Is China’s Internet Becoming an Intranet?

A ChinaFile Conversation

With Astrill and several other free and paid-subscription virtual private networks (VPNs) that make leaping China’s Great Firewall possible now harder to use themselves after government interference "gummed" them up, the world wide web just shrank a notch for 600 million Chinese web surfers. Or did it? Do average Chinese care about the wider, Western presentation of the Internet? Will they accept so limited a tool while living at home? How does the latest tightening of China's Internet policy relate to Beijing’s stated desire to use the media to “go out” and present a positive image of China to the world? — The Editors


The use of virtual private networks (VPN) has been an open secret in China for a long time, not only for many expat students, businessmen, journalists, and short-term travelers to China, but also for a fast-growing number of average Chinese, especially those among the younger generations whose members are keen to stay connected with the rest of the world freely, by getting on Facebook for example, to stay in touch with friends and alumni met while working or studying abroad. Because young Chinese returned to China wish to maintain their links to the outside world via sites such as Facebook, the unexpected ban on VPN was among the top trending recent stories on social media—and not just on Twitter, a service one needs a VPN to access in China. I also see more young Chinese Internet users have begun to complain on local social media platforms such as Weibo. Their frustrations are so obvious that the Chinese government won't be able to overlook them.

To be fair, many young Chinese Internet users often employ VPN to “climb the Great Firewall” for reasons having little to do with politics directly. Many use the paid subscription services to access Instagram because they follow South Korean or Hollywood entertainment stars. Because Beijing’s new near zero tolerance of “climbing the wall” blocks access to beloved overseas entertainment content more young Chinese web surfers will develop feelings of intolerance of China’s Internet policy. One comment I saw on Weibo represents the strong opinions brewing. The Weibo post suggested young Chinese study hard and eventually get out of China to study and live abroad so they might enjoy free information and a free Internet. If that is the feeling growing among more and more young Chinese, China’s Internet policy will backfire on the nation's future, sooner or later.

The most interesting thing about banning VPNs is not the ban itself but its timing. Why now? VPN have existed for many years. Beijing clearly knows about their popularity, especially among expatriates living in China. Now, it seems the government feels it can no longer tolerate the existence of VPN as President Xi Jinping intensifies his efforts to tighten control of ideology in all areas of society, from cyberspace to the university, where lecturers now are forbidden from promoting Western values and students must take Marxism studies seriously. There also has been a growing debate in China over whether learning English is more important for Chinese people than learning better Chinese first. The importance of English proficiency in national college entrance exams is lessening.

The VPN ban is a part of China’s ideology war and Beijing is not going to give up anytime soon. We might soon see someone get charged with and sentenced for using or providing “illegal VPN services.” These days, the government is keen to regulate everything it hates and promote everything it likes with new legislation or renewed enforcement. That’s what the rule of law Chinese-style is all about.

Ironically, Beijing has adopted a double standard where global social media are concerned. In recent months, state-owned media organizations such as the official Xinhua News Agency and China Central Television launched official and verified Facebook and Twitter accounts. On the one hand, Beijing tries to tell 1.3 billion citizens they can’t get on Facebook and Twitter inside China. On the other hand, Beijing allows and most likely encourages state media to occupy foreign social media platforms to better tell the China story now that the nation is firmly in the spotlight as the world’s No.1 economy. Beijing’s double standard Internet policy will cause embarrassment. The young generation of Chinese is not stupid or naïve. Naturally, some smart kids will doubt such a double standard.

Beijing may continue to push more propaganda via Facebook and Twitter to improve its image, but the recent series of Internet policy tightenings forbidding the leak of any kind of bad news about the government and its leaders will only fuel domestic doubts about the government’s level of self-confidence.

First, I think it is important to understand how the authorities are blocking VPNs. The authorities are able to detect the difference between normal connections to the internet and connections that are using a VPN. The authorities do this by scanning what is being sent from your computer and looking for bytes of information which identify that you are using a VPN. If it finds that information, the firewall does a further search to see how you are making this connection, it attempts to make the same connection and if it can then it automatically blocks access to that site, rendering that VPN service unusable.

To counteract this, VPN providers are trying to break up the information that is sent from your computer into little packets so that it is harder for the firewall to identify what you are doing. Some VPNs also try to obfuscate your traffic to make it look more like normal traffic. But the firewall also works to prevent you from obfuscating your traffic, which is why this type of circumvention is often labeled as a cat-and-mouse game.

Why now? We have seen a rapid ramping up of censorship controls in China since last June. This is just a further, logical step. The authorities are hellbent on establishing cyber sovereignty in China. If you look at what has taken place since last summer it is quite astounding:

Google got blocked completely last June for the first time. Gmail got blocked completely for the first time in December. Since October, the authorities have launched attacks on Yahoo, Google, Microsoft and Apple, putting sensitive user information at risk and in turn making Chinese netizens suspicious of using foreign services. The authorities have severely disrupted or outright blocked many foreign content delivery networks (CDNs or cloud services) including Amazon S3, Akamai and EdgeCast. This blocking has caused much collateral damage, including, but not limited to, taking HSBC's corporate banking portal offline which made it impossible for foreign and domestic firms to move money into and out of China and blocking access to the download link for iTunes, just after Apple released the newest iPhone. We can now clearly say that censorship in China is a business issue as well as an internet freedom issue.

