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VPN Restrictions in China: The Battle for Digital Freedom

Miklos Zoltan

By Miklos Zoltan . 29 June 2024

Founder - Privacy Affairs

Alex Popa

Fact-Checked this

China, home to one of the world’s largest internet user bases, is also known for its stringent internet censorship regime, often referred to as the Great Firewall.

Among the many measures employed to control and monitor online activity, the restriction of Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) stands out as a significant barrier to digital freedom.

This article delves into the reasons behind China’s VPN restrictions, their implications for users, notable cases, and the broader context of digital authoritarianism in the country.

The Great Firewall: An Overview

The Great Firewall of China is a sophisticated system of internet censorship and surveillance that blocks access to numerous foreign websites, including major platforms like Google, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.

It also filters content deemed politically sensitive or harmful by the Chinese government.

VPNs, which create encrypted tunnels to bypass censorship and provide access to the open internet, pose a direct challenge to these controls.

The Crackdown on VPNs

China’s crackdown on VPNs has intensified over the years. In January 2017, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) announced a 14-month campaign to “clean up” internet access services, including VPNs.

This was part of a broader effort to tighten control over the internet and ensure that all online activity could be monitored and regulated.

Subsequently, the government ordered telecom companies to block individuals’ access to unauthorized VPNs.

By March 2018, Apple had removed hundreds of VPN apps from its Chinese App Store, complying with government regulations. Providers who fail to obtain government approval face fines, shutdowns, and even imprisonment.

According to Reuters, Roskomnadzor blocked six VPN services in September 2021, citing their failure to adhere to Russian internet regulations.

These actions are part of a broader strategy to enforce the country’s “sovereign internet” law, which aims to create a

Russian internet infrastructure independent of global networks, ostensibly to protect against foreign influence and cyber threats.

Legal and Approved VPNs

In China, only government-approved VPNs are legal. These VPNs are required to comply with stringent regulations, including providing the government with access to user data upon request.

This essentially nullifies the privacy and security benefits that VPNs typically offer, as user activities can still be monitored by the state.

The approved VPNs are primarily available for corporate use, allowing businesses to securely communicate with international partners.

However, individual users seeking privacy or access to blocked content are left with few, if any, legitimate options.

Implications for Freedom of Speech

The restrictions on VPNs have significant implications for freedom of speech and access to information.

VPNs are vital tools for bypassing government censorship, allowing users to access blocked websites, communicate securely, and express themselves freely online.

By limiting access to these tools, the Chinese government effectively curtails the ability of its citizens to obtain uncensored information and engage in open discourse.

A report by Freedom House highlights that China’s internet freedom has been in steady decline, with increasing censorship, surveillance, and restrictions on digital rights.

The report indicates that the crackdown on VPNs is part of a broader effort to control the narrative and suppress dissenting voices.

Notable Cases

Li and the Journalist’s Dilemma

Li is a Chinese journalist who relies on VPNs to access international news sources and communicate with colleagues abroad.

Since the crackdown, Li has faced increasing difficulties in performing his job, leading to frustration and a growing sense of isolation.

Without VPN access, Li struggles to stay informed about global events and to report accurately on issues that matter to his audience.

Marina and the Activist’s Struggle

Marina, an activist, uses VPNs to organize protests and communicate securely with other activists.

The VPN restrictions have forced her to find alternative, less reliable methods to maintain these crucial connections.

Marina’s story is a stark reminder of how these measures are designed to stifle dissent and hinder collective action.

The Hong Kong Protests

During the 2019-2020 Hong Kong protests, many activists and ordinary citizens turned to VPNs to evade censorship and organize protests.

However, the Chinese government’s increased scrutiny and crackdowns on VPNs made it increasingly difficult for these individuals to communicate safely and effectively.

This situation underscored the vital role of VPNs in preserving digital freedom and the challenges posed by state-imposed restrictions.

Personal Perspective

As someone deeply invested in the principles of free speech and access to information, the situation in China is particularly alarming.

The ability to access uncensored information and communicate freely is crucial for personal freedom and democratic society.

When governments impose such restrictions, they not only violate individual rights but also undermine the very foundations of democracy.

The stories of people like Li and Marina resonate with me. They are reminders that behind every policy or regulation, there are real people whose lives and freedoms are impacted.

It’s easy to see these issues as abstract concepts, but they have tangible effects on individuals and communities.

Authoritarianism and Control

The restrictions on VPNs in China are emblematic of the country’s broader authoritarian tendencies.

By controlling the internet, the government seeks to maintain its power by limiting the free flow of information and stifling opposition.

This move towards digital authoritarianism mirrors similar actions in other countries with repressive regimes, such as Russia and Iran.

Commentators have noted that these measures are not only about national security but also about consolidating power.

As The Guardian points out, the Russian government’s approach to internet regulation is part of a broader strategy to suppress political activism and prevent the organization of protests.

Global Response and Resistance

The international community has responded to China’s VPN restrictions with concern.

Human rights organizations and advocates for digital freedom have condemned the measures, arguing that they violate fundamental rights to freedom of speech and access to information.

Despite these restrictions, Chinese citizens and activists continue to find ways to circumvent censorship.

New technologies and methods for evading government controls are continually being developed, highlighting the resilience of those committed to preserving freedom of expression.

At Privacy Affairs, we have experienced firsthand the reach of these authoritarian measures.

Our website has been contacted several times by the Chinese government, demanding that we delete articles related to VPNs. We have no intention of complying with these demands.

We believe that access to information is a fundamental right, and we stand by our commitment to providing accurate, helpful information to those who need it.

The Fight for Digital Freedom

Despite the restrictions, many Chinese citizens and activists continue to find ways to circumvent censorship.

Tech-savvy users employ various techniques to bypass the Great Firewall, such as using obscure VPN protocols, deploying peer-to-peer networks, and accessing lesser-known proxy services.

This cat-and-mouse game between the government and internet users highlights the resilience of those committed to preserving digital freedom.


China’s restrictions on VPNs are a stark reminder of the lengths to which authoritarian regimes will go to control information and suppress dissent.

These measures not only infringe on individual freedoms but also serve as a tool for maintaining state power in an increasingly digital world.

As the global community watches these developments, it is crucial to support efforts to uphold digital rights and freedom of speech, ensuring that the internet remains a space for open and free communication.

The battle for digital freedom in China is ongoing, and the resilience of its citizens in the face of such stringent controls is both inspiring and essential.

As technology continues to evolve, so too will the methods for preserving and protecting the free flow of information.

The international community must remain vigilant and supportive of these efforts, advocating for the fundamental rights of internet users everywhere.

For more insights on the impact of internet censorship and the role of VPNs in combating it, consider exploring resources like Privacy International, Electronic Frontier Foundation, and Human Rights Watch.

These organizations offer comprehensive analyses and updates on global internet freedom and digital rights.

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