Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Fortifying the Great Firewall: The Criminalization of VPNs, Part I

China’s Great Firewall keeps people inside the country from accessing thousands of overseas websites, 
including Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook. Image credit: Megan Pendergrass

With a netizen population of 829 million at the end of 2018, China is arguably the world’s most sophisticated surveillance state: with increasing effectiveness, China blocks information deemed sensitive or harmful by the party from entering its domestic network. Its notorious censorship scheme, widely known as the “Great Firewall,” came into operation not long after the internet arrived in China in 1994. The Chinese government realized the need to protect the regime from “flies” once “the window is open for fresh air,” a famous quote from Deng Xiaoping, who sought to keep the nation away from western influence, despite a commitment to economic reform.

The Great Firewall has blocked around 10,000 domain names, including Dui Hua's, according to Greatfire.org, a non-profit group that monitors the status of online censorship in China. Almost all popular social media websites and mobile apps are censored, including Google, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter. The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters, Bloomberg, and the BBC are among the best-known foreign media outlets blocked by China’s domestic network. Just ahead of the 30th anniversary of the events of June Fourth, 1989, all versions of Wikipedia, in all languages, joined the long list of foreign websites blocked by the Chinese government. Even academic, cultural, and scientific sites can be blocked: current examples include Google Scholar, The China Quarterly, Northwestern University Medical School, and Shutterstock.

Driven by their desire for information filtered out by the domestic network, an estimated 20-30 million internet users rely on virtual private networks (VPNs) to get unfettered access to overseas websites (commonly referred to as “scaling the wall”). They typically do so by paying a small subscription fee. The academic sector relies on VPNs for research data and to connect to libraries worldwide. VPNs are also a necessity for both Chinese companies that conduct business overseas and foreign companies that conduct business in China.

Xi Jinping expresses his views on cybersecurity: “There is no national security without cyber security.” Image Credit: Xinhuanet

In view of the growing number of internet users accessing overseas information, Beijing has not hesitated to target VPN providers and cripple their services. VPN service providers describe the battle against online censorship as a game of cat-and-mouse, in which they play mice trying to evade a giant cat—the Chinese government—by continuing to modify or develop new tools to skirt the increasingly fortified Firewall. The mice, however, have been playing a tougher game ever since Xi, in early 2017, called on other countries to respect different models of regulating the web space and extolled his concept of “cyber sovereignty.” A hallmark of how Xi exercises his cyber sovereignty is the launching of clean-up campaigns that periodically shut down websites and online accounts containing or propagating “harmful” online information. China’s state-owned internet service providers China Mobile, China Unicom, and China Telecom were ordered to completely block VPNs by February 2018. Green VPN, one of the most reputable China-based VPN companies, ceased service on July 1, 2017. In the same year, Apple defended its decision to remove 674 VPN apps from its China app store because they violated Chinese laws. All companies and individuals must seek government approval to use and install VPNs, effective March 31, 2018.

In addition to expanding the list of blocked foreign IP addresses and shutting down unofficial VPN services, Xi has recently shifted to targeting individual users and providers of VPNs. Those who attempt to escape the tight leash on internet control, or those who enable others to do so, not only face fines, but also criminal detention and imprisonment for varying offenses.

Before & Now


China started regulating the use of VPNs with the enactment of the Regulations of the Administration of International Networking of Computer Information in 1996. Article 6 of the regulation states that “[c]omputer information networks within the territory of China, when connected with international networks, must use international inward and outward channels (guojichurukouxindao 国际出入口信道) provided by the national public telecommunication network of the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications.” Violators shall be ordered to terminate their networking activities and are subject to a maximum fine of RMB 15,000. But in over two decades of existence, the regulation was not enforced until 2017, when Xi began tightening control over the VPN market, according to Lee Jyh-An, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, who publishes extensively on Chinese internet law.

