China’s VPN ban emphasizes Taiwan’s online freedoms

In contrast to its Communist neighbor, Taiwan enjoys great online freedom and the situation in China should emphasize why it must not be taken for granted

There is a long list of freedoms which are denied to the people of China but enjoyed, indeed often taken for granted, by the people of Taiwan.

One such freedom, for which the difference between the two nations could not be starker, is online freedom. In Taiwan, not only is the internet virtually uncensored, but Taiwanese people can also go about their business without fear of excessive government surveillance and with access to the fifth fastest internet speeds in the region.

In China, the situation is dramatically different. The Communist Party has for many years implemented a huge censorship program, which is known as the Great Firewall. Meanwhile, Government surveillance of message boards and social media has resulted in numerous people being charged and convicted of crimes against the state on the basis of something they have posted online.

For a long time, many people in China have used Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) to get around the restrictions put in place by the Chinese regime. The majority of Taiwanese people living and working in China use VPNs to stay in touch with family, news, and entertainment back in Taiwan.

Crucially, VPNs allow them to use services like Facebook and Line, which are part of everyday life in Taiwan, but prohibited in China for the simple reason that they will not allow the Communist Party access to their data.

Even the father of the Great Firewall uses a VPN

Whilst VPNs have been frowned upon by the Chinese regime for some time, they have until recently turned a blind eye to their usage.

Indeed, last year, whilst giving a talk on internet security at the Harbin Institute of Technology, Fang Binxing, the man known as the "father of the Great Firewall," was himself forced to log into a VPN into access a South Korean website which he found himself locked out of.

The fact that Fang Binxing himself uses a VPN highlights just how vital they have become in China. No doubt he is not the only Communist Party official who makes use of the technology.

However, it appears that the Communist Party may be about to stop tolerating the use of VPNs to get round their censorship regime. As we reported earlier this week, it is claimed that orders have been issued to the country's three biggest Telcos, China Mobile, China Unicom, and China Telecom to block access to all VPNs by February 1st next year. It is also planned to remove all VPN apps from Chinese App Stores.

The Chinese Communist Party has issued a denial of the reports, but it is a curious denial as it appears to actually confirm the report.

Difficulties in blocking VPNs

Successfully blocking access to VPNs will no easy task. The only way to prevent VPN users from accessing a website or service is to identify that their IP Address comes from a VPN and then individually block it.

But there are thousands of VPN providers, each of which offers users access to thousands of different IP Address. And they can also change these IP Address if they want to. In recent times, a number of huge internet streaming services have tried to block VPN users from accessing their services from overseas and so breaching copyright on their products. Netflix and the BBC are two of these, but as just about every VPN user will tell you, it is still remarkably easy to access both no matter where you are.

Of course, the Chinese regime can block access to VPN providers websites and apps, but many Chinese already have these services downloaded, and mirror sites and new URLs are likely to emerge all the time to get round such a block.  

(Image from Max Pixel)

Economic Impact

Then there is the matter of the impact of a ban on VPNs on the economy and in particular overseas businesses operating in China.

Almost all foreign businesses operating in China make use of VPNs to protect their corporate data from Government snooping as well as to enable them to communicate securely with their headquarters and other overseas offices.  Usage is on the rise too after recent legislation which tries to force these companies to keep their online data in China and so make it accessible to the regime.

The importance of VPNs to international businesses operating in China simply cannot be overstated. As Jake Parker, the Vice-President of the US-China Business Council explained, “In the past, any effort to cut off internal corporate VPNs has been enough to make a company think about closing or reducing operations in China. It’s that big a deal!” Such actions could be catastrophic to China’s already increasingly fragile economy.

The Chinese Communist Party has claimed that businesses will not be affected, but their clarification on this is far from clear too as it refers to businesses with a “license to use VPNs,”while no such licensing system currently exists. As a result, international businesses remain mighty jittery.

Political motivations

Inevitably, the true motivations of the proposed ban on VPNs are political. For some time now, Xi Jinping has been cracking down on online freedom as part of his misguided “online sovereignty” policy.  

What this is really all about is information control, something particularly important with the five-yearly People’s Congress coming up at the end of this year.

"This is a significantly escalated form of internet control and shows there is unprecedented urgency and desperation at the top of the government," Xiao Qiang, a University of California, Berkeley professor told the Guardian.

"If Xi’s opponents cannot release information inside China because of the censorship apparatus, they do it outside China and then the information filters back. This is clearly about the highest levels of political struggle and the different factions using the internet as their battlefield."

All of which should serve as a massive wake-up call to all those keyboard warriors in Taiwan, who spend hours and hours on social media condemning the current Government and advocating reunification with China.

Were Taiwan really part of Communist China, not only would the social media sites they operate on be unavailable, but such open dissent would have serious ramifications. Taiwanese people should cherish the online freedoms they enjoy, while the pro-Beijing community here should be seriously careful what they wish for!