Will it be R.I.P. for China’s VPNs? On Monday, Bloomberg News reported that the Chinese government had ordered telecommunications providers to block access to individual virtual private networks by Feb. 1. VPNs are popular and widely utilized services that allow internet users to bypass web restrictions. In effect, the new rules would block the most popular means for Chinese netizens to see beyond the so-called Great Firewall.
The Chinese government has been moving in this direction for a long time. But, up until this year, it seemed to have struck an uneasy balance between its desire to control information and the desires of its most educated and cosmopolitan citizens to engage with the rest of the world online. A VPN ban would both upset that balance and endanger several prized government initiatives designed to foster a more innovative Chinese economy. While there’s little doubt the government can get its way, the costs could be higher than officials expect.
China’s always had a complicated relationship with the internet. In the 1990s, President Jiang Zemin was an enthusiastic proponent of the technology and the free flow of information, even as his government began a hugely expensive, multiyear project to control the digital realm.
That effort evolved into the Great Firewall; its initial targets were foreign news sites and bulletin boards where sentiments perceived as contrary to Communist Party interests were posted. In the past decade, the list has expanded to social media sites, including Twitter and Facebook, foreign search engines and media outlets, and photo-sharing sites.
For most Chinese, not having access to Facebook, Google and the Wall Street Journal -- all blocked sites -- isn’t a major concern. Chinese companies have developed robust alternatives to many Western online services, while news stories of interest to Chinese will usually make their way onto social media and into email threads.
But those alternatives can’t satisfy the needs of all Chinese. For example, scientists, engineers and programmers need access to forbidden sites such as Google Scholar and GitHub; journalists hoping to follow the flow of global events will want Twitter; and Chinese students who studied abroad are looking to keep up with their overseas friends via Facebook. In general, all of these groups are educated, relatively affluent and important to the Chinese government’s legitimacy and hold on power.
As a result, when the use of VPNs began to boom in the mid-2000s, the Chinese government mostly ignored the phenomenon. If someone could afford a VPN, the reasoning went, then they were probably the kind of citizen that the Chinese government trusted to use one -- middle-class, worldly and with a great deal invested in the stability of the system.
These days, nobody knows how many VPN accounts are active in China. But Twitter claims 10 million Chinese users, and that’s certainly a small subset of the total number of people who buy individual VPNs. Even now, a Google search for “China VPN” brings up dozens of options.
While mass protests aren’t going to break out if the ban is put in place, the Chinese government can ill afford to alienate a middle-class anxious about slowing economic growth. Developing globally competitive products like software is already more difficult behind the Great Firewall; blocking VPNs certainly isn’t going to foster greater creativity.
And China’s ongoing effort to lure science-and-technology talent from abroad will inevitably be undermined by policies that make it impossible to access Facebook on an iPhone. Even Chinese academics have openly acknowledged that it’ll be impossible to reinvent China as a hub for global innovation as long as the country remains cut off from the rest of the world digitally.
How firmly the government intends to police VPNs after February remains an open question. Here’s hoping it remembers the words of Fan Binxing, the widely acknowledged “father” of China’s Great Firewall, who last year cautioned the government to treat the internet with care and not to “give up eating for fear of choking.”
By Adam Minter
Adam Minter is a Bloomberg View columnist. -- Ed.