Last week, there was a mini-panic among some foreign residents of China about internet access. They interpreted a communication in the middle of last year as indicating that all VPN access to the great wide world would be cut this month. Our view was always that that would not happen, and, touch wood, it hasn’t. What has happened, it seems, is a curtailment of domestic VPN vendors and outlets, and the establishment of a requirement on companies to register their corporate VPN networks with the authorities.
The target here is not foreign residents of China, and their, in many cases, constant usage of banned services such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. The goal is control of ordinary Chinese people’s access to unfiltered information and analysis, views that contradict the One True Voice. That plus transparency on corporate information for reasons that surely make sense to China Inc. Data that passes through a VPN connection is harder to monitor.
The final goal, it appears, is NOT to stop absolutely everyone from accessing the global internet. While economic growth is not the top priority of Those in Command, it would be recognized by them that instituting blocks that stopped Chinese business generally communicating with Gmail accounts, and blocked all access to Dropbox, for instance, would have a measurable and negative effect on GDP.
And there is a further reason, hard to quantify in its impact on the decisions being made. There is a huge support group, a grey ring as it were, around the ruling group of China whose acquiescence is essential. They include academics, private company operators, lawyers and media people. Tens of millions of people. A large proportion of these groups are regularly using VPNs, and rigorously stopping them from doing so could have interesting consequences.
Is it technically possible to cut all VPN traffic without shutting off the entire Internet? We have asked the question of various experts and the answer appears to be – very difficult.
Meanwhile, the VPN business has got to be unbelievably profitable, and companies like Astrill and ExpressVPN must be delighted at the way things are going. For ordinary users, it is a constant cat-and-mouse game. Some outside sites are inaccessible without VPN on, and these days many sites – both domestic and international – are now inaccessible with VPN on. That includes such services as WeChat, but also Apple’s App Store and Evernote, which clearly got a memo and decided they had no choice but to comply.
The flipping back and forth is slightly tedious, but also provides a constant reminder of the way in which China today works. And we are all for transparency in whatever form it appears.
Have a good weekend!