A man logs on to Facebook in Shanghai. Photo: Reuters / Carlos Barria
A man logs on to Facebook in Shanghai. Photo: Reuters / Carlos Barria

Virtual private networks – VPNs – have for years been a tried and true way to circumvent restrictions and censorship by Beijing to block access to websites overseas and news critical of communist party rule.

With many Chinese curious about the world beyond Beijing’s “Great Firewall” and what the free world has to say about China, the business of various VPN providers – most with servers in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan or the United States – has been thriving.

It’s said that there are some 90 million VPN users in China, a number so big it reportedly worries party censors and “thought police”.

Now, Beijing is apparently intent on blocking all VPNs to seal off its cyber domain. A new regulation on internet access is due to take effect by the end of March.

Beijing sees ‘controlled access’ to the internet, in particular to overseas websites, as vital to its ideological campaign to weed out “incorrect” and “malicious” thoughts on human rights and political liberalization from the West. Reuters/Thomas White

The impact is being felt already. Apple, for instance, kindly removed more than 600 VPN apps from its China App Store at the end of last year.

Other reports have said two European embassies in China fell foul of the stepped-up crackdown as their VPN connections had been cut – a move that caused the European Union to lodge a stern complaint with Beijing.

Ferdinand Schaff from the Asia-Pacific Committee of German Business believes German companies active in China will have to change their approach.

“Our firms will have to think twice before sharing any sort of information with the China outlets; and the whole communications process will be changing,” he told the German international broadcaster Deutsche Welle.

“It would be possible to set up a leased line,” Schaff argued. “But that could cost you 10,000 euros or more a month,” meaning it was only an option large companies could afford.

Stranglehold on information

So, most firms will have to put up with the new regulations and accept a state-licensed VPN provider.

As Beijing moves further to strangle freedom of information, the fact that foreign firms will be hit is seen as “a kind of collateral damage that the Chinese authorities are taking in stride,” he said.

A senior researcher at the Guangdong Institute of International Studies in Guangzhou who wished to stay anonymous also told Asia Times that they used to have one computer permitted by provincial authorities to have free access to overseas websites for research purposes – but they had been unable to penetrate the Great Firewall since the Lunar New Year.

Gmail is among the many overseas news and email services blocked in China. Photo: GettyImages

A former technician with Yahoo! once stationed in China was quoted as saying that as long as Beijing doesn’t literally pull the plug – physically disconnect network cables to cut the nation’s network from the rest of the internet, which he saw as unlikely – there would still be ways to get around the new set-up.

More foreign journalists and scholars based in China have begun using data roaming services by overseas telecommunications providers to stay connected with the rest of the world.

The most convenient way is to open a new account with a Hong Kong-based carrier and enable data roaming while traveling in China so they can access Facebook, Twitter and Gmail, etc.

Other firms have also been leasing Wi-Fi “eggs” – a portable device that can connect to telecom networks and relay data to smartphones and tablets – with free access to all banned sites.

Some leading VPN developers have also been upping the ante amid the headwind. For instance, NordVPN has rolled out “obfuscation server” and double data encryption that can allegedly protect users’ identity and browsing history from the prying eyes of party sensors and Chinese telecom operators.

Other alternatives include Shadowsocks, an open-source encrypted proxy communication protocol, and its variant ShadowsocksR.

How Shadowsocks and ShadowsocksR work. Photo: Handout

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