09/28/2023, 13.27
RED LANTERNS
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War on VPNs: The internet wall stifles work in China

by John Ai

A computer programmer from Chengde had three years' salary confiscated by the police for using a VPN. The device makes it possible to circumvent the block on foreign websites imposed by the Chinese authorities. The affair is viewed with concern by professionals and companies operating in the internet services and foreign trade in China. Meanwhile, abroad, Beijing is very active in defending its narrative on the same social networks that are 'banned' at home.

A computer programmer from Chengde, a city in the northern province of Hebei, said he was fined more than 1.05 million yuan (130,570 euros) by the police - equal to his salary for three years - because he used a VPN to access to international websites while working from home. VPN (virtual private network) is a tool often used by Chinese web users to bypass the Chinese internet firewall.

The measure sparked an online debate. Currently, major online services provided by Google, Facebook and Twitter are blocked by Chinese authorities, so multinational companies, foreign trade enterprises and internet companies rely on VPNs to access the international web sphere. Many fear that this move by the authorities will further discourage ordinary people from freely accessing the internet.

The programmer disclosed the document and the decision issued by the Chengde city police on his account on a social network. According to the document, the programmer worked as a freelancer from his home and had been receiving assignments from foreign companies to write codes remotely since 2019.

In a document in which the police asked the bank to provide information on his assets, he was described as "a suspect involved in terrorist activities". The Chengde Municipal Public Security Bureau accused him of "creating an illegal channel to international networks" and confiscated his "illegal income" of 1.05 million yuan.

Although he lodged a complaint with the government, the authorities confirmed the police decision. Now the programmer intends to file a lawsuit against the police and ask lawyers for help.

According to his post, the local police identified his Twitter account in September 2022, used to share content and "like" his company's posts. Police also seized his mobile phone and laptop, demanding he provide an employment contract, information about his company and his bank account. Then, in August, his income from three years of work was confiscated.

Chinese law provides that bypassing the Internet block without authorization leads to a maximum fine of 15 thousand yuan (1945 euros) and the confiscation of income. Across China, web users are reported to be fined or detained for a short period of time for using a VPN to access foreign internet services. In Xinjiang, the punishment can be more severe: those who have installed a VPN application on their phone can even end up in prison.

The Chengde police remain silent on the matter and disable comments under his posts on social networks. Many citizens on the web complain that the harsh punishment terrifies those who need to bypass the internet blockade to access foreign web services, particularly computer programming and foreign trade professionals. Some comments believe that the high number of confiscations is linked to the financial state of the debt-obsessed local government.

As Chinese authorities crack down on the use of tools to escape censorship on the web, official media and government agencies have become more active and aggressive in spreading the Chinese Communist Party's ideology and narrative on social platforms international, despite these tools being blocked in the People's Republic of China.

Some Chinese officials even argued with foreign government and public figures on Twitter. However, China has never said how government agencies and officials accessed websites blocked by authorities, nor has it ever admitted the existence of the firewall on local internet services.

The former editor-in-chief of the official Global Times newspaper, Hu Xijin, also commented on this case. Now retired, but still active in defending the authorities, he said he agreed with the internet firewall to protect China's "political and ideological security", while he argued that the case of the confiscation of the programmer's income increases doubts in the society and is not beneficial for opening. His online comments have also been removed.

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