An early case concerning the criminalization of internet users who bypass the Great Firewall, however, predated the VPN ban in 2017. In May 2015, Chen Lefu (陈乐福) was detained for 28 days in Shanghai on suspicion of sabotaging a computer information system. Chen promoted the use of Twister, an open source peer-to-peer (P2P) microblogging network whose decentralized platform prevents sent messages from being blocked or deleted after they are published. The tool also protects publishers’ identities from being tracked, since the posts’ IP addresses are not recorded. Exiled activist Wen Yunchao speculated that another reason for detention was that Chen helped other dissidents to circumvent the Great Firewall. Chen also published a list of Shanghai and Chongqing netizens he suspected of being the 50 Cent Army, a colloquial term referring to state-backed online commentators. Human rights lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan said that several other individuals were detained alongside Chen, but their identities are not known.

In December 2018, news media sources began reporting more cases concerning VPN users. Zhu Yunfeng (朱云枫) was given a warning and a fine of RMB 1,000 by public security in Shaoguan, Guangdong, for “establishing or using an unauthorized channel to access the international internet” via Lantern, a globally recognized circumvention tool. The administrative punishment decision stated that Zhu had logged into the VPN 487 times in one week prior to the warning. A similar case occurred in Chongqing on January 4, 2019. Police summoned Huang Chengcheng (黄成成), on suspicion of the same offense. Huang was previously sentenced to two years’ re-education through labor in March 2011, after circulating online messages calling on netizens to “go for a stroll” to support China’s pro-democracy protests that year, known as the Chinese “Jasmine Revolution” and inspired by the Arab Spring in Tunisia.

In addition to individual VPN users, police have also targeted unauthorized use by trading corporations. In June 2019, a news media source reported that an overseas trading company in Haining City, Zhejiang, received an administrative punishment for installing an unauthorized circumvention application. Police alleged that the use of such applications from an unidentified developer exposed the risk of privacy leakage. Nothing else is known about the administrative punishment.

It must be noted, however, that using VPNs does not necessarily incur a penalty, nor is it necessarily criminal. Global Times editor-in-chief Hu Xijin, an active user of Twitter, is known to use a mobile circumvention tool frequently to tweet while defending China against international criticism, including over Xinjiang’s political re-education camps, which hold or have held over one million Muslims. China’s state media outlets China Daily and Xinhua, as well as Chinese telecommunications companies, rely on foreign social networking sites that are blocked in China to launch soft-power, marketing, and advertising campaigns. For example, Xinhua has accounts on both Facebook and Twitter, although these sites are blocked for most Chinese users. Similarly, despite being widely mocked online for tweeting “Happy #2019” on New Year’s Day with a “Twitter for iPhone” stamp clearly visible due to a VPN issue, Huawei continues to actively use Twitter and Facebook to rebut accusations that the telecom giant poses a threat to U.S. national security.

"Politically harmful content": The categories of offenses


While the Chinese government justified its internet clean-up campaigns to combat economic crimes, online gambling, and pornography, the crackdown is also conspicuously aimed at eradicating “politically harmful content.” Within one month after the Cyberspace Administration of China launched a campaign on October 20, 2018, about 9,800 social media accounts had been scrubbed for posting sensational or vulgar content, or “spreading politically harmful information, maliciously falsifying the party history, slandering heroes and defaming the nation’s image.” As part of the internet clean-up, the crackdown has extended its reach to online users who post or circulate online messages unwanted by the party, or sometimes even local officials, beyond the Great Firewall.

"Picking quarrels and provoking troubles"

The offense of picking quarrels and provoking troubles is typically invoked to punish such VPN users. In November 2018, Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported that Liu Jichun (刘继春) was formally arrested in Chongqing because he refused to delete a large number of his tweets attacking social ills. Available sources, however, have not revealed the exact content of his tweets. Another case, also reported by RFA, sheds light on the political nature of offenses that resulted in imprisonment: in December 2018, Jiangsu netizen Liu Hongbo (刘红波) received a six-month sentence for picking quarrels and provoking troubles. The judgment stated that Liu Hongbo posted 72 tweets between August 2017 and August 2018 that “defamed the party and national leaders” and 329 tweets that harmed the image of the party and government. Liu Hongbo stated in his defence that the tweets were not composed by himself; he only liked and retweeted Guo Wengui's tweets. Guo is an exiled billionaire tycoon wanted by China for a variety of crimes. He is currently seeking asylum in the U.S.

