Big news this week: China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology has announced an initiative that orders China’s three biggest state-run telecommunications firms to bar all mobile customers from accessing personal VPN services by Feb 2018. This is in addition to the initiative announced this past January aimed at eliminating any unauthorized VPN services. Already, the popular China-based GreenVPN was forced to shut down at the beginning of this month after receiving notice from “the higher authorities”. The crackdown is supposed to last through March, by which time more penalties may kick in for any remaining unauthorized services.
VPN’s are used widely to avoid geographic restrictions by routing web traffic through servers in other countries or locations, so I’m not sure how familiar most people (as in, those not regularly traveling to China) are with the service. When they aren’t being used to jump firewalls, they are used for business purposes like connecting traveling employees to the company’s home network. Duke actually offers its own VPN service to access the Duke network from off-campus, but students at DKU have been using it to get around China’s censorship laws and access things like Google Scholar and academic articles.
The first question I wanted to ask was whether I will still be able to use the US-based VPN services I subscribe to for every trip to China, as it is unclear whether this new development will only affect China-based services. But unlike me, the greatest worry of those studying and working in China is not the ability to access Facebook. Though the ministry claims that it will allow use of VPN’s for business purposes, foreign companies in China have long been feeling the strain of doing business under China’s severe internet regulations. The Cybersecurity Law implemented in June gives “government unprecedented access to foreign companies’ technology, as it bolsters control of the collection and movement of data. With the new ban, companies can only use VPN’s after obtaining permission and registration, and “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.” Last year, the office of the US Trade Representative listed Chinese Internet censorship as a trade barrier.
VPN’s have always been in a legal gray area, but individuals have never had to worry about being prosecuted for using them, only about their service being shut down. With a significant party meeting coming up this fall, perhaps the new initiatives constitute a more comprehensive version of the kind of short-term tightening of security that usually happens around times of political sensitivity. Censorship spikes around controversial political events like the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown, and it is sure to spike when Beijing hosts the 19th Communist Party Congress, a meeting that happens every 5 years to announce leadership reshuffles, and one that experts believe will consolidate President Xi Jinping’s power in the next five years. If only meant as a short-term damper on public political engagement during a sensitive time, then the ban confirms what we already know about how little confidence the government has in its people to make decisions in their own interests, but it is also a pretty explicit tool for silencing dissenting opinions.
If this new ban will also extend into the long term, then I am compelled to question the validity of the conclusions I drew from my first interviews in China. That is, according to the more educated parts of society and more importantly the Communist party, the severity to which speech is restricted online is needed because those who are less educated are less likely to have the necessary rational to process what they see online in a thoughtful, responsible way. At the same time, VPN’s make it easy for the more educated, who are trusted to consume media from the extranet, to easily bypass Chinese restrictions. Apparently, not anymore.
But, surely it is not in a country’s interest to prevent its scholars from accessing the global network of ideas. Surely it is not in a country’s economic interest to make it harder for foreign companies to do business while also making it harder for its own companies to become more global enterprises. Why is the Communist party so willing to risk economic development when they have been able to sacrifice even human rights for that very goal?
Censorship serves a lot of purposes, and it definitely serves a role in protecting the legitimacy of Chinese-style political meritocracy, or what political philosopher Daniel Bell calls the China Model. In his book by the same name, Bell explains that the China model has roots in imperial China (dating back as far as the 6th century) and ideally seeks to select and promote leaders on based on ability and virtue. Becoming a top leader means passing examinations of intellect, acquiring expansive administrative experience, and rigorous evaluations at every step. Pros: leaders plan for the long term, are not as vulnerable to lobbying by special interests and campaigns. Cons: a system where leaders are not held accountable by the people but by the system itself is prone to corruption, and a regime that is sensitive to dissent can resort to political repression (say, through tighter controls on online expression) deemed necessary.
The Party’s often violent suppression of calls for pro-democracy reform, or censorship of even something as trivial as Winnie the Pooh, are indicative of just how paranoid the regime is. Hard to see what they’re so scared of when surveys consistently show that an overwhelming majority of Chinese support their system of political meritocracy and “guardian discourse” over procedural democracy. Except, trends in Chinese attitudes reveal an equally strong demand for “‘Western’ values such as freedom of speech, government transparency, and rule of law, and these demands will only grow stronger as China modernizes.” The question is, is it possible to protect the Chinese tradition of governance, improving upon the advantages of political meritocracy, while also meeting demands for adopting more liberal ideals