As censorship in China increases, VPNs are becoming more important

as censorship in china increases vpns are becoming more important
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LI JIAQI, a popular Chinese influencer, had a talent for selling lipstick and other cosmetics. But his last performance was an unintentional advertisement for virtual private networks (VPNs), which help Chinese netizens get around strict online censorship rules. On June 3rd Mr Li live-streamed video of himself with an ice-cream cake that looked like a tank. This seemed to anger the authorities, who may have viewed it as a reference to the Tiananmen Square massacre, when soldiers and tanks fired on peaceful protesters in Beijing, killing hundreds, if not thousands, in 1989. Its anniversary was a day later, something Mr Li may not have known since the government blocks online discussion of the bloodshed. Nevertheless, his show was cut off.

VPNs are becoming increasingly important in China, which has grown more inward-looking since the start of the covid-19 pandemic. The country’s digital barricade against content it deems undesirable, called the “great firewall”, has been reinforced under President Xi Jinping. He has deployed an army of censors and the latest technology in his battle against foreign influence. A draft rule published in June would see all comments on Chinese social media screened before they are even posted. But VPN software helps internet users in China get around all this by making it look like their computer or mobile phone is located in a different country. They are thus able to gain access to websites that are blacklisted by the government, such as Wikipedia, Facebook and Twitter.

The question for the government is how much of this so-called “wall climbing” to allow. Technically it is illegal to use a VPN in China without the government’s permission. In recent years the state has made it harder to find one, closing down many local suppliers. Apple removed many VPN products from its Chinese app store in 2017, citing domestic regulations. Obtaining a VPN today often involves being introduced to a seller on WeChat, ​​a messaging app, by an existing customer. When Eileen Gu, an American-born Chinese skier who won a gold medal at this year’s Olympics, suggested earlier this year that it was easy to get a VPN in China, some netizens shot back, noting China’s lack of internet freedom.

Still, the government could clamp down harder on VPNs if it wanted to. Those caught using the software tend to receive a slap on the wrist. The state seems able to throttle the networks. During important political events, users say VPNs often slow down or stall.

China, though, must also stay connected to the world. Without VPNs international firms could not operate in China. Foreigners would be less likely to come for work or study. Local firms would struggle, too. Chinese academics and scientists, who grumble about the great firewall, need VPNs to do research. “Essentially the Chinese government wants to have their cake and eat it too when it comes to internet access—they want to control it, but also to exploit the range of economic possibilities that digital freedom offers,” says a spokesperson for ExpressVPN, a big provider of the software.

Others see a more sinister motive. “Perhaps the authorities do not completely crack down on the use of VPNs because it helps them to identify those who are ‘picking quarrels’”, says a co-founder of GreatFire, a Chinese censorship watchdog, who prefers not to be named for security reasons. Picking quarrels and provoking trouble is an ill-defined crime in China, often used to punish dissidents. Some have been arrested after criticising the government on Twitter. Officials, for their part, use state-sanctioned VPNs to pick quarrels with countries such as America on Twitter.

Complaints come from the other direction, too. China watchers abroad have been locked out of the country since the start of the pandemic. They often use VPNs to make it appear as if they are inside, which allows them to view websites and data that the government tries to keep from foreigners. But these connections can be slow and spotty, and sometimes don’t work at all, say researchers.

What if the government were to loosen up a little? In a study published in 2018 researchers at Stanford and Peking Universities gave hundreds of students at two universities in Beijing temporary access to the uncensored internet. Almost none of them used their newfound freedom to browse foreign news websites (unless the study gave them monetary incentives to do so). Most looked at pornography, which is often blocked by the great firewall. “Censorship in China is effective not only because the regime makes it difficult to access sensitive information,” said the study’s authors. “It fosters an environment in which citizens do not demand such information in the first place.”

That seems to have been the case with Mr Li, who has not appeared online since the cake incident. Confused by his disappearance, many of Mr Li’s fans probably sought out information on the Tiananmen Square massacre, using VPNs.

The Economist

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