Chinese Internet Blues

With news that VPNs and similar services are set to be banned, there’s more reason than ever to maximize Facebook. Will it ever happen? Maybe it already is.

expatriated_Aug 2017

Last month, Bloomberg sent expat circles throughout the nation into a state of collective cardiac arrest when it reported that as of Feb. 1, 2018, China was going to ban virtual private networks (VPNs). A few weeks later, the unease increased as rumors swirled that WhatsApp, a messaging platform used by many to stay in contact with friends back home, was also set to be blocked. Soon China Watchers, and pretty much anyone with an Internet connection, began reading the tea leaves to ascertain if such reports were true or whether it was just a case of the powers that be trolling the general public for shits and giggles.

It wasn’t long until various expat porn lovers, online gamblers, Facebookers and Twitterers were threatening to leave (or never return to) China. They all said versions of the same thing. “This is terrible. If they take away my freedom, I’m flying back to Nigeria.” Or, “This is a step too far. I need Instagram. I’m outta here.”

The latter looked to win out when within a week of the Bloomberg story, China’s IT ministry reportedly denied there would be such a ban, pointing out that Internet providers and telecom companies merely needed “prior government approval” to set up special services, such as VPNs. That may have served to calm people’s nerves, though not by much.

It wasn’t long until various expat porn lovers, online gamblers, Facebookers and Twitterers were threatening to leave (or never return to) China. They all said versions of the same thing. “This is terrible. If they take away my freedom, I’m flying back to Nigeria.” Or, “This is a step too far. I need Instagram. I’m outta here.” The threats were reminiscent of various D-list celebrities who, during UK election campaigns, threatened to leave Britain if a Labour government got in. Sure enough, these people will never leave, regardless of who wins.

Nevertheless, as I wrote this, a message popped up on my phone mentioning that my current version of WhatsApp is “obsolete” and an update is needed. You can imagine the panic. So, maybe it is worth considering how likely an outright ban is, though unlikely.

First, to do such a thing with this technology is very, very difficult (maybe even impossible). It is possible for Internet providers to spot patterns in probable VPN usage. If it was in their interest, they could shut down such accounts. It would be a ball-ache having to set up a new Internet contract every couple of months, and you would soon run out of providers. But this is an extreme outcome.

Second, the Chinese people love VPNs themselves. There are no data figures for national VPN usage, but estimated figures—often anecdotal—go up to as much as five percent. That seems a little high, but even if it is as low as 1 percent, you are still looking at 8 million users or so. That is quite a large slither of the Chinese educated middle-class. It’s hard to say for sure, but it is probably not worth pissing these people off without good reason.

Third, Chinese state-media is obsessed with their Twitter and Facebook feeds, which have tens of millions of followers. Not a day goes by without Xinhua, China Daily or The Global Times posting half a dozen videos (usually involving pandas doing cute stuff or Japanese doing bad stuff) via VPNs. There is not a chance in hell that any of this will stop.

One could go on and on as to why an outright ban likely won’t happen. Anyone involved in business, research, education and any number of other areas needs to have some semblance of global Internet access. China cutting itself off completely would be like shooting itself in the face with a rusty shotgun. Few people survive such things, and when they do it’s not pretty.

What is more likely is that the many domestic VPNs will quit the market, as they simply cannot be bothered with the hassle from the authorities (a few have disappeared already). You might see the emergence of a small cluster of “authorized” VPNs that work very well, albeit with a few tweaks. Using Gmail will be fine, but accessing hostile foreign news services might not be. Still, the cat videos will not stop and most people will accept them and carry on largely the same as before, albeit after a few idle threats.

At the start of the year, President Xi Jinping made a speech where he told the world that turning away from globalization was tantamount to ”locking oneself in a darkened room.” He had a good point. And totally blocking off the outside Internet would have a very similar effect. For that reason, one suspects such channels will remain open.

Nevertheless, more than a few of you, no doubt, remain unconvinced. You probably already own three VPNs that you switch between manically for any number of nefarious activities. If they all suddenly stopped, what would you do? Well, the sweetest tip doing the rounds appears to be quite simple: buy a Hong Kong sim card with unlimited Internet access. No VPN needed and completely legal. Dongguan’s proximity to Hong Kong make it an ideal city for such a hack. Even better, you can buy them on Taobao. Now, don’t say I never give you good advice.

Category Expatriated