The “VPNs are going to be blocked in China” story seems to get written at least once a year. Eventually, it might actually come true. In a story first reported by Bloomberg (citing anonymous government sources) but since corroborated by South China Morning Post, China’s major state-owned telecom companies have been ordered to block access to VPNs beginning February 1, 2018.
If you’re living in China and reading Radii, then you probably already know what a VPN is, but for anyone else reading (Hi, Mom! I’ll be home for your birthday!), a VPN refers to a Virtual Private Network. This is a system that allows computer users to circumvent China’s Internet censorship (commonly referred to as the “Great Firewall” [GFW]) and access blocked parts of the global Internet such as Facebook, Google, YouTube, the New York Times, and PornHub.
The upside from the perspective of the Party for blocking VPN services is, of course, greater control over China’s Internet Sovereignty, which has been a major issue for Chairman Xi Jinping. By all accounts, Xi believes the previous Hu-Wen administration was dangerously lax in its controls on expression, organization, media, and Internet guidance. The recent use of overseas news outlets and social media by opponents of Party leaders (looking at you, Guo Wengui!) has also raised the stakes for controlling access beyond the Great Firewall.
The result of all this has been a series of policies which can be best classified under the technical terms “Random Dickishness in Areas of Expression and the Media” and “General Internet Fuckage.” This has led, somewhat inevitably, to the rumored VPN ban, which had previously been considered something of a nuclear option for China’s net ninnies.
Nuclear options are nuclear for a reason: they come with significant costs, which I’ll list below in increasing order of importance.
— It will be an enormous inconvenience for international residents, visitors, and companies in China who rely on VPNs to do business with the rest of the world. This matters very little in the government’s calculus of banning VPNs. It won’t matter one bit whether foreigners still can post on Instagram or not. In the grand scheme of things (think: 1.4 billion people) there are too few foreigners as a percentage of Internet users, and if the last five years have taught us anything, it’s that the Chinese government under Xi Jinping could give two spoonfuls of gopher shit about what makes the foreigners in China happy.
— It might rekindle the controversy over whether China’s Internet protocols represent an unfair trade barrier under WTO rules. Last April, the United States Trade Representative (USTR) listed Chinese Internet rules as a potential trade barrier. It’s one of the few tools at the disposal of foreign governments to pressure China on the issue of Internet censorship. On the other hand, the Chinese government generally wipes its ass with WTO threats. The government has also argued through its various organs that they will continue to censor the global Internet so long as that global Internet contains values which the Chinese government deems “Western” and “Dangerous.”
— It will somewhat inconvenience Chinese Internet users who need VPNs to do research, apply for schools overseas, and to do business globally. I say “somewhat” because many Internet users in China never use a VPN. In an article published in the MIT Review last year, Beijing-based journalist Christina Larson argued that China provided some of the world’s best Internet experiences (in terms of domestic Internet ecosystem) and some of the worst (in terms of global connectivity). The suitability and ubiquity of so many of the domestic Internet platforms and sites makes it easier for the government to block overseas equivalents. Who cares about Facebook and Instagram when you have WeChat?
But many people, particularly those who travel overseas or have returned from abroad, do use VPNs. This group – while relatively small as a percentage of Internet users – are for the most part members of China’s urban elite, a rising middle and upper class of increasingly sophisticated consumers and citizens who have been among the Party’s biggest supporters. (Party: “We keep the peasants on the farm until it’s time for them to clean your house and deliver your takeout!” Urban Elite: “We won’t notice that our kids can’t run 100 meters outside without coughing up blood and that the apartment we bought 10 years ago is already falling apart!” Together: “DEAL!”)
But what happens when that same urban elite can’t complete their kid’s application to Dartmouth because some stray bit of code or keyword on the Dartmouth site is causing that page to be blocked? Despite the relative small size of this group, the Party takes an outsized interest in keeping the urban elite on their side. Will this group be happy to have junior seek his future at Hebei Polytech because they can’t access certain sites or services overseas? Maybe. Maybe not.
— Porn. There’s a lot of porn on the Chinese web that can be accessed without a VPN. (So I’m told). But Chinese porn aficionados have surprisingly cosmopolitan tastes. A few years back Japanese AV star Sola Aoi broke the Chinese Internet, and she continues to be a huge draw for millions of Chinese porn lovers. As a wise man once remarked, if you took porn off the Internet, there would only be one website and it would be called bringbacktheporn.com. It stands to reason that banning VPNs is going to cramp the style of PRC porn viewers. At the end of the day, you can take away people’s human’s rights. You can take away their oxygen. But try taking away people’s spank bank and they will get cranky at you.
— It may not even be technically possible. I’ve talked to a few IT folks here in Beijing who are skeptical about whether the government – even if they wanted to – had the ability to complete cut off access to all VPNs. On the one hand, these people know far more about the technical side than I do. On the other hand, never bet against the Chinese government in overcoming long odds on great leaps of stupidity.
— Finally, banning VPNs cracks a carefully constructed façade: that the way the party manages the Internet is totally normal by global standards. This is somewhat related to the best Internet/worst Internet paradigm Larson wrote about in her MIT Technology Review piece. The first rule of the Great Firewall is that you don’t talk about the Great Firewall. You never show it in action. As James Fallows wrote nearly a decade ago – in what may turn out to be, in retrospect, the golden age of internet access in China:
In China, the connection just times out. Is it your computer’s problem? The firewall? Or maybe your local Internet provider, which has decided to do some filtering on its own? You don’t know. “The unpredictability of the firewall actually makes it more effective,” another Chinese software engineer told me. “It becomes much harder to know what the system is looking for, and you always have to be on guard.”
For the elite few (the key being the word “elite”), blocking access to the VPN makes it clear – if there were any doubt – that it’s the Party who has a problem with what you’re looking at. The unsubtle message: foreigners can look at this stuff, but the Party knows best and the Party thinks you’re too (fill in the blank: stupid, irresponsible, unreliable, naïve, batshit crazy) to look at the same stuff. It’s their own government telling its people that they’re not to be trusted. That won’t sit well with some people.
For me – and for most of us who live here — this is will be a major fucking hassle. Not a deal breaker by itself, but in the context of random drug testing of foreigners in their own homes, the urban “renewal” of Beijing which is burying every trace of the city’s unique local culture or history, and a general policy which prohibits residents – foreign and local alike – from enjoying “nice things,” the decision to ban VPNs just feels like one more kick to the balls. This won’t matter to the government – if anything making the foreigners feel like they were kicked in the balls is likely be chalked up as a “side benefit” – but in the long run this shit matters.
China has always been at its best when it was most open to the world (See: Dynasty, Tang) and at its worst when it turns inward (See: Revolution, Cultural).
The 1980s television documentary River Elegy – which itself seems like a relic as ancient as the glory days of Tang-era Chang’an – once argued:
The character of an autocratic government lies in its mysteriousness, its despotism, its arbitrariness. On the other hand, it should be the character of a democratic government to be transparent, to honor people’s opinions, and to be scientific. We are now moving from murkiness to transparency. We have already moved from being closed to openness.
If this decision to ban the use of VPNs is enacted, it will be clear in which direction the Party wishes to travel. As for now, the prevailing wisdom is that the block might be yet another false alarm. There are also questions of feasibility of a total block leading to the possibility that a ban might be enforced only against domestic VPN services as opposed to the overseas VPNs.
Illustration by Marjorie Wang. Previously: Telling “The Story of China” in Six Hours is Futile, But Give BBC Credit for Trying