An indictment statement recently circulated online stated that Shi Genyuan (施根源) was indicted for the same offense as Liu Hongbo in March 2019, because he used Twitter and Facebook to post 383 messages that “attacked the party and Chinese leaders, and exaggerated and distorted certain sensitive cases and incidents.” His messages, which have been discussed, forwarded, and liked 2,316 times, were said to have “caused a serious disturbance in a public place.” Since the Supreme People’s Court issued a judicial interpretation in 2015, the crime of picking quarrels and provoking troubles has extended its reach into virtual space, even though, ironically, most citizens do not have access to much of the space without VPNs.

Dui Hua’s research into online judgments uncovered several cases that have not been reported by news media sources. A day prior to detention on October 7, 2018, Xu Nailai (许乃来) staged a solo protest on Beijing’s Wangfujing Street with a banner that read, “End the Chinese communist dictatorship; no more sexual assaults and faulty vaccines; taxpayers are in dire straits.” On March 25, 2019, Xu was sentenced to three years and six months’ imprisonment in Tianjin for picking quarrels and provoking troubles. The allegations against him also included posting a large number of tweets that “vilified the Communist Party and political system, slandered Chinese leaders, and hurled insults at public security.”

The criminalization of VPN users also extends to critics of local officials. In a separate case also concluded in Tianjin in September 2018, Mu Zhixiang (穆志祥) was sentenced to 22 months’ imprisonment and convicted of the same offense as Xu Nailai, in addition to illegal business activity. Apart from using his personal blog and domestic online forums that required no circumvention, Mu was accused of posting multiple messages on Facebook and Twitter that allegedly attacked Tianjin public security officials and smeared the government.

"Offenses related to defamation"

VPN users can also stand accused of defamation. Initially detained and arrested for picking quarrels and provoking troubles in the second half of 2017, Yin Zhenglin (殷正林) was sentenced to 11 months’ imprisonment for defamation in Chongqing in July 2018. The prosecution accused Yin of obtaining a large amount of information that defamed the party and Chinese leaders concerning four issues: the Malaysian aircraft MH370 that went missing on March 8, 2014, with 153 Chinese nationals on board; the wrongful conviction and execution of Nie Shubin; the abnormal death of Lei Yang in police custody; and Guo Wengui, the tycoon mentioned above, now living in the U.S. Yin was said to have spread this negative information using three different Twitter accounts, “seriously harming the image of the party and nation, endangering state security, and disrupting social and public order.”

Also convicted of defamation, Wang Zhiqiang (汪志强) was sentenced to one and a half years’ imprisonment in Benxi, Liaoning. Wang was found guilty of composing 412 tweets that defamed the Chinese leaders, with 637,610 views between June 2016 and September 2018. The judgment stated that his tweets “harmed the nation’s image and seriously endangered state interests.”

Disseminating terrorist, subversive, divisive, and reactionary information

VPN users who share dissenting versions of narratives about Xinjiang could be charged with a different set of offenses. For instance, Shandong netizen Wang Mingde (王明德) was sentenced in 2018 to 15 months’ imprisonment for “fabricating or intentionally disseminating false terrorist information,” a charge stemming from, among other things, his posting messages on Twitter and Facebook about “East Turkestan.” The Chinese government calls “East Turkestan” a terrorist group advocating both violence and Uyghur independence. In another case, Xinjiang resident Tian Weiguo (田卫国) was accused of tweeting two “fake” messages from his account, which has 98 followers. One of his tweets concerned the deadly incident in Shache, Xinjiang, that left 96 dead (including 59 terrorists) on July 28, 2014, according to official accounts. Tian called the incident the “Shache Massacre,” and claimed thousands of people were killed, many of whom were Uyghur women. Tian also called on the UN to look into the incident. In March 2016, Tian was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for “inciting racial hatred” in Xinjiang’s Ili Autonomous Prefecture.

More recently, Zhou Yongjun (周勇军) has been charged in Dongxing City, Guangxi, with picking quarrels and provoking troubles on the grounds of using overseas social networking media, presumably with the help of a VPN, to disseminate “reactionary information.” This is the fourth time Zhou has been taken into custody since he took part in the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. Before he was charged with picking quarrels and provoking troubles, Zhou was initially detained for “using a cult to undermine implementation of the law” and then indicted for inciting subversion. Both charges stemmed from his alleged possession of Falun Gong materials, and his critical tweets about the Communist Party.


Stay tuned for Part II next week.