I live in the only country in the world where the internet gets worse every year – at least if you’re trying to look at YouTube or Twitter or Google or virtually any other large non-Chinese site. For years, the only way to get to such services has been with a virtual private network (VPN), a tool that slips past China’s “Great Firewall” into the freedom of the outside world. Even as the Chinese internet has gotten better, access to the outside has gotten worse. And now it might be cut off entirely, as orders from the government reportedly seek to shut down VPNs altogether, severing even this thin lifeline.
These increased measures aren’t about control of information. They’re about preventing mobilization – about stopping angry Chinese from using the methods practiced at Tahrir Square in Egypt and the Maidan in Ukraine. Match that with an ever more sprawling security state and growing top-down xenophobia, and measures that would have seemed implausibly harsh four years ago now seem highly likely. But these paranoid demands could end up hamstringing the country’s economic and technological ambitions, leaving it stuck in a pit of its own making.
In the 2000s, even foreign users could get by without a VPN in China; the vast majority of sites weren’t blocked, and there were online anonymizers to let you reach the few that were. (One user board for Tsinghua University students was deliberately hosted on a blocked service, with a notice that read, “If you’re not smart enough to get here, you don’t deserve to be here.”)
Today, it’s almost impossible to use the non-Chinese internet without a VPN. Eight out of the world’s 25 most popular sites are blocked, and several of those, such as Google and Facebook, are now deeply woven into the fabric of other sites. That’s why an estimated 90 million people in China now use VPNs, mostly not out of any political impulse but for simple practical reasons like doing business overseas or access to better search engines.
But, practically speaking, China has already found the perfect level of control. Businesses, technicians, scientists, and others who need to connect with the outside world have access – with enough slowdowns and shutdowns to remind them who is in charge. Ordinary people are shut off, but the Chinese internet itself is sufficiently large, entertaining, and useful for most people, despite it being completely under the thumb of Beijing. The flourishing, critical online world of 2011 has been neutered, with its most vocal advocates jailed or silenced.
Yet the shockwave of paranoia triggered by the Arab Spring and the Euromaidan uprising in Ukraine still resonates inside the Chinese system six years on. There’s no doubt Chinese officials have been reading, and studying, the methods used in the “networked protests” there and in other increasingly autocratic states like Turkey. The key to these protests has been twofold: widespread social networks and easy mobile access to them. This is what China is setting out to target, not only by shutting down VPNs but by increasing control and monitoring of domestic social media.
Even as it looks to target potential protestors, though, the government is set to do collateral damage to other users of VPNs – the business, scientific, and technological elites whom the country’s future ambitions depend upon. They don’t want to bring down the ruling Communist Party or protest outside Zhongnanhai – they just want to use their Gmail accounts.
A complete shutdown of VPNs would be a genuine disaster. Firms would be unable to reach clients, academics cut off from recent literature, advertisers unable to use any social media but Chinese domestic sites. China’s tech sector would crash overnight, with vital tools and resources cut off. Productivity, already negatively affected by the Great Firewall, would plummet, as users improvised poorer-quality workarounds. Many foreign firms would pull out altogether, with the cost of doing business so severely raised, or drastically retool operations.
The government has promised that approved VPNs will be available, but the application process will inevitably be bureaucratic, paranoid, and limited only to a single physical location, making it impossible for an office worker, say, to work from home or when traveling. (According to one insider, the plan is even more ridiculous than that: the official VPNs will require a list of named individual users, be constantly monitored, and only be allowed to be used for a limited group of approved functions, rather than providing free access to the outside.)
Fortunately, such a shutdown is probably technically impossible. VPN technology is increasingly sophisticated, evolving in a constant arms race with the Chinese authorities and other would-be internet regulators; identifying and blocking every possible means of evading the Great Firewall is highly unlikely.
The people in charge of implementing the new measures undoubtedly know this. (Whether they are telling their bosses, China’s leaders, is another question.) Contrary to the way the new rules have been discussed, private users with top-end, foreign-purchased VPNs can probably breathe relatively easy.
