What Happens in China When VPN Dies

I’m Jordan Schneider, the host of SupChina’s ChinaEconTalk podcast. This week’s episode featured Professor Julia Lovell, author of the recently published book on Mao’s international legacy entitled Maoism: A Global History. In this episode, Lovell introduces the core tenets of Maoist thought and its complex impact on both the CCP and offshoot devotees around the world. She outlines the key events in Mao’s life, the events that helped shaped his ideology, his idea of “violent, tumultuous world revolution,” and the friction during the Cold War that eventually culminated in the Sino-Soviet split. One choice quote from the show:

“Maoism, although it has this singular name, it doesn’t actually correspond to a single phenomenon. Above all, it’s a set of very contradictory ideas. And this is no coincidence because Mao himself was a great admirer of the idea of contradiction. He saw contradictions as possessing primal energy, as something that drove history on. So when there were contradictions in his own ideas or when he perceived them around him, he tended to embrace them. Inconsistency didn’t bother him.”

The ‘End Days’ of VPN Are Coming

On June 13, the Cyberspace Administration of China called for comments on the draft regulations for “Safety Measures Regarding Personal Data Leaving the Country.” 

An anonymous commentator writing under the name “Little Hui” claims that one element of these regulations—a requirement that telecoms providers take responsibility for information sent over their networks—will lead to all VPN traffic in China being blocked and break the delicate social contract the CCP has fostered with regards to the Great Firewall. Little Hui’s analysis has gone viral, racking up over 100,000 views.

Minor errors in the piece suggest that the author is not well-versed in internet security regulations. I present it here as a sample of Chinese discussion of the issue.

VPN的末日要到了, Little Hui, Hui Can’t Think, June 28, 2019

The article begins by analyzing the draft legislation’s implications. In its current form, “personal data” covers anything that can be used to identify the user, be that a date of birth, an address, or an ID number. The draft regulations require that “before personal information leaves the country, the network operator should report the personal information exit safety assessment to the local provincial network department.” Then that department will evaluate whether or not the data can legally leave the country and keep a “personal information exit record” on file for five years.

What is the official justification? Little Hui’s summary runs as follows: “Large data leaks happen often and data gets misused; it’s difficult to defend individuals’ personal legal rights; networks struggle to keep users and their data safe, etc.”

Hui believes the draft regulation is a done deal. “Although it is supposedly a ‘call for comment,’ people don’t have the opportunity to comment at all. Only two comments have been released. Whether or not you agree with it, the policy is going to be implemented.”  [Note: According to an expert, comments on draft regulations are not usually made public, and I’ve been unable to find any publicly released comments on this draft regulation.]

The regulations also change the status quo by “pointing directly to the network operator” as the telecom layer in charge of enforcement. “Now that Cybersecurity Ministry has pointed its finger at the network operators, it means that once they find that you are over the wall, you will be disconnected directly. You’ll then be welcomed not by Google but 404.”

Little Hui predicts that the regulation will be implemented as soon as six months from now, and not later than two or three years. “In any case, VPN is destined to bid us farewell and turn into a just a word from history.”

According to Little Hui, the writing was on the wall for this sort of change. Up until 2017, there were several companies that operated domestically in China that operated VPN services aimed at mainland Chinese customers. But in April of that year, GreenVPN stopped operating, saying only to its users, “Maybe one day we’ll meet again.” By 2018, new legislation had made it practically impossible for VPN companies to operate in China.

The author doesn’t have much of an issue with the basic principles of the Great Firewall, but argues that closing off access entirely is breaking a sort of social contract.

The role of the Great Firewall is to make information from abroad that threatens national security inaccessible … people with a little technical skill can use VPNs to cross the firewall; people with this ability can hardly be bewitched by harmful information. Once, the firewall created a delicate balance that allowed those who really had a need to get access but otherwise protected national security.

But this balance is now being broken. If the VPN is completely banned, it will totally block access to critical information for those who have considerable resistance to harmful information. For example, now I can’t use Google to search for academic papers. To take this final step in completely blocking VPN makes no sense; the original firewall had already succeeded in completely filtering the internet, so the VPN just acts as a secret door. Closing this door doesn’t further the original goal of preserving national security, since harmful information already isn’t flowing in.

Killing VPNs, the author says “is going against historical trends,” since “Chinese society’s resistance to harmful information is strengthening.” Hui argues that this trend should allow the state to reduce the number of websites that are blocked by firewalls, since its goal is make young people in China indifferent to what they see, not just block them from seeing certain things.

In this regard, students return from abroad feel this most deeply, so before returning to China they must download a stable and powerful VPN.

The article then recounts some recent episodes of government enforcement on the ban. One average citizen, Little Hui writes, was fined the equivalent of $150 for using a VPN, while another got three years in jail for operating a VPN platform. These were one-off events by local police. “In the past, it was only from a technical level that VPN was forbidden, but now the use of VPN has been upgraded to an ‘administrative violation’ at the legal level.”

Little Hui concludes with an analysis of the economic impact of a complete VPN shutdown. “Professionals in various industries cannot use Google to find customers, do industry research, and market on Facebook and Twitter. For anyone involved in international trade, there’s no getting around Google. Everyone knows the importance of Google Adwords and Gmail.”

Thanks for reading!

You can contact me on twitter at jordanschnyc, email at jorschneider@gmail.com, or on WeChat at jordanschneider.

A version of this article was first published on TechNode.

Scan this in the next few days to join the ChinaEconTalk WeChat group.