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New Evasive Maneuvers Needed in China’s Cyberspace

In yet another push by the Chinese government to further enforce Internet sovereignty, the Great Firewall of China received an upgrade last week. The result of which has been immediate and severe disruptions to virtual private network (VPN) services across the nation.

So a few people aren’t going to be able to check their email or update their Facebook, big deal. Right? Wrong.

VPNs are a crucial tool for Internet users in China. Period. Not only for individuals but also for countless companies—foreign and domestic—many of whom have over the last several years become increasingly dependent on these services to conduct day-to-day business. Google Drive for file sharing and Gmail, which is seeing use more and more by companies globally as their corporate email system, are just two examples that illustrate this point.

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China-based energy executive Jeffrey Phillips explains to The New York Times, “It’s a frustrating and annoying drain on productivity. You’ve got people spending their time figuring out how to send a file instead of getting their work done.”

Also reported in The New York Times’ piece is how “Chinese exporters have struggled to place Google ads that appeal to overseas buyers. Biotechnology researchers in Beijing had trouble recalibrating a costly microscope this summer because they could not locate the online instructions to do so. And international companies have had difficulty exchanging Gmail messages among far-flung offices and setting up meetings on applications like Google Calendar.”

The triggers for some of these disruptions are often difficult to foresee as well, as was the experience with a foreign housing development firm previously based in China. A client in Sweden was trying to transfer files to the firm in China and repeatedly lost the connection. After troubleshooting over the course of weeks (yes, weeks), the source of the problem was finally realized. The name used on the files was Falun, which was the name of the Swedish town where the client had been working. Sound familiar? China censors any words or phrases related to Falun Dafa (more commonly known as Falun Gong), the religious practice banned in China. The client renamed the files and was able to finally send them on, however, that firm ended up pulling stakes and relocating to Thailand. The ability to efficiently transfer files on a daily basis to and from clients around the world just wasn’t possible while headquartered in China.

Considering the examples above, many have already realized some of the longer-term implications. More businesses may be considering a move to fairer shores, while newer ones might simply bypass China all together. What’s more, these ongoing censorship practices stifle business growth along with innovation, and as such, minimize the competitive edge that many young entrepreneurs seek today in China.

Within academia as well, the effects are already widely felt among those whose VPN or proxy service has been disrupted. Graduating Chinese high school students who apply to study abroad can face delays in the application process if the admissions officers are using Gmail as the means of correspondence. In these cases, the students may not even receive email responses, as they are bounced back to sender. Additionally, some Chinese teachers need—and are unable—to file recommendation letters to university websites overseas, where their students are seeking admission. Considering that there are upwards of 300,000 Chinese students studying abroad each year, this is no trivial matter.

While several VPN services seem to have been affected more than others—Golden Frog, Astrill, and StrongVPN, to name a few—numerous others have experienced increased disruption since the start of 2015.

Cyber security expert Qin An told China’s state-run Global Times, “Authorities apparently cannot ignore those services as they affect our cyberspace sovereignty. For instance, a shortcut has to be blocked since it could be used for some ulterior purposes although it might affect others who use it in a right way.” In a surprise to no one anywhere, other Chinese cyber analysts have added to this sentiment stating, “Cyber services should observe the network governance of the country for safety.”

Yes. Apply blanket censorship measures across the entirety of China based on a likelihood that someone somewhere might at some point have an “ulterior purpose.” And the remaining 600+ million Internet users? Tough luck, I guess.

For many, though, attempting to stay online and one step ahead of the censors has become a daily, if not hourly, game of high-stakes Whac-a-Mole.

H/T: Reuters and WSJ

  • naseem hamed

    Great FIRE Wall of China! Brilliant! I had a good chuckle when I read that.

    • Richie Dong

      Have to apologize that was over my head; I had to take another read. LOL! Funny one, Henry!

    • Henry Cooper

      While I would love greatly to take credit for that (I’d initially written it as “Great (Fire)wall of …”), it was only when sourcing several supporting news sites that I realized, although perhaps not that well-known, the term has in fact been thrown around before. So much for my cleverness.

      • Beetlejuice

        Henry, don’t try to pull that “oh, jeez, golly shucks, that wasn’t intentional” BS on your people, we knows you, bro! Keep the happy times rolling, dog!