China banned VPNs to maintain strict control over internet access and prevent its citizens from accessing censored or blocked content. The government’s goal was to limit information flow and ensure adherence to its censorship regulations, maintaining a closed and tightly regulated internet environment within the country.
Specific Policies Targeting VPNs aspect
Definition and Regulation of VPNs in China
China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) classifies Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) as a type of internet data center service. The government requires VPN service providers to obtain an IDC license from the MIIT, with licenses costing around CNY 20,000 (approximately USD 3,000) annually.
In accordance with Article 6 of the “Provisions on the Administration of Internet Data Center Business” (2016), VPN service providers must not create or lease communication lines, including VPNs, or carry out other data center business activities without obtaining a license.
The 14th Five-Year Plan’s Influence on Internet Regulation
As part of the 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-2025), China strengthened its commitment to developing a secure and controllable digital infrastructure. This included stricter regulation of VPNs to protect domestic internet security and promote the growth of local technology firms.
The 2017 Crackdown on Unlicensed VPNs
In January 2017, MIIT initiated a 14-month “cleanup” campaign aimed at strengthening internet network supervision. One target of this initiative was unauthorized VPN services, resulting in a shutdown of numerous VPN providers that failed to comply with licensing requirements. For example, GreenVPN, a popular VPN service with over 5 million downloads, was taken off the Apple App Store and its operations were terminated.
Cybersecurity Law and Data Localization
The Cybersecurity Law of 2017 further emphasizes data localization. The law requires network operators to store within the country all personal data and important data collected and produced during operations in China. VPNs, often used to bypass these restrictions, hence became a regulatory focus.
Current Consequences for VPN Use
According to the Interpretations of the Supreme People’s Court and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate on Several Issues Concerning the Application of Law in Handling Criminal Cases of Destruction of Computer Information Systems (2011), individuals who use VPNs to bypass internet censorship can face fines of up to CNY 15,000 (approximately USD 2,300) and imprisonment for up to three years.
Cybersecurity Concerns aspect
Cyber Attacks and National Security
China’s government places high priority on the country’s cybersecurity and sees VPNs as potential weak spots that can be exploited. The use of VPNs could potentially allow for increased rates of cyberattacks, posing risks to the nation’s security. The China Internet Security Report of 2022 revealed that the country faced more than 200,000 hacking attempts per day, an increase of 53% compared to the previous year. Therefore, controlling VPNs becomes an essential strategy in safeguarding the nation’s cyberspace.
Data Leaks and Personal Information Protection
In terms of personal information protection, VPNs are a double-edged sword. While they can provide privacy for users, they can also expose users to risks if the VPN provider itself is not trustworthy. For instance, in 2020, seven ‘free’ VPN providers, with an estimated 20 million users worldwide, leaked the logs and personal data of around 1.2 billion users due to poor security practices. This highlights the potential risk that comes with VPN usage, prompting regulatory scrutiny by Chinese authorities.
The Great Cannon and VPNs
The Great Cannon is an offensive tool that China’s government reportedly uses for launching distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks. A study conducted by the University of Toronto in 2015 revealed that the Great Cannon had, on at least one occasion, used a popular Chinese VPN service to redirect traffic for a DDoS attack. The study confirmed the risks VPNs could pose to cybersecurity.
Secure and Controllable Digital Infrastructure
To mitigate these cybersecurity concerns, the Chinese government seeks to develop a secure and controllable digital infrastructure. As part of the 14th Five-Year Plan, they have committed more than CNY 7 billion (approximately USD 1 billion) to the development of key cybersecurity technologies and projects by 2025. By controlling VPNs and developing its own digital infrastructure, the government aims to decrease the likelihood of cyber attacks and improve national cybersecurity.
Control of Information Flow aspect
Ensuring National Stability
China views the control of information flow as a fundamental measure to maintain national stability. According to the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC), as of June 2023, there were about 1.1 billion internet users in China, thus making information control a vast and complex operation.
Censorship and the Great Firewall
The Great Firewall of China, a state-run internet censorship project, filters and blocks foreign websites and platforms that may carry content deemed inappropriate by the government. This includes platforms such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter, which have significant influence over global information exchange. By limiting access to these platforms, the government exercises control over the information that reaches its citizens.
VPN Usage and Information Control
VPNs have the ability to bypass the Great Firewall, allowing users to access blocked foreign websites. Consequently, VPNs present a challenge to China’s control of information flow.
Information Control and Public Opinion
Control of information flow also relates to the management of public opinion. According to a report by Harvard University, China employs an estimated 2 million internet commentators, commonly known as the “50 Cent Party,” to shape public opinion online. Through the regulation of VPNs, the government ensures that these state-backed influencers have a dominant presence in the country’s digital space.
Media Regulations and Press Freedom
China has a comprehensive set of media regulations that place restrictions on what news outlets can report. The World Press Freedom Index ranks China near the bottom, at 177 out of 180 countries in 2023. Limiting VPN usage is a means of extending these controls into the digital sphere, preventing citizens from accessing unregulated foreign news sources.
Domestic Technology Development aspect
Supporting Local Tech Firms
The regulation of VPNs is also part of China’s broader effort to foster domestic technology development. By limiting the availability of international services, China creates a favorable environment for domestic tech companies to flourish. This strategy has allowed Chinese tech giants like Tencent, Alibaba, and Baidu to grow and dominate the Chinese internet ecosystem.
China’s Digital Economy
As of 2023, China’s digital economy represents approximately 40% of the country’s GDP, amounting to CNY 62 trillion (about USD 9.6 trillion). By controlling the usage of VPNs, China encourages users to spend more time on domestic platforms, further boosting this figure and contributing to the growth of the digital economy.
Investment in Research and Development (R&D)
To bolster its domestic technology development, China increased its R&D spending by 10.3% in 2023, reaching a record high of CNY 2.44 trillion (USD 379 billion). This investment supports advancements in key areas such as artificial intelligence (AI), quantum computing, and semiconductors, where China aims to achieve self-sufficiency.
Development of Domestic VPNs
Despite the strict regulations on VPNs, China does allow some licensed VPN providers to operate. For instance, the state-owned China Mobile offers a VPN service to businesses in China. In 2023, it reported that its VPN business had grown by 12% year-on-year, with revenues exceeding CNY 1.5 billion (around USD 232 million).
Chinese Innovations and Global Impact
Chinese tech firms have not only dominated the domestic market but have also made significant inroads internationally. For example, TikTok, owned by the Chinese company ByteDance, has become a global phenomenon with more than 2 billion downloads as of 2023. The restriction of VPNs and the emphasis on domestic technology development have played a part in the global rise of such Chinese tech firms.