Chinese authorities go after citizens for using VPNs, skirting online censorship

Images remixed by Oiwan Lam.

Two Chinese internet users are currently facing punishment for doing what an estimated 1-3% of people living in mainland China do every day: access the global internet.

Among other methods, many internet users in China depend on Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) to skirt or circumvent China's “Great Firewall”, the robust filtering system that blocks sensitive information and overseas websites from China's domestic network.

While VPN use is permitted in certain contexts — mainly for government agencies and large private companies — China's vigorous internet control regime has in recent years put significant resources towards preventing internet users from using these and other similar tools.

In June 2017, the government enacted a Cybersecurity Law that codified a growing set of rules on internet use and content, strengthening internet operator responsibilities and duties, and demanding real-name registration of individual internet users. The legislation also addressed VPNs. It directly compelled Apple to take down VPN apps from its China app store, and it appears to have triggered multiple arrests of individuals selling unlicensed VPNs.

The new law does not explicitly address or criminalize the individual use of such technologies. And while it sends a clear signal about what types of technology off limits, many Chinese netizens continue to believe that using circumvention tools will not bring them trouble. But two new “administrative punishment” cases may change this.

In December, a Shaoguan resident was fined RMB 1000 (roughly USD $163) for setting up and using a VPN to access the internet. The Guangdong Public Security Enforcement Information Platform posted a report detailing his punishment.

Zhu Yunfeng, 30, was using Lantern Pro, a mobile app and circumvention tool that connects users to a decentralized network of nodes that can relay user traffic to any website, regardless of censorship barriers.

Unable to justify Zhu's punishment under the new cybersecurity law, public security officials instead cited Articles 6 and 14 of the 1996 “Rules for Provisional Regulations of the Administration of International Networking of Computer Information in the People’s Republic of China”.

Article 6 stipulates that when connecting to an international network from within China, all computer devices must use infrastructure provided by state-licensed telecoms. Any individual or organization that is not state-licensed is forbidden from offering or building alternative information channels to access the international network. Although Lantern is a globally recognized circumvention tool, it does not have a state-issued license in China.

On January 4, a similar case unfolded in Chongqing, where Huang Chengcheng was summoned by police on the same charges as Zhu. But authorities have not disclosed the details of his case.

Both cases indicate that today, the very act of circumventing the internet through an unregistered channel is considered illegal.

Many netizens questioned why some people are authorized to circumvent the GFW, while others can be punished for doing the same. On Twitter, @tangyongtao1 asked why state-run media are allowed to circumvent the Great Firewall, pointing to Global Times’ editor-in chief Hu Xijin.

刑不上大夫?广东一网民因“擅自非法国际联网”而被韶关当局判罚千元,法广说,网民问:如果翻墙上推都“违法”,《环球时报》胡锡进不仅有账户,还可用中英文与中外网民互动,是否也该罚?新华社、人民日报、央视都拥有推特账户又该如何?——为什么在中国总有人拥有与国防机密等八杆子打不着的特权?
pic.twitter.com/vgjD42MnzH

— 活着 (@tangyongtao1) January 8, 2019

Does the regulation not apply to government officials? A Guangdong netizen was fined RMB 1000 yuan by the Shaoguan public security authority for illegal accessing the international network. Netizens were asking if circumventing the network to get access to Twitter is illegal, why Global Times’ Hu Xijin can hold an account on Twitter and interact with Chinese and foreign netizens on Twitter. Should he be punished as well? How about Xinhu, People’s Daily and CCTV? They all have Twitter accounts? — why some people enjoy privileges that are protected like national secrecy?

It is well known that Hu Xijin publishes his tweets using a mobile-based circumvention app, rather than via state-owned telecoms’ network as written in the regulation.

Prominent tech blogger William Long sought to hold Hu to the same standards as netizens in Guangdong and Chongqing:

我举报环球时报的胡锡进经常翻墙上推特,没有使用国家电信网提供的信道进行国际联网,请公安机关对他进行罚款1000元的行政处罚。 pic.twitter.com/k4RA2wb3uy

— 月光博客 (@williamlong) January 5, 2019

I reported on Hu Xijin from Global Times. He always circumvents the net to get access to Twitter. He did not use channel provided by the state owned telecoms. Public security authorities, please give him a RMB1000 fine as administrative punishment.

The news may serve as a wake up call to Chinese netizens. On Weibo, in a news thread about the administrative decision, netizens expressed their frustration about the incident:

现在算是体会到了教科书上经常出现的“白色恐怖”是怎么回事了。

Now I really understand the meaning of textbook term “white terror”.

人为什么要翻墙?因为墙在那。

Why do people have to climb over [circumvent] the wall in the first place? Because there is a wall there.

Some pointed out that the interpretation of the regulation was mistaken:

《实施办法》里说“国际出入口信道,是指国际联网所使用的物理信道。”使用Virtual Private Network(*虚拟*专用网络)怎么会是【非法物理信道】呢

The international network channel written in the “Rules for Provisional Regulations” refers to the material network channel of the Internet. Virtual Private Networks thus cannot be [illegal material channels].

Some pointed to the arbitrary nature of the administrative punishment:

那问题来了:于普通人而言,怎么翻墙才是合法的

The question is: for ordinary people, how do we circumvent the GFW legally?

帝吧那些小粉红每年出征FB闹事是不是也应该通通抓起来?

Those Little Pink from Diba who visit Facebook once a year to make a scene, shouldn’t they be arrested?

Since 2016, a new generation of Chinese online patriots, known as “little pink”, have been sharing circumvention tools on forums such as Diba, so that they may visit Facebook to post comments “defending” the country.

One Weibo user quoted from China’s Constitution to protest the administrative decision:

第四十条 中华人民共和国公民的通信自由和通信秘密受法律的保护。除因国家安全或者追查刑事犯罪的需要,由公安机关或者检察机关依照法律规定的程序对通信进行检查外,任何组织或者个人不得以任何理由侵犯公民的通信自由和通信秘密。

Article 40: Freedom and privacy of correspondence of citizens of the People’s Republic of China are protected by law. No organization or individual may, on any ground, infringe upon citizens freedom and privacy of correspondence, except in cases where, to meet the needs of state security or of criminal investigation, public security or procuratorial organs are permitted to censor correspondence in accordance with procedures prescribed by law.

Written by Oiwan Lam · comments (0)
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