The Communist party has reportedly ordered China’s three internet providers to disable virtual private networks. Photograph: Gou Yige/AFP/Getty Images
China will completely block access to much of the global internet as part of a sweeping crackdown aimed at suppressing dissent and maintaining the Communist party’s grip on power.
The government has ordered China’s three telecommunications companies to completely block access to virtual private networks, or VPNs, by February 2018, Bloomberg News reported, citing anonymous sources. The three internet providers, China Mobile, China Unicom and China Telecom, are all state-owned.
But millions of Chinese citizens circumvent China’s censorship system, known as the Great Firewall, by using a VPN, allowing unfettered access to any website.
The latest directive comes as China prepares for a twice a decade political meeting in Beijing in late 2017, with various factions within the government jockeying for dominance in any potential shuffle of top officials. It also comes on the heels of a 14-month “cleanup” of internet services announced in January, part of president Xi Jinping’s push for so-called “internet sovereignty”.
“This is a significantly escalated form of internet control and shows there is unprecedented urgency and desperation at the top of the government,” said Xiao Qiang, a professor focusing on censorship in China at the University of California, Berkeley. “This is clearly about the highest levels of political struggle and the different factions using the internet as their battlefield.
“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.”
Xiao pointed to recent cracks in the Great Firewall, including allegations of corruption levelled by a Chinese businessman in New York that have managed to circulate widely within China. The claims, many unverified, have been seen as damaging to the head of the country’s corruption watchdog and one of Xi’s closest allies.
In the coming months Xiao predicted the authorities would step up their internet crackdown: “There have always been controls, but this will be another level”.
The ban on VPNs could also harm academics, software developers and foreign businesses. For years Chinese researchers have complained they lack adequate access to overseas journals and methods to communicate with universities around the world, while developers rely on code hosted on websites based outside China.
Foreign businesses in China often use VPNs to secure their company data or communicate with company headquarters. It is not clear whether the ban will affect corporate VPNs.
“This is ridiculous. If they’re as interested in security and stability as they say they are, then they should leave VPNs accessible,” Kaiser Kuo, former head of international communications at Chinese tech giant Baidu, posted online.
“The number of people using them in China is really small, but really vocal — and I don’t think they’ll just take this lying down. Will reflect very badly on the party. Dark days ahead.”
Earlier this month a popular Chinese VPN was forced to shut down after “receiving a notice from regulatory departments”.
China has instituted bans on VPNs and other methods to bypass censorship in the past, especially during high-level government meetings in Beijing. But it remains to be seen whether the latest directive will become permanent.