That China is one of the most repressed countries in the world is not a new concept, especially with regards to the internet. The authorities control what content users are allowed to access according a governmental ‘guide on good practices’ and, with the infamous Great Firewall, a significant portion of the most popular websites are blocked.
Given their ability to circumvent online censorship, VPNs have also become a target and anyone who uses them is often subject to severe punishments, including heavy fines and even jail sentences. Sadly, it doesn’t look like this will be changing any time soon as, in the last few days of 2018, a man was fined for using a VPN app to access blocked overseas websites.
A Recurrent Issue in China
The current state of China is a perfect example of how people will just try to come up with more solutions whenever more and more restraints are put on them. Despite the use of VPNs being strictly forbidden by law – except those that are approved by the government – the cases related to people secretly using these tools emerge quite often.
User Zhu Yunfeng of the Guangdong province used the LanterVPN app to visit foreign websites that are blocked in China, for which he had to pay a $145 fine according to the legal framework. This infraction happened late in 2018 and, if we think of the average cost of most VPNs, it’s easily enough for more than one year of service. However, this number is insignificant compared to two particularly famous cases in 2017.
Following two years of business within the country, one VPN vendor was fined more than $2,000 and sentenced to nine months in jail. The other case is practically a photocopy of this, yet with a much more severe twist: the vendor was caught by the authorities, but their punishment required payment of a fine corresponding to the equivalent amount to his profits (nearly $73,000) and five and a half years in jail.
At the time China was going through a campaign against the use of ‘unauthorized internet’ on a national scale, which also targeted VPN services as part of a revamp of the law that was already in place for two decades.
A Law Over 20 Years Old
Curiously enough, China has had a public security law in place since 1997, criminalizing access to the wider, international internet for anyone without proper government permission. However, it had been poorly enforced for the last two decades, at least until president Xi Jinping strengthened the controls on internet usage. Facebook, Google and many more online giants were blocked in the country, while other services have since seen their own Chinese equivalents being created. Consequently, the popularity of VPNs to overcome restrictions and access foreign websites began to increase in China, leading to a purge of these services by the government, too.
Nowadays the online landscape in the country is strictly monitored, with very few VPNs still working under the finely tuned radar of the Great Firewall. With most of these services out of equation and the available alternatives in control of the government, China has now turned to its regular citizens and, unfortunately, the perspective for the future is not good as more censorship is surely on the horizon. With millions of Chinese internet users dreaming to benefit from free, open internet – particularly the younger and more tech-savvy generation – it’s becoming increasingly more difficult and financially painful to achieve.
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