Forbes wrote:China Attacks VPNs, Cutting Business Off From Internet
Early last week, Beijing censors disrupted Virtual Private Networks, thereby preventing Internet users in China from accessing websites blocked by censors. Global Times, a Communist Party-run newspaper, confirmed that Chinese authorities caused the disruptions and justified the moves. The increased blockage of foreign sites appears related to ongoing infighting in senior political circles.
On Tuesday, users in China noticed that VPNs, as the services are known, were not generally working. As a result, Facebook and Twitter were mostly unavailable. Especially hard hit was Google’s Gmail on Apple’s mobile devices. Also unavailable, or severely disrupted, were less sensitive sites such as NFL.com, maintained by the popular American sports league.
VPN software, by encryption and rerouting, prevents censors from learning which foreign sites are being accessed. VPN users, therefore, can circumvent what is informally known as the Great Firewall, Beijing’s comprehensive and sophisticated set of controls on the Internet.
Last week, Chinese censors, with an “upgrade” to the Great Firewall, targeted three widely used VPNs: Astrill, StrongVPN, and Golden Frog. China’s countermeasures, wrote Golden Frog’s president Sunday Yokubaitis, were “more sophisticated than what we’ve seen in the past.”
In the past, censors have attacked VPNs, such as in 2013, but have for the most part left such services alone. The mostly permissive approach has allowed those in the foreign business and academic communities wide access to the Web.
In China, VPNs have become essential to small- and mid-sized businesses, which have become dependent on Gmail. Larger companies often operate dedicated lines (but must install filters demanded by the Chinese government).
Recently, however, Beijing changed its posture. “Authorities apparently cannot ignore those services as they affect our cyberspace sovereignty,” Qin An of the China Institute for Innovation and Development Strategy told the English-language edition of the Global Times on Thursday. “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.”
“Ulterior” looks like code for “political.” Political concerns are now so great in Beijing that Chinese leaders are evidently willing to undermine the normal functioning of business by cutting off general access to the Web. “We all know that China is in the middle of a very ferocious power struggle or political cleansing under the name of an anti-corruption campaign,” said Xiao Qiang of Berkeley’s School of Information to the New York Times. “That to me is a very clearly related fact with the amount of political rumors and information related to China’s high politics showing up in websites outside of China.”
Most China watchers believe Xi Jinping, China’s ruler since November 2012, quickly consolidated political control, yet there have been too many rumors of late to believe the general narrative is accurate. The most remarkable news to come out of China last week is that the country’s vice president, Li Yuanchao, denied being the subject of a corruption investigation.
Li’s denial comes at the same time as the Politburo, the 25-member body running the Communist Party, demanded a “constant strengthening of a sense of peril” and warned, in the words of the official Xinhua News Agency, of “unprecedented security risks.” Call it, with apologies to historian Richard Hofstadter, “the paranoid style of Chinese politics.”
What is the next step for China’s increasingly paranoid leaders? That would be to abandon the “black list” approach of blocking access to certain sites and go to a “white list,” in other words, allowing Internet users to view only approved sites. That would take China a long way to abandoning the Internet and adopting a nationwide intranet.
A Chinese intranet sounds absurd, but the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology in December 2009 in fact announced rules that, if enforced as issued, would have adopted a white-list system. A white list was never implemented, but Beijing-based Robert Blohm, in Friday’s Nelson Report, essentially indicated that China was heading in that direction.
Whether or not the oft-quoted Blohm is correct, China’s leaders have evidently decided that ongoing events warrant extraordinary measures and so are now erecting even more barriers to, among other things, the conduct of business. As Astrill noted last week, the new blocking of VPNs “is just a way for China to say ‘we don’t want you here.’ ”
And as Emily Rauhala, Time’s Beijing correspondent, tweeted on Friday, “Who needs the Internet anyway? Oh wait . . .”