Are VPNs now illegal in China?

By Jose Bernardo Reyes Facio

BEIJING, February 10 – Not quite.

Reading a recent piece in the South China Morning Post, you could be forgiven for thinking VPNs are doomed to extinction, and with them, the hope of accessing Facebook or a lot of the best English-language media.

The article stated that a 14-month-long nationwide operation will be underway that would primarily target unauthorized users of virtual private networks (VPNs), since these are used to bypass China’s “Great Firewall.”

internet

[Pixabay]

Soon after its publication, less than a week before Chinese New Year, other media sources, such as Time and CNN, cited the story, and thousands of VPN users across the country panicked. But the hysteria caused in social media, including Weibo and Reddit, highlighted the fact that the law would only apply to Chinese companies offering VPN services on the mainland, theoretically leaving private users of services like ExpressVPN or VyprVPN alone, because such companies are based overseas. The report said (in vague language) that the regulation would only apply to Chinese firms offering ISP, IDC, and CDN services.

Currently, there is no law that forbids the use of a VPN in China. In fact, thousands of businesses in the country make use of this service for their own purposes, including international partnerships with other businesses. Since there has not been a single case of arrest for their use, it would be unclear how the government would ever enforce such a law if it would create one at all.

Which is not to say there are not periodic crackdowns on these services—as anyone in town during a big government meeting (like the upcoming two sessions meetings in March) can attest. Such crackdowns, however, don’t generally go as far as outlawing the service entirely.

student

[Pixabay]

And it’s not just VPNs—it is common for the Chinese government to do “operational crackdowns” periodically, especially before national events. A Reddit user, for example, has cited the three-month-nationwide crackdown on drugs, which resulted in more than 60,000 arrests. There was also the 100-day crackdown on foreigners working illegally in Beijing in 2012. These come and go with regularity.

So buckle up for the two sessions meeting—you may want to set up a backup VPN.

Cover image from Pixabay

Published in The World of Chinese Magazine.

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