money on Youtube!” Chengde Mountain Resort’s Weibo account was besieged with comments from people vowing never to travel to Chengde. One commenter joked, “I took a trip to your city, scaled the Great Firewall, and when I got back home, I had nothing left, not even my underpants!” A comment on the Weibo account for Chengde’s Legal Affairs Office read, “Chengde is super scary. If I fly over it in a plane, will all my property be confiscated?”