This ramping up of censorship and malicious attacks drive internet users to adopt circumvention tools. By blocking these tools, the authorities are leaving people with fewer options and are forcing most to give up on circumvention and switch to domestic services. If they can convince more internet users to use Chinese services - which they can readily censor and easily snoop on - then they have taken one further step towards cyber sovereignty. They won't need to ask Yahoo to hand over user information again. They won't need to ask Apple to remove apps from their app store again. They won't need to ask LinkedIn to self-censor negative China content on its platform again. Why? Because nobody inside of China will be using any of these services anymore and/or be able to access them.

For your readers who are looking for VPNs that work I offer the following advice. I've left out the names of the services because, as Bill Bishop noted on Twitter, there's no point in letting the authorities know what is working best. Some of the free circumvention tools are the most robust. Furthermore, tools that are open source can be safer for users because a community of interested parties is constantly poking around the code, looking for vulnerabilities. Amongst paid services, there is no longer a correlation between price and reliability.

From my perspective, the recent moves shutting down VPN services are a natural product of the desire of the PRC regulators to create an entirely closed Internet system. It appears to me that they have largely succeeded. The effect is quite remarkable. I am writing now from a hotel in the suburbs of Phnom Penh. From this small hotel I can access the Internet with no restrictions of any kind and with uninterrupted, fast service. I will return to China next week and settle down to an Internet that simply does not work. Thus, the Chinese have not simply created an Intranet, they have created an Intranet that does not work.

The question asked is: who is affected. In my own circle of friends and colleagues, it appears to me that only foreigners feel the impact. My Chinese friends do not care for the simple reason that none of them use VPNs. It could be argued that they do not care because they do not know what they are missing. However, I have a number of friends who have returned from foreign countries where the Internet is open. When they return to China, they also do not use VPNs to access foreign sites. This is because the Chinese Intranet provides them access to everything they want:

—Every piece of recorded music is freely available in pirated form.

—Every movie or TV show is freely available for viewing or download in pirated form.

—Online shopping is available for every type of product, both genuine and pirated.

—Social media is ubiquitous with the excellent WeChat and similar applications.

—Gossip about the government and other scandals is spread rapidly through online chat.

—Local and international news is freely available from local sources that share the biases of the Chinese viewers.

VPNs are a clear violation of Chinese law. Termination of access is entirely consistent with Chinese law and policy. The Chinese people do not care a bit about it. So what's the deal?

What matters today is not whether the Great Wall kept the barbarians out. In fact it did not; eventually they entered in China, triumphant. But the Wall was built, and much remains today stretching across both time and space.

It was built at huge cost in lives and time and material— it showed what Imperial power could do when mobilized. It showed the might of Chinese civilization. It was and is a symbol of the importance and grandeur of thousands of years of Chinese state dominance.

So too the Great Fire Wall.

It matters little whether a Virtual Private Network works five hours a day or only five minutes every hour. What matters is that it is necessary at all; what matters is that it is not allowed to work 24 hours a day seven days a week. What matters is that Beijing has a heavy finger on the switch and that that finger, and its power, is visible to all.

During the Cultural Revolution, China descended into chaos as the Red Guard “linked up”—大串联 / dà chuàn lián—using big character wall posters, to spread information and the vast rail links across the country to spread themselves and their ideas.

During the student-led protests of 1989, “linking up” through posters and rail links and roads brought millions to the streets.

Today, the digital equivalent of a poster is an electronic posting. The digital equivalent of a rail line is a fibre optic cable. The spectre of a digital “linking up” is a nightmare to government lovers of order, control and stability.

And so the linking up is blocked.

There is no need to shut the rail lines down; all you need to do is have police in the stations checking ids and guards on the train arresting suspicious groups. There is no need to shut down the Internet. All you have to do is show you can arrest commentators who “forget” to show deference. All you have to do is block foreign services that serve as transmitters and broadcasters of unwanted messages. All you have to do is show that you are monitoring bit by bit, byte by byte and have the power to crack down.

What President Xi Jinping is showing is that to him the only ideology that matters in China today is an ideology of power and not an ideology of ideas. That can certainly be effective for a time, but the use of that power carries a price as well. The current frustrations and anger at Internet access and VPN impotence are just some examples of the costs that may one day become due.

George raised a good question about the timing of the ban on VPNs: “Why now?” Charlie’s answer is “This is just a further, logical step,” given the fact that China has been escalating its control over the Internet since last June. I basically agree with Charlie’s analysis. For years, Chinese censors have been aware of, and seeking policy/technological solutions for, the fact that a significant portion of Internet users (in the millions) regularly use VPN (paid or free) services to get over of the Great Firewall.

In an interview with the English-language Global Times in February 2011, Fang Binxing—widely regarded as the “father of the Great Firewall”—noted that "I have six VPNs [Virtual Private Networks] on my home computer … but I only try them to test which side wins: the GFW or the VPN … .”. In the same interview, Fang also said: “It’s a ceaseless war between the GFW and VPNs….So far, the GFW is lagging behind and still needs improvement.”