But two types of VPN users are highly vulnerable, both of whom matter a lot more to the government than exchange students trying to check Facebook or businesspeople reaching their Gmail accounts. The first group is Chinese users who have access only to Chinese-made and sold VPNs. These have been stripped off the internet in the last few weeks, most notoriously from the Chinese version of the Apple Store, while Chinese firms that use them have been shut down. It used to be possible, though tricky, to purchase a VPN using only a Chinese bank account from inside the Great Firewall itself. Now it’s impossible for all but the canniest.
That leaves VPN use accessible only to the most elite Chinese: those who can travel abroad, purchase services outside, and happily return. Fortunately for the government, those elites are also the least likely to be involved in any protest; after all, they’re doing better in the current system than anyone else.
But the biggest and easiest target is mobile VPN users. Since the start of this year, every SIM card in China has been registered under a single user’s ID number. If the government chooses to identify patterns of VPN usage on mobile phones, individual users can be identified and punished: Their SIM cards can be shut down by police, or users can be called in to the station, obliged to not only remove the VPN software but write self-criticism letters – still a common tool of control in China – or handed hefty fines and even detention time for repeat offenders. This detection method probably won’t be 100 percent reliable, but the police certainly won’t care about a few false positives, and it’ll generate enough fear to cause even those who aren’t caught to take VPNs off their phones.
We know this scenario is possible because it’s already underway in Xinjiang, China’s far-western province, where a long-running local insurgency has led to a massive uptick in security. There, police have cut the mobile services of not only VPN users but anyone who downloads even unblocked foreign social media services, such as WhatsApp (now sporadically banned, then unrestricted).
With these two measures, the government can effectively cut off any chance of mobile networks being used for organization in China. Any aspiring protesters will be left only with utterly controlled and monitored applications, such as the ubiquitous WeChat – allowing the authorities not only to forestall any protest but to monitor and arrest the organizers.
There’s a simple reason why all this is happening now. Sometime in October, the Communist Party leadership will gather for the 19th Party Congress, a quinquennial event where the future leadership of the party is determined. This Party Congress is especially sensitive, as it’s likely to see Chinese President Xi Jinping cement his power and lay the groundwork to stay in office beyond his mandated retirement date of 2022.
The worst nightmare for the security services, therefore, is any sort of protest around the Party Congress. That’s why every Beijing alleyway is full of police right now, with cute, little two-seat electric cars patrolling even the narrowest streets late at night.
But don’t expect this to stop at the targeting of mobile networks. With the upcoming political shake-ups, every official is also potentially vulnerable, and so everybody in China’s vast security apparatus from patrolmen in Urumqi to internet monitors in Chongqing is under huge pressure to show that they’re doing something, anything, at present. And the easiest thing for a repressive system to do is always to ratchet up oppression, like fearful commissars overshooting their purge quotas in the Soviet Union of the 1930s.
Yet that may be generating its own form of subtle internal protest. If VPN usage does become far harder, especially for businesses, the security services stand to gain more power and influence, but other government bodies, such as the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), will lose out. At the same time as ramping up internet repression, after all, the central government is supposedly trying to boost the knowledge and services economy. At one point, the two goals went together perfectly well, creating a walled garden that allowed Chinese internet firms to flourish without competition; most notably, Baidu, China’s famously terrible search engine, would be a fraction of the size if its far superior rival Google hadn’t been banned. Today, though, further repression could seriously cripple these goals.
That may be why we’re seeing the stories now. Let me emphasize that this is pure speculation, and I have no inside knowledge of the source of any of these leaks. But it seems possible that some within the MIIT are deliberately dropping these stories to generate push-back from businesses, both domestic and foreign, in the hope of restraining the measures to a sensible, controlled authoritarianism rather than a self-destructive one. That has worked before; in 2009-2010, plans for the mandatory inclusion of Green Dam, a censorship program, were at first delayed and then scrapped after a public and business outcry.
That technique could well backfire, though. China in 2017 is a much darker and more fearful place than in 2009, and authorities facing push-back could respond by doubling down. If the push-back does work, it’ll be a very small victory for openness, at a time when more windows to the world are being closed every day.