Time to tear down the ‘Great Firewall’

Beijing’s crackdown on virtual private networks serves no real purpose other than to frustrate citizens who want to freely access the internet for social, academic and professional reasons

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 July, 2017, 1:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 July, 2017, 1:00am

China’s censorship of the internet seemingly knows no bounds. A crackdown on virtual private networks, connections that bypass the country’s notorious “Great Firewall”, has intensified, leaving users scrambling to find other ways of viewing overseas content. But while such action is aimed at preventing the circulation of information and opinions that are perceived as damaging to authorities, it also curbs creativity and innovation. That, over time, will be to the nation’s detriment.

Among the latest casualties was the popular VPN service Green, which ceased operation on July 1. Speculation is rife that the order by officials for the closure was related to the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty; in the weeks leading up to the day, foreign news websites were awash with discussion about the health of the city’s democracy. But as in past online clampdowns, it could also be related to political events, in this case, the 19th congress of the Communist Party in November. Whatever the reason, a programme to “clean up” the internet began in January, when rules were put in place making use of non-approved VPNs illegal.

For many Chinese internet users, it’s time to get a new VPN

Approved VPNs are expensive and registering for them involves much red tape. Such requirements are out of reach of ordinary users, whose interest in the internet is not political, but to watch videos on YouTube, play online games, post photographs on Instagram and check the Twitter feeds of foreign pop idols. Keeping Chinese away from such Western sites is good for the country’s rival firms, although it also has an impact on the work of foreign companies and those who rely on an open internet to obtain and share information, be inspired and find out about trends and practices. VPNs also slow down internet access, sometimes dramatically.

Beijing justifies the “Great Firewall” through its concept of “cyber sovereignty”, the right of every country to control its domestic internet space. But censorship stops the flow of ideas and that stifles creativity and innovation. Entrepreneurs know that, as do Chinese who realise what they are being blocked from when they travel overseas. Internet restrictions have to be loosened and removed, not tightened.