China's VPN clamp-down set to hit business travellers

By Bloomberg News, July 12 2017
China's VPN clamp-down set to hit business travellers

  • China to plug major hole in Its 'Great Web Firewall'
  • State-run telcos to block VPNs from Feb 2018
  • GreenVPN and SuperVPN apps already disabled

Getting around the Great Firewall, the system used by China to control internet access, is set to get much harder.

China's government has told telecommunications carriers to block individuals’ access to virtual private networks (VPNs) by February 1, 2018, people familiar with the matter said, thereby shutting a major window to the global internet.

The Chinese government limits access to a raft of content, from news and video to politics and pornography that it deems to be undesirable.

VPNs are popular in China because they route internet traffic to servers in another location, such as the US, that is beyond the reach of Chinese filters, enable users to bypass the Great Firewall and freely access websites and social media.

However, Beijing has now reportedly ordered state-run telecommunications firms – which include China Mobile, China Unicom and China Telecom – to bar people from using VPNs.

The clampdown will shutter one of the main ways in which people both local and foreign still manage to access the global, unfiltered web on a daily basis. China has one of the world’s most restrictive internet regimes, tightly policed by a coterie of government regulators intent on suppressing dissent to preserve social stability.

In keeping with President Xi Jinping’s “cyber sovereignty” campaign, the government now appears to be cracking down on loopholes around the Great Firewall, a system that blocks information sources from Twitter and Facebook to news websites.

While VPNs are widely used by businesses and individuals to view banned websites, the technology operates in a legal gray area.

The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology pledged in January to step up enforcement against unauthorized VPNs, and warned corporations to confine such services to internal use.

At least one popular network operator said it had run afoul of the authorities: GreenVPN notified users it would halt service from July 1 after “receiving a notice from regulatory departments.” It didn’t elaborate on the notice.

While icons for GreenVPN and SuperVPN were visible in Apple’s App Store on Monday, users reported trouble downloading or turning them on. It wasn’t clear if this was due to a technical glitch, or the apps being disabled.

Calls to SuperVPN’s foreign offices went unanswered outside of business hours. Apple didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment. GreenVPN, whose China websites were in maintenance mode, did not display information for contacting the company.

Over the past two years, VPNs have been disappearing from China’s Android app stores, including those of Wandoujia, Baidu Inc. and OnePlus.

While Google’s Android powers most smartphones in the mainland, there is limited access to the search company’s services inside the country, including the Google Play app store.

It’s unclear how the new directive may affect multinationals operating within the country, which already have to contend with a Cybersecurity Law that imposes stringent requirements on the transfer of data and may give Beijing unprecedented access to their technology.

Companies operating on Chinese soil will be able to employ leased lines to access the international web but must register their usage of such services for the record, the people familiar with the matter said.

“This seems to impact individuals” most immediately, said Jake Parker, Beijing-based vice president of the US-China Business Council. “VPNs are incredibly important for companies trying to access global services outside of China,” he said.

“In the past, any effort to cut off internal corporate VPNs has been enough to make a company think about closing or reducing operations in China. It’s that big a deal,” he added.

China Mobile, the Hong Kong-listed arm of the country’s biggest carrier, declined to comment. Representatives for publicly traded China Telecom and China Unicom (Hong Kong) couldn’t immediately comment. The ministry didn’t immediately reply to an email seeking comment.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

23 Oct 2013

Total posts 700

I guess it's now time to look for cheaper roaming sims when in China.

Options like Vodafone $5 a day roaming seem to automatically terminate traffic back to Australia so services that work in Australia (like ABC iview) still work.

Vodafone, Telstra and Optus all offer somewhat reasonable roaming services with some international providers like StarHub (Singapore) and China Mobile (Hong Kong) also offering cheap prepaid roaming sims.

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

10 Jul 2017

Total posts 13

I was in Beijing recently and found that I could receive Facebook messages without a VPN active but had trouble replying. With the VPN activated, I managed to do a live Facebook video from Tiananmen Square. I guess I won't get that opportunity again.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

01 Mar 2014

Total posts 4

Having lived in China for 4+ years, there does seem to be a 'crackdown' every 3-4 months. Everyone worries for a few days and then everything seems to carry on as it did before. Be hellish if the real VPNs did disappear though and we were left with CCP-monitored 'authorised' ones..

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

22 Jan 2015

Total posts 71

As a short-term workaround, I use the China Mobile HK (CMHK) 1-card-2-number SIMs which gives you 1GB of 4G data per day capped at HK$48. As the card is issued in HK (a Macau one would work as well), it is not subject to mainland censorship. Whilst $8/day might seem high, it's the cost of freedom in an otherwise oppressive environment I guess.

06 Jun 2017

Total posts 50

I find it ridiculous that a country that replies on export blocks something that is so crucial to many business people. Not just talking about Facebook, the fact that you can't access Gmail/Google is crazy considering how much money is fed into China by other countries.

Not so surprising anymore i guess, turkey and russia seem to be going the same route, maybe some countries in mid east too. this is one of the two common routes most nations are taking, the other one being what uk and us are currently settling with, gaining access to all of their citizens' data, but at least the government is okay with users using vpns like ivacy, pure, express and others to add a layer of privacy and encryption whereas china doesn't seem to be too happy with this approach even though the need is at an all-time high in china

Air New Zealand - Airpoints

14 Jul 2017

Total posts 18

I've lived here (China) for 7+ years.  I've seen these crackdowns come and go.  There is no doubt Xi is more determined than most to model the country in his vision.  It's never about protecting social challenge.  Just the party.  To be fair there are also some advantages to the system here.  Like - getting stuff done, not bogged down in a bureaucracy intent on stopping progress.  If I cant get my Netfix.  I'll just watch CCTV.  I'm sure a clever clod will have the new system beat even before Jan '18.

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