China Faces a Public Backlash for Cracking Down on Individual VPN Users
China has been known as a country that likes to control the content to which its citizens are exposed to for a long time. One of the methods that the country uses to limit its population’s internet access is the so-called “Great Firewall of China,” which filters the content and blocks sensitive data, as well as countless overseas websites.
To battle the issue, many have turned to VPNs, which are tools designed to provide online protection, privacy, as well as anonymity. Recently, however, China has decided to start punishing some of its citizens for using this technology, starting with two internet users who applied it in their daily online sessions.
China and VPNs
In the majority of the world, using VPNs is perfectly legal, as most countries believe that their citizens should have the right to their own privacy. However, there are a few countries around the world that do not share this view. China, on the other hand, sits somewhere in the middle, with no clear rules regarding what is allowed and what is not in this regard.
For example, VPN is permitted, but limited to certain situations. The government has never strictly outlawed it as many of its agencies and largest companies tend to use them to protect their own systems and secrets. However, when it comes to individual internet users, the rules are a bit different. For example, China has been attempting to introduce vigorous internet control regimes for years, and a lot of resources has gone into banning the use of VPNs and similar privacy tools.
The country has even brought a Cybersecurity Law in 2017 which introduced a set of rules regarding internet use and what content is allowed. This has provided Chinese ISPs with more duties and responsibilities. However, some companies were affected as well.
One example of this is Apple being forced to exclude VPN-related apps from the Chinese version of their app store. Since then, the country has also made a number of arrests of those who defied the order and used VPNs anyway. However, the situation remains complicated and confusing, as the law does not outright criminalize the use of VPNs. Because of this, many have ignored the order, thinking that they can continue to use such tools with no consequences.
However, as mentioned earlier, the government already made a move against several citizens who used such technology, including Zhu Yunfeng and Huang Chengcheng. Zhu was charged around $163 (1000 RMB) for using a mobile VPN app Lantern Pro. Due to the fact that the government had no case against Zhu under the new law, they used Articles 6 and 14 cited in a set of rules published in 1996.
Article 6 states that connecting to international networks can only be legally performed by using software provided by telecoms licensed by the country of China. Unfortunately, Lantern Pro does not fall under this category. Soon after a case against Zhu was made in December, another one caught the attention of the public on January 4th, against Huang Chengcheng.
The situation is quite similar, and Chengcheng is currently facing the same charges as Zhu. While the details of the cases are not fully disclosed at this time, many have concluded that the current development means that using VPNs and similar tools to circumvent the internet is now considered to be illegal in China.
The Chinese public reacts
This has caused a strong reaction from the public, with many Chinese citizens questioning why are some people allowed to use VPNs while others face charges when doing the same. For example, the state-run media of China are known for bypassing the Firewall, with one user especially mentioning the editor-in-chief of Global Times, Hu Xijin.
Xijin supposedly regularly circumvents the Firewall in order to gain access to foreign websites, such as Twitter itself. Many in China have demanded that he receives the equal treatment as the two individuals that are currently facing charges, while others simply continue to express frustration with the entire incident.