It seems that this time the GFW is gaining the upper hand in this ceaseless war. But I also want to mention another phenomena on the Chinese Internet related to this timing—political rumors are traveling like a storm in recent months, and they almost always start from websites outside of China, exclusively about politics at the highest level: the fall of Zhou Yongkang, huge wealth of corrupted PLA General Gu Junshan, Ling Jihua and his “Gang of West Mountain.” Almost every time, these “rumors” turn to be the true, but days or weeks, sometimes months or even years ahead of the Chinese government's official confirmation. It is not clear how this information is leaked to websites outside of China, and who is behind such actions. More and more people are using VPNs and other circumvention tools to seek such political information, and further spread this information back inside the Great Firewall. Those “information brokers,” with the aid of VPNs and other circumvention tools, are playing a vital role in shaping the unofficial media environment inside of China, where a ferocious political cleansing campaign under the name of anti-corruption is on going at the highest levels of power.

To a certain degree, it seems to me that building a Chinese Intranet has been pursued as an aspiration for years. However, until recently, it seems that there was insufficient technological capability and political will to make this happen. These things seem to have changed in the last year and a half. Through the creation of the Cyberspace Administration of China and the Central Leading Group for Cybersecurity and Informatization, the previously fragmented Internet governance landscape has been consolidated. In terms of content, Xi’s administration has gradually sought to establish a nativist ideology and forestall foreign intervention.

This reconfiguration of the Internet has been largely driven by perceived security risks, and the leadership has responded both by strengthening defensive measures and substituting local products and services for those imported from abroad. Previously, defensive measures mainly concerned content, which remains a very important element of China’s cyberpolicy. Anyone who’s been reading speeches made by Lu Wei and Xi Jinping will notice there is a growing concern about ideological infiltration, sponsored by Western entities. The ideological rectification drive is currently targeting academics: the one group of Chinese professionals who have regular interaction with the outside world, in many cases have been educated abroad and, as recent vituperative articles have correctly alleged, teach about foreign models of governance in Chinese universities.

More recently, security concerns have also broadened to security technology, with the Snowden affair as the obvious catalyst. Apple subsequently became the first Western tech company to explicitly comply with new security inspection requirements.

But as Steve argues above, these limitations to foreign content may only be of limited concern to China’s online population. Indigenously developed software, hardware, and online platforms seemingly satisfy the needs and wants of most Chinese netizens. There are, of course, always exceptions, but I’m also seeing increasing numbers of Westerners who set up WeChat accounts in order to stay in touch with Chinese friends returning home. The Wall can also be crossed the other way around.

The big question, of course, is whether or not these new measures are damaging to other interests in China. Charlie is right to point at business concerns, and certainly, suspension of major international payment systems is something to worry about. But on the other hand, with China’s Internet population having grown to 684 million at the end of last year, the lure of the market beckons. It could be argued that their fiduciary duty to shareholders requires corporations such as Apple to continue to pursue a presence in China. It may well be prudent for governments and businesses to start to imagine scenarios where a favorable environment for foreign businesses is no longer a priority in Zhongnanhai.

One last, slightly more juicy point relates to Xiao Qiang’s contradiction. If I were feeling malicious, I’d think that a considerable amount of political information is leaked to foreign media as part of political gains, with effects such as Xiao describes. Perhaps part of the Firewall upgrade is aimed at ensuring that what happens in China, stays in China.

I’d like to take issue with Steve’s contention that Chinese people “do not care a bit" about the recent moves to make China’s Great Firewall taller and more robust. He’s surely right that most Chinese web users don’t bother to use VPN (leaving millions, as Xiao writes, who still do). Meanwhile, among those who do, George Chen rightly notes many are seeking “access [to] Instagram” or are jumping the firewall “because they follow South Korean or Hollywood entertainment stars.” But as George also mentions, there are also a significant number of web users protesting, on principled grounds, the government’s moves toward what it calls “Internet sovereignty.”

On Jan. 23, for example, outrage flooded in after Chongqing-based Computer News discussed the latest hit to VPN services like Astrill. It’s evident that over 12,000 people commented on the Computer News post, although the comments themselves have mysteriously disappeared. Before that happened, I received screenshots of what were at the time the most up-voted. They included these:

“Isn’t it interesting [i.e. ironic] that China held the World Internet Conference.”

“What are you afraid of? This country is backwards in its bones.”

“[This is] a big step toward becoming a new North Korea.”

Other comments are still available elsewhere on Weibo that rather directly criticize President Xi Jinping for the recent retrenchment. One critique of Xi is still available here, although many more have been deleted. None of these sentiments were unique to this thread, or this moment.

Weibo has hundreds of millions of users, and one looking for a particular strain of sentiment is likely to find it. But it certainly doesn’t take much digging to see genuine and building anger over authorities’ handling of the Chinese Internet—or what many there are now calling a LAN, or an Intranet. VPNs might be illegal in China, but Steve would surely agree that law and justice sometimes diverge. A non-negligible portion of Chinese netizens think that’s what’s happening here.