Cracks in the firewall: China’s VPN game of cat-and-mouse

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Who's calling the tune on Chinese internet access? Photo: Creative Commons

Many of China’s internet users are accustomed to circumventing their government’s so-called ‘Great Firewall’. Early this month, however, one avenue of accessing the “real” World Wide Web was denied to them, as one of the country’s most popular Virtual Private Network service providers, Green VPN, was ordered to stop operating from July 1.

Chinese authorities have been playing a game of cat-and-mouse with VPNs for many years. However, web users are increasingly concerned that individual users may be targeted following recent VPN shutdowns and the government’s reassertion of its internet rules.

By redirecting their web traffic through a server abroad, VPN technology allows Chinese internet users to appear as though they are connected to the web from elsewhere and to access the wider web undetected. They have been a breakthrough tool in allowing citizens to skirt the restrictions imposed by the government on internet access. Blocked sites include Google, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, in addition to many western media organizations.

Vasyl Diakonov, Chief Technology Officer for KeepSolid, a New York-based VPN developer whose flagship VPN Unlimited, has over 6.3 million users worldwide, believes China is fighting a losing battle. “There are really no technical ways to remove all the VPNs and build walls for one country,” he says. “The only way is like North Korea, which whitelists only a few domains [for its people to access].”

China, he insists, can’t afford to go to that extreme: its inter-connectedness with the modern world and omnipresence in global business mean a whitelist would be hugely counter-productive. “When they just ban certain sites, it leaves a lot of space for technology [to get round those bans],” Diakonov adds.

Opportunity for foreign VPN companies

By offering technology that frees people from internet censorship, VPN companies have been a thorn in the government’s side. China’s censors delete VPN apps, whether from Chinese or foreign providers, from mobile application stores, so that users can’t find them. Meanwhile, VPN companies with Chinese representatives run a higher risk of being closed down.

In an official statement issued on July 13, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology reiterated that it will not disrupt “legitimate” access to the global internet by general users. However, many of the most widely used domestic VPNs have never been given the Ministry’s approval. The message appears to be that people using such “illegal” services could be cut off at any time.

“There are really no technical ways to remove all the VPNs and build walls for one country. The only way is like North Korea”

The effect of the government’s crackdown, then, may be to eliminate local players – allowing foreign VPN companies like KeepSolid to step into the breach. Besides evading the government’s surveillance, however, their biggest challenge is in reaching out to the Chinese market.

“When there are Chinese Communist Party gatherings, there is a spike in our downloads,” says Diakonov, explaining that at such “politically sensitive” moments the most-popular VPNs tend to be blocked, driving people to seek substitutes. The company saw downloads of its app increase by 200% year-on-year in 2016.

At the same time, it is becoming more difficult for the company to promote its product in China. On Sina Weibo and WeChat, two major social media platforms in China, “VPN” is on a list of sensitive keywords monitored by internet watchdogs. Foreign providers like KeepSolid are still figuring out how to reach potential customers in China.

Knowing the rules of the game

Clambering over the Great Firewall requires a ladder. The Chinese word for ladder – 梯子, or ti zi – has therefore been adopted as a nickname, or synonym, for “VPN,” according to Kelvin Yang, a Chinese student who studies Computer Sciences at The University of Tampere in Finland. Knowing the language used by computer geeks makes it easier to find the right internet tools and stay ahead of the censors.

Many Chinese youngsters also seek recommendations on good VPNs from their friends – especially ones who are internet-savvy, or who have been overseas and had the chance to equip themselves with “wall-climbing” skills with the assistance of Google.

“I used VPN Master before, but my geeky boyfriend recommends Shadowsocks,” says Betty Peng, a woman in her early 20s living in Guangzhou, in Guangdong province. “It works similar to a VPN, but it is much faster and safer.”

Although Peng has been slightly worried in recent days by rumors circulating on Weibo that Shadowsocks is likely to be taken down, again, she and her contemporaries have grown accustomed to such periodic clampdowns.

Where there’s a will, there’s usually a way

The Great Firewall has grown ever-more sophisticated. According to Yang, it is now smart enough to detect VPN-encrypted web traffic when it tries to connect to an overseas server.

He remains positive about the long-term outlook, however. He predicts that in 10 years, homegrown data encryption technology from China will lead the world and developers will have come up with a  more secure, undetectable way to transfer encrypted information. Moreover, the technology will only become cheaper and easier. “Administrative power is too weak to take on algorithms,” Yang believes.

“I am willing to join the battle for information freedom anytime,” the young programmer adds.

According to GlobalWebIndex, there were already more than 140 million VPN users in China by the end of 2014, with roughly one in three Chinese aged 16 to 64 having use a VPN to connect to the internet. Meanwhile, for those not yet involved in China’s cat-and-mouse game, the outside world is just a ladder away.

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