Welcome to the Chinese Intranet. I'll Be Your Guide.
In the 1980’s, then-Chinese Chairman Deng Xiaoping famously said, “If you open the window for fresh air, you have to expect some flies to blow in.” The message was clear–China had to be wary as it opened up to the world and vigilantly swat down any foreign ideas threatening the rule of the Communist Party.
Ever since the World Wide Web was introduced to China in the early 1990’s, the Communist Party did what any reasonable homeowner would do and invested in some window screens to keep those pesky flies out. Internationally known as the Great Firewall of China, this complex system of censorship keeps the Chinese people “safe” from pornography, violence, homosexuality, and fake news. Chinese users are also prevented from accessing websites that the government cannot completely control, including Facebook, Twitter, the New York Times, YouTube, and Google.
What has resulted is a sort of Chinese intranet that is monitored by the authorities. Following the withdrawal of foreign tech giants, local Chinese companies raced in to fill the void. Some, like Youku, Weibo, and Baidu, were just ripoffs of YouTube, Twitter, and Google, respectively. Others, however, have begun to evolve and are actually reshaping the way Chinese society works. Because of AliPay, for example, many urban Chinese are paying for items solely with their phones and have stopped carrying cash altogether. WeChat is another behemoth of an app and has had profound effects on both business and interpersonal communications. The Chinese intranet is great for the average Chinese person who has nothing to hide.
But for individuals who have interests outside of China, the Chinese intranet can get very oppressive. This is especially true for international businesses and expats. The solution is a Virtual Private Network (VPN), which reroutes internet traffic to a server abroad and allows access to previously blocked sites. For individuals, VPNs mean being able to access Facebook and Western news outlets. For international companies, VPNs mean being able to access servers and cloud-based software, like Salesforce and Google Drive. As Jake Parker, Vice President of the US-China Business Council, puts it, “In the past, any effort to cut off internal corporate VPNs has been enough to make a company think about closing or reducing operations in China.”
The Chinese government has a very complex relationship with VPNs. On the one hand, China desires its so-called “cyber sovereignty.” Chinese President Xi Jinping’s political rivals, for instance, have been known to post unfavorable opinions on foreign sites so that they can trickle back into China and avoid the censors. It is in the government’s interest to stop this. On the other hand, China would lose valuable foreign expertise and capital if it banned all VPNs outright. Torsten Weller, a business development associate at ECOVIS, says, “The only sure way to completely shut down VPN use would be a complete disconnect from the outside world.”
So far, the Chinese government has been doing all it can to stay in the censorship “sweet spot.” Crackdowns occur like clockwork around politically sensitive dates, such as the Tiananmen Square anniversary, political summits, or local unrest. Local VPNs, such as GreenVPN, have been forced to shut down. Western VPNs that largely market to Chinese audiences and offer Chinese support services, such as Astrill, are disproportionately affected during crackdowns. VPNs that market exclusively to Western audiences and offer no Chinese language support services, like ExpressVPN and VyprVPN, are largely unaffected by crackdowns. It is technically not illegal to use a VPN, but police have reportedly blocked some users’ internet services until the software was uninstalled.
This may change soon. By giving a keynote speech at the World Internet Conference in November 2015, Xi indicated that tighter internet control was high on his list of priorities. Chongqing, a large city in southwest China, has threatened fines for VPN use beginning in April 2017. Activists are worried that this may be a pilot program that may eventually be rolled out to the rest of China. In addition, an article recently published by Bloomberg cited officials saying that a VPN crackdown will be completed by February 2018. It is unclear whether this is a short-term regularly-scheduled crackdown for the National People’s Congress elections or a long-term plan aimed at strengthening the Firewall.
China must ultimately make a decision between engaging with the world and maintaining information security. If China chooses information security, foreign assets in the country will trickle out, internationally-minded entrepreneurs will be negatively affected, and local investors will be ill-informed. If China chooses to continue to engage with the world, it runs the risk of people becoming too informed, thus jeopardizing the hold the Communist Party has on the Chinese people. In a time of unprecedented globalization, we will see whether Deng’s advice is heeded by his successors.
Photo credit: “4700 m pass in Tibet, shortly before crossing over into Sichuan” by Matt Ming for Flickr with a CC BY 2.0 license. No changes were made to the original image. Use of this image is not endorsement from